What do we tell young authors? Avoid publishing trends. By the time you write a book on the latest hot topic, the trend has long since passed you by. This happens on a smaller scale in blogging, a news topic may be relevant to write about today, but be yesterday’s news tomorrow.
Writing technology into your story can fall into the same set of problems. The X-Files got its much anticipated return to television last night (I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t till next weekend, so no spoilers). I, like many others, took the opportunity of its return to start re-watching some of the old episodes.
There’s two levels on which the X-Files engaged with tech, as a means of moving the story forward (i.e. a tool), and as the main subject of the story (usually the antagonist). In the tool category you just write what’s around today, which in the era of the X-Files was huge cell-phones, dial-up modems, floppy disks, and data cassettes (remember those?). Remember 90’s websites?
I’m not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, but he did a pretty funny sketch about X-Files tech (see below):
When technology is the subject of the story, you run some risk of being dated. I actually think the upload story (Season 5’s: Kill Switch), holds up, since talk of the singularity is just starting to enter the public consciousness, whereas older AI episodes (Season 1’s: Ghost In The Machine) feel corny (even though malevolent AI plots are still a staple of sci-fi).
So how do we make technology stories feel less dated, while still having something to say about where we are with our relationship with technology today? Below are some brief thoughts, things I learned along the way while writing Surreality:
Technology doesn’t catch up everywhere: There are still people who use VCR’s. Police department funding is probably not at the level of what you see on NCIS and CSI (itself a now dated reference). You’ll get some grace for a little while, since not everyone is going to have an Occulus Rift, or even the latest tablet or smartphone, today.
Story matters first: Probably one of the reasons “Kill Switch” holds up (aside from being written by William Gibson), is the story. You could replace the orbiting laser platform with a drone strike, and the rest of the story would still hold up. The characters are interesting, the dialog is funny, and the style choices (the expert use of “Twilight Time”) make it unique and memorable. Sure we had virus programs written on CDs and lots of wires and huge cameras, but the core still works.
You can always revise: Surreality was written and rewritten over an interesting period. Social media went from something casual between a few college students, to pervasive throughout our lives, and provided on more platforms than you can imagine. You don’t have to know every variety of platform, but Twitter and Facebook have been around a while. Same rules apply here as they do when you’re building your author network, write what you know, don’t throw in something you think might be good if it serves no other purpose than name dropping.
Jump a little ahead: It’s probably not that hard to imagine some things that might be possible in a few years time. AI has been a staple of sci-fi since the 40s and 50s, and we’re still a long way from having a true strong AI, in the Data from Star Trek sense of the word. Attitudes about AI may seem dated, but the concept itself so far is evergreen.
Or a little behind: There are numerous indie games produced that capture the look and feel of classic games from the 90’s, down to the pixel art and MIDI music. A lot of tablets and phone games also go for this pixel idea. If a fictional game you’re writing about seems behind the times, it might be deliberate, a style and nostalgic choice. We may not ever be nostalgic for floppies, but we certainly are for records and old games.
The big take away here should always be, story comes first. Write a good story, and people will forgive that you talked about big desktops like they’re still a thing. They might even find it kind of campy, which is not a bad place to be. Certainly hasn’t been for the X-Files.
If you liked this, you may like my latest technological mystery: Surreality.