The Martian. Science fiction, or not? For many the answer is obvious: it’s about an astronaut living on Mars. Pure SF. Hard SF. No question about it. And yet it turns out the answer is something of a black-and-gold dress or, to use a more recent mind-bending metaphor, can be heard as either “Laurel” or “Yanny.”
I attended a local book club recently (not one limited to SF books) to discuss The Martian. The group of twenty was pretty evenly split as to whether or not it was SF. And it was all down to how the individual reader perceived the likelihood of the events, and the technology being portrayed. “We landed on the Moon,” “People live in the desert to simulate this stuff,” “Pathfinder is a real thing,” “We’ve got robots on Mars!”
For what it’s worth, I see The Martian as very much SF. But the discussion was interesting and it got me thinking about the interaction between technology and storytelling and, in particular, how the evolution of technology pushes at the boundary of fiction and science fiction.
Here are five ways in which technology and storytelling interrelate, in no particular order.
1. Fictional technology quickly becomes reality: I grew up watching “Star Trek: TNG” and, while the show rests primarily on the premise of warp drive, the little nuggets of day to day technology were the things that at once seemed so real and yet were completely out of reach: food replicators, holodecks, tablet computers…
Younger members of my family are far less impressed. Tablets are in all our homes, and aren’t replicators just fancy 3D printers? Travelling in the opposite direction, when my parents first watched the original “Star Trek,” the things that stood out to them were handheld communicators and doors that opened automatically when someone approached them – neither of which appeared at all odd to me when I was watching it!
One of the most interesting aspects of this phenomenon is the feedback loop between fiction and technology: those consuming science fiction shows tend to try and create the amazing tech that they’ve watched as a child. After all, who wouldn’t want a go on Marty McFly’s hoverboard?
2. Technology changes the rules: While technology does open new possibilities for storytelling, its rule benders can also pose serious problems for authors. Two examples are the cellphone and the internet. After all, how can a protagonist be put in danger when they can simply call for help? And how can satisfying puzzles be set for our characters, when those same cellphones give them access to the sum of humanity’s knowledge?
The fact that technology is constantly changing doesn’t just cause headaches for science fiction. Would we believe a story, for instance, that didn’t include characters using credit cards (which first appeared in Edward Bellamy’s 1887 story, Looking Backward)? Or a modern crime novel that didn’t include forensics, etc. etc.?
When writing my new novel, The Synapse Sequence, I was thinking about some of the ways in which policing is likely to change in the very near future. So when a teenage girl goes missing, would the police assign a grizzled detective to the case – or would they be more likely to get an AI to judge the evidence and use facial recognition to try and find her? At the time of writing, I considered this to be very much science fiction. Now though, I can almost hear the members of my book group objecting – and certainly similar systems are being introduced in certain parts of the world (notably China).
The main component of The Synapse Sequence, however, is more speculative. It involves the use of technology that allows an investigator to explore the memories of witnesses. A little more far-fetched than using AI’s and algorithms? Nope. All stuff that’s in development, and being reported on in science journals.
3. The world becomes both smaller and larger: In the decades leading up to the end of the 20th Century, technology was increasing the scope of stories, and opening up constrained settings: Phileas Fogg travelled around the world in eighty days, whereas nowadays it takes a few hours. Similarly, it’s possible to find out what’s happening on the other side of the globe on the evening news. So our stories are not limited to a single place, and characters like James Bond can hop from the Caribbean to Moscow to Japan between a few chapters…
…but this effect has also led to revisions to once staple story elements. We now know there is no life on Venus or Mars, we can be certain there are no sea creatures that once adorned ancient maps, and the rough sketches of exotic animals drawn by early explorers have long since been replaced by definitive photos. The answer? We’ve had to create more complex alien worlds and fantastical settings. The aliens no longer inhabit Mars, but interdimensional spaces!
4. Technology allows us to tell stories in different ways: I live quite close to the only place in the UK which has cave art (dating back 13,000 years). Alongside oral traditions, it represents some of the earliest forms of storytelling. Of course, writing itself can be viewed as a technology. The development of the printing press allowed mass communication and (arguably) accelerated the loss of local languages. And the personal computer has transformed our ability to edit and craft our work.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to claim we’re living through a period of rapid storytelling innovation. As some debate whether the novel is “doomed,” storytelling itself seems to be in rude health. A Golden Age in television drama is giving us hours of astonishingly complex worlds and plotting; computer games are delivering on the promise of truly interactive entertainment; and new social media tools (Twitter/Instagram) are quickly becoming a hybrid of oral, printed word, and visual traditions.
5. Technology changes the way we look at ourselves: One of the most important contributions of the space race was to transform our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe. The Hubble Space telescope – and its astonishing deep field view – provided a glimpse of thousands of galaxies from a tiny segment of space. Many have written about the environmental narrative being strengthened by photos of the pale blue dot, but I would also suggest that it has had another more subtle impact. Aliens are no longer of sole interest to science fiction – there is growing mainstream scientific interest in the search for life beyond our planet and indeed our solar system. The view increasingly seems to be that we are not alone, which might explain growing interest in speculative fiction within mainstream genre circles.
* * *
And that’s my list (typed on a very old, but serviceable, laptop). So how will technology affect storytelling in future? I can’t wait to find out!