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Beyond the Technology

September 27, 2010

Yesterday Paul wrote about the fear of conceptualising futuristic technology and how it holds him back from writing science fiction. Consider this me coming out swinging in defence of science fiction as something more than just technology.

But first a disclaimer.

I’m literally brand new to science fiction, as my column a few weeks ago explored. I’m not well read in the area, though I’ve always had a penchant for sci-fi films and TV. I have no hard science background… other than having read and edited my partner Masters thesis in environmental geo-chemistry. I have a grounding in the quasi-science of psychology, compliments of a couple of years at university. But I’m the first to admit I forgot there was no air in space and you need gravity to drop when writing my most recent piece The Man Who Would.

If I’m totally honest, I’m really not even that into technology and gadgets. Yes I love my iPhone but even after all these months I still don’t totally have my head around it and I’m certain I only use a fraction of its capabilities.

I’m drawn to science fiction because it is a pliant medium in which to explore social, moral, political and cultural issues. And yes, one part of that is the impact of future technologies on the way humans interact individually, as a society and a political group.

My story The Chameleon (published in AXP’s anthology Thieves and Scoundrels) is about identity theft, in a world where humans are all micro-chipped and it is possible to rewrite DNA, albeit illegally. It puts an entire new spin on identity theft. The Chameleon is a flash fiction piece of 1000 words. There’s no space to get bogged down in complex descriptions of the technology, but the technology remains an important element. I’m not sure how it will date because the actual process is never mentioned.

While I purposely created the process of standardised micro-chipping and DNA rewriting, sometimes the story provides you with the technology required to tell the story with little effort on your part as a writer. At the end of The Chameleon the attending doctor uses DNA litmus paper. It was a pure accidental combination, definitely something I invested no more than a few seconds of thought into. But as a piece of technology it immediately caught the imagination of several readers who emailed me and asked if they permission to use my ‘DNA litmus paper’.

I love to play with social conventions we take for granted and twisting them. In Mrs Simpson I created a world where infidelity is a crime punishable by death if a moral transgression, life in prison for a social transgression. The crime lies not in the actual act, but in the reasoning and decision making preceding the act. How do you know? In this world, the technology exists to scan and log the decision making processes of an individual for around 24 hours after an act. For me, the interesting thing isn’t the technology, but the information provided by said technology and the impact of such information.

The way news is reported another of my foibles… and the divide between hard and soft news. In a number of my stories the main source of news is the NewsFeed, consisting of nothing more than 15 second sound-bites, supplied by journalist crossed voyeurs called feedographers (feedos for short). It is the closest thing to real-time news and runs as digital tickertape in all manner of locations, as well as on digital billboards. It is by nature ‘soft news’ or ‘newstainment’ – there to keep the masses distracted (something I’ve termed ‘Propaganda of the Irrelevant’ after some ideas Aldous Huxley had about the ab/use of information)

The idea of feedos came after reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I extrapolated an idea (presented by one of the characters who is a slightly legal voyeur) out to be the main source of news and information. After all – think of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, instant messaging, phones with audio and visual recording and the plethora of other ‘look-at-me’ social media masquerading as ‘news’. Imagine if anyone could tell the news of the day and it was considered legitimate news reporting!

I’m grateful for the technocratic world I’ve been building bit by bit over the last three years. I don’t need to reinvent a new world every time I want to tell a story, I can pick and choose from what already exists. A bit like what Carrie spoke of a few weeks ago in regards to doing historical research. In science fiction, once you’ve built a world (even part of a world), created technology you can use it time and time again, building on, adapting and refining as you go.

Perhaps it comes from not wanting to be told in intricate detail how something works, that I have no interest in inflicting the same boring techno-manual on my readers. I accept the technology in my life works, and don’t need to just how it.  I ask my readers to make the same assumption. It exists, therefore it is, so lets move onto something more interesting. I’m not certain