Having just awakened from a jumbled bunch of wacky dreams (no doubt inspired by the copious amount of food I ate yesterday at THREE different Christmas meals – oof), I feel oddly inspired to tackle a writing conundrum. I have my own opinions about it, but I’m curious to know your thoughts.

Here’s the thing. Whenever I’m reading a mythic fiction (or whatever you want to call it) novel that is set in the modern day, I cringe if the author makes mention of technology that dates from after the 1990’s. And even that is a bit much for me – I prefer it if the tech somehow never evolved past the 1960’s. I can handle the occasional mention of a computer, if I must – a laptop mentioned in passing or an email received at an internet cafe in Spain will not throw me off the story entirely. But if the author were to bow to the reality that most American teenagers have cell phones, ipods with feeds to youtube, facebook accounts, twitter, and goodness knows what else that I’m too old and fuddy to know about, said author would put me off his or her book completely.

The thing is, facebook and cell phones and all of that are terribly useful. I love them in practice. But in theory… I despise them. They are not poetic and they get in the way of good narrative! I mean, how many young adult plots would be destroyed if our wayward heroes all had cell phones and could just call each other (or their parents) at the crucial moment? And frankly, despite the amount of time I spend faffing around on facebook, I can think of nothing more dull than reading about someone else faffing around on facebook.

There are always ways to wave your hand dismissively at tech and explain it away. The way technology works is so mysterious to many people that a simple wave of the hand and a “the town is in a valley so cell phones don’t work there” works wonders – indeed, my cell phone stopped working when I was last visiting my parents in their little town. And there’s always the convenient excuse that faerie magic disrupts the signal, or some natter like that. But frankly, mention of these excuses for the lack of tech bothers me almost as much as the actual tech.

Which brings me to my pet solution, which I employ in the young adult novel I am currently trying to finish. I call it plugging my fingers with my ears and going lalalalala. I just don’t mention cell phones or the internet. There is a brief comment about a laptop, but we do not see the offending machine. And in the context of the novel, I think it works. The book is set in a tiny and remote French village, and when I was there in 2000, I didn’t have a cell phone and there was most certainly no wireless internet. It isn’t beyond the scope of reason that there isn’t much tech in this town. But that isn’t always going to be the case. And I’m afraid that if I keep writing YA fiction, my ear plugging lalalala solution isn’t going to work, because teens who have grown up with a cell phone glued to one ear and an ipod to the other aren’t going to relate to a supposedly modern world where these things don’t exist. Unless maybe they long for such a world?


20 thoughts on “

  1. Your challenge, then, is to find a way to make the writing of these things poetic. A la Jeannette Winterson, perhaps, in Written on the Body. (I think that’s the one.)
    Either that, or — sidestep a wee way INTO the future, and dream up the NEXT wave of communication. Because then technology becomes poetic. And then you can turn the poetry of our possible future into something… banal and teen-ogreish. Which will in itself be poetic. And also fun.
    Don’t let the tool use you. Can you write about these things in a way that will NOT make you cringe?
    I mean… You used the word FAFFING! Faffing on Facebook!
    So… In your alternate world (that is just like this one, maybe a sidle-shadow of it… who knows???), is there a communications device called… A FAFF???
    “Her eyes glazed over. She began drooling slightly. But inside the chip in her head, she rode the web, and the world was the web, and the world rode her.”
    ‘Is she all right?’
    ‘Yeah, she’s cool. Just faffed out, ‘sall.'”
    La la la…
    Anyway. I understand your squidginess. And after all, you can do as Joss Whedon did in Buffy and make it a point to totally ignore technology as well. LANDLINES!!!

    • Hahahaha – faffed out! Love it!
      Did Buffy ignore tech? I’m just watching the series for the first time (on season 4, oh how I love Spike) and I actually thought the tech was fairly time period accurate. Maybe I was just behind the times in the 90’s?

      • I saw a thing about it — or maybe read a thing about it? Towards the final seasons, where cell phones and emails are becoming more common, they made a concerted effort to ignore those things and just hoof it caveman-style.

  2. Yeah, I have to admit, I’m on the opposite side from you. It doesn’t bother me to have the tech handwaved away, but ignoring it completely does bother me a bit. I guess I can sort of rationalize it down to “well there’s magic or [insert plot device] so it *seems* like our world but really it’s not and there just isn’t as much tech” but I’m all uncomfortable with it and wondering where all the kids with cell phones are, you know? But things get lost, and broken, and dropped in swiftly moving rivers, especially when someone doesn’t want you to have it. . .

  3. I kinda doubt cell phones really would get in the way of a good narrative. I’m thinking of novelists back in the day when telephones were just becoming commonplace- like the earlier Christie novels. Surely Agatha Christie had a few moments where she thought- “argh! What destruction to my plot if my characters can simply pick up the PHONE at the crucial moment!” but in the end, she works it in very well. The telephone exists, and surely characters use it, but it’s only ever on-stage when it fulfills some very useful function, like providing a (later proved to be fabricated) alibi . . . this technique has the side effect of making such fiction still readable today, and not painfully dated.
    A lot of the modern fiction I’ve read is the same. I just read Her Fearful Symmetry, set today, and technology is there . . . but really NEVER on stage unless used in some clever way. Also, she might talk about characters calling each other, but she’d never (to my remembrance) say ‘called her ON HER CELLPHONE . . .” it was just clear from context that that’s what’s going on . . . It didn’t bug my reality-sensors at all.

