4.12.2016

Digital Overload

I frequently recommend that authors research their subjects. In order to create a world that amazes and delights the reader, you need to do your homework. What happens, though, when the assemblage of ideas that you put in the hands of your lead character makes him too all-knowing, too powerful?

I raise this question because technology these days threatens to swamp all of us. Every day, it seems, we read about some advance that renders the human being pallid in comparison. Mapping technology, to take one example, makes the world not only smaller but also more predictable. Protest groups have formed against the use of robots in combat. We can’t even beat AI in a game of Go.

When you are writing a novel such as a thriller, the advances that have been made in surveillance and tracking mean that a character can conceivably use Google glasses to direct an operative many miles away to plant a fingernail-sized camera in the roof of a warehouse. The poor schmucks being spied upon don’t have a chance. A team assaulting a tech-fortified house might as well—after sensor-timed explosives, machine guns, and fully alerted sentries—be mosquitoes splattered on a window by a bug swatter.

While ingenious, this scenario is only a new variant of an age-old problem in fiction, the Superman dilemma. If Superman can leap buildings in a single bound, who’s gonna stop him? The setup has another problem as well: the story becomes soulless. The overall effect is similar to watching a metronome: new obstacle, new solution.

Luckily, if tech has been designed by a human, a chink in the armor can always be detected. We recently saw that in the jail breaking of an iPhone. If the hero is using Google glasses, a foe can jam the signal. What’s more, foiling Superman becomes a dramatic necessity. Maybe your Amazonian heroine can display her godliness early on in the book, strutting her stuff. But if she’s just walking through the park, slaying at will, the reader will start yawning.

And let’s not forget the soulless factor. Drama is created by the collision of people. Even in 2001: Space Odyssey, the drama turns on the fact that the computer Hal is human-like. Like anyone, I am delighted by how a new app on my phone works. But after a time I still want to give someone a call.  

Exercise: If you have planned a series of tech surprises for the reader, think a bit further about how a few of those devices could be thwarted. The person who thinks she’s all-powerful will be confused, dismayed—emotional responses we all recognize. That’s when the reader will become really engaged.

"A house that does not have one warm, comfy chair in it is soulless."
—May Sarton

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine







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