The way fiction deals with technology – the kinds of technology it tackles and how, and whether it actually should, directly – seems to still be a pretty thorny issue for a lot of folks. Or at least for some folks. Usually in conjunction with this is some variety of handwringing over what technology has Done To Reading, or Done To The Novel, often with the implication that no one reads anymore because ebooks don’t count as reading and also everyone is too stupid and/or distracted to read anyway.
This summary isn’t actually all that hyperbolic. Hang around a bunch of writers for long enough and you’ll probably hear some version of it.
A less hyperbolic – though more biting – and more in-depth summary can be found in Sam Byers’s excellent essay series on technology and fiction in, as some perceive it, a crisis state (I really recommend it, it’s both brilliant and infuriating). Novelists, it seems, aren’t entirely sure what the hell to do with technology. What to make of it and what it means for literature, what it means for how their work is consumed, and most of all, how to incorporate it into the stories they tell. These are all reasonable questions to ask, potentially even questions that might lead to productive conversations, but rather than have these conversations, writers – at least the writers Byers is writing about – seem content to kick their feet on the floor and insist that it’s just too hard and who would want to write about texting and email anyway because it’s so boring.
No, seriously. Just listen to Toby Litt:
I don’t think I am alone in already being weary of characters who make their great discoveries whilst sitting in front of a computer screen. If for example a character, by diligent online research and persistent emailing, finds out one day – after a ping in their inbox – who their father really is, isn’t that a story hardly worth telling? Watching someone at a computer is dull. Watching someone play even the most exciting computer game is dull. You, reading this now, are not something any writer would want to write about for more than a sentence.
Just a side note? As a writer to my fellow writers? If you can’t write something interesting about an “average” person doing “average” things in an “average” day, you are bad at your job.
Byers effectively skewers this claim by providing some great examples in which technology might not only accent but drive the action in a plot in some pretty compelling ways. As both he and Am Sonntag note, this kind of thinking is also classic digital-dualist thinking: if technology is separate from “real” lived experience, why should one assume there was much to be gotten out of writing about it?
But then Byers goes on to ask a central question: Why do many of the creators of fiction seem so frightened by technology? Why is it always The End Of The Novel when something new comes along that has to be incorporated into daily lived experience? For, as he points out, this isn’t even the first time this kind of panic has happened:
Novelists are very worried about the novel. The novel, you see, keeps dying. No one thought much of it when it arrived; it had a brief reign as a fancy-pants new medium of entertainment; and then it just started dying all over the place. It became too popular. It became too cheap. It got a bit up itself and was no longer popular enough. It became elitist; then populist again. Cinema did for it. Television did for cinema and so double-did for the novel. Then the web came along and did for everything.
I’d like to offer an explanation, actually, one that I think Byers is by and large neglecting. There’s something that he does – or rather doesn’t do – through the series, that I’ve also purposefully done so far in this piece in order to emphasize it.
He doesn’t talk about science fiction. Neither do any of the writers he quotes. It’s just not on their radar. For them, “novel” does not appear to include “novel about robots”.
So now we have to talk about Genre Wars.
It’s probably a misnomer to call it a “war”, but I enjoy the term. What it amounts to is a kind of aggressive gatekeeping, a long-standing defense of literary borders. Literary fiction – for best effect, tilt your nose slightly into the air and sniff when you say literary – plumbs the depths of the human soul, lays bare the hard beauty of human experience, because it’s about humans. Not aliens, not robots, not spaceships. It’s not escapist and childish. It’s real, more real than SF could ever be. Sniff.
This is irritating, and has a lot of troubling cultural effects, but one of the ways in which I’d argue it hurts literary fiction (I’m sorry, I have a very hard time even taking that label seriously anymore) is that literary fiction has felt free to entirely ignore SF and what it does for most of SF’s existence, with the exception of a few incursions like Margaret Atwood and – more recently – William Gibson. And when those writers and their work are accepted – even reluctantly – they’re not SFnal anymore.
But the thing about telling stories with technology is that SF has always done it. We’re not threatened by it. We know how to do it, and do it well. We have the tools that literary fiction needs, the tools without which they’re panicked and grumpy. But they don’t really see us, most of them. Or refuse to take us seriously. Protecting borders is still more important than facilitating mutually beneficial trade of skills.
I should note that SF is also entirely guilty of this kind of genre protectionism, in fact sometimes with worse overtones; when this year’s Nebula nominees were announced on SF Signal, there were some comments to the effect of what are all these women doing here and oh my God some of them aren’t white and Jesus Christ we’re being colonized by Romance. So.
Yes, fiction in general now has to figure out how to incorporate technology, and for some of us that’s new ground, and new ground is sometimes frightening. But as Byers points out, once non-SFnal writers actually suck it up and try to make it work, fiction as a whole can really only benefit. Fiction is meant to reflect lived experience and everything vital and visceral and true about life; at its best it forces us to see things in new ways, to move outside our comfort zones, to come to richer understandings of each other. Yes, even via texting. Even Snapchat has something meaningful to say about the human condition.
Finally recognizing that SF has valuable lessons to teach in this respect would be a good first step.
Long story short: Novels about robots are still novels. Get over it.