    • And then there’s Gibson, who uses modern tech wonderfully, embraces it and makes it work. I think it takes all approaches to really feel out how technology fits. When Twain used fingerprints in Puddinhead Wilson it was the first time anyone had done so and it changed a lot, in terms of possibilities. But I’m sure even then people were freaking out because now mysteries were too easy to solve for cops.

    • Hahaha, I love to think of Agatha Cristie bemoaning the telephone!
      I like the idea of it being off-stage, especially to avoid it seeming dated in a few years. I’ll have to take a look at Her Fearful Symmetry.

  4. This is fascinating.
    I think it really depends on the story you’re telling. If your mythic story quickly moves into another world, or if the other world is immanent all around, then modern tech stuff–or even older tech stuff–may not even be relevant, and then I think you’re good.
    If you’re trying to ground the person in this reality as we know it, though, then probably you need some sign of something–but it doesn’t have to be super intrusive. Just something to show that this is the world as we know it. No point getting into Facebook conversations if your characters are too busy to have them… but if they *are* having them? … or would?
    … I can think of one novel I read where the lack of technology really really bothered me: it was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The story was supposed to be set more or less in the present (well, the present part was–there were flashbacks), and the narrator was supposed to be doing research that would have been infinitely simplified by a computer… and she wasn’t using one. I put it down to the author’s age. The author looks to be maybe fifty? It’s possible she doesn’t use a computer much, and if she doesn’t, it would be really hard for her to write familiarly about using one for research. But the character was a young person (in her twenties or so), and I just can’t believe a young person who needed to do the sort of research she was needing her character to do wouldn’t use a computer.
    And it wasn’t just the computer–there was no e-mail, no mobile phones….it felt unbelievable. It made me feel as if the story should be set in the 1950s or earlier… but it clearly wasn’t.
    … on the other hand:
    I think it’s really awful when, just to seem trendy, authors shoehorn in some remark about something like Twitter or the latest pop band or something. But it doesn’t sound like you’d ever be tempted to do that!

    • Heh, that’s really funny about the Thirteenth Tale because I don’t remember having any problems with the lack of technology – I never miss it when it isn’t there! But that’s just me and my old fashioned sensibilities. 🙂

      • –and maybe it shows that you can just write the story as it comes to you and not worry about it, because there will be readers who love it just the way it is. After all, the story was super popular.
        (I did like other aspects of it extremely much–like the tormented relationship between the brother and sister who were most likely the parents of the old woman)

  5. I like what Holly Black does and, rather than making the tech disappear, just make it unavailable to the main characters — the cell phone has gone dead and there charger is gone and there’s no outlet anyway.
    That sort of thing.
    Maybe the characters have internet, but they’re stealing from someone’s unprotected wireless in the next apartment and so the signal cuts out frequently.
    Doesn’t do anything about the poetry of the thing, but it allows you to avoid the easy-outs provided by technology without having to pretend that the tech isn’t around.

    • I like the idea of these simple explanations, but I kind of feel like if I explain why one item of tech isn’t working, then I have to explain why they ALL aren’t working, and then I end up with messy passages about things going haywire that mess up the mood. It’s so tricky!

      • I think (and I could be wrong, but): I think that there’s a reasonable chance that you won’t have to do the extra explaining and that your audience will probably just go with it.
        It’s like… You remember Harry Potter 4? And how he could “Accio Broom” but he couldn’t just “Accio Egg”?
        Snarky people such as myself will go “Wait, what? This is all in order to get an action sequence to happen, isn’t it? :-P”
        But *most* people probably will suspend their disbelief instead of going “If her phone died, why isn’t she at an internet cafe paying two bucks a minute to twitter her friends for help?”

  6. Ah, I have to say that I agree with the above poster who said that the lack of technology in The Thirteenth Tale bothered her. It just seemed so odd to have the character presented with problems that could be so easily solved with the use of the Internet, etc. I also agree with her that references to Twitter, etc. still seem bizarre in novels though.
    I think that Catherynne M. Valente does it well in Palimpsest… the novel is clearly set in the modern world and there are many references to modern technology but it didn’t take away from the extremely beautiful, mythic, and poetic writing (at least not for me.) As far as YA novels, I think Melissa Marr does it pretty well. I remember a character searching the Internet for information about faeries, for example, but it’s only briefly mentioned and didn’t seem to take away from the magical story.
    That said, I’ve certainly run across novels where including such things as cell phones, etc. took me way out of the story too. If the author decides to do it, I think it has to be done very carefully. If you don’t want to include technology, I do think the simplest solution would be to not put the characters in any situation where modern technology would be the first thing that a modern character would think of or, failing that, have it be unavailable in some way. Tiny French villages not having the Internet or cell phone reception doesn’t seem weird to me at all but perhaps you could have a character moan about the lack or something just as a signal that you’re writing in a contemporary setting? Or maybe they hate technology and are happy to get away from it?
    Ultimately you have to do whatever is comfortable for you! It’s your story and your vision and only you can choose what’s right for it :).

    • Hmmm, maybe I will throw in a few more comments to the effect of “damn this village and its lack of wireless signal!” My characters like to complain, anyway – may as well give them something to complain about. 🙂

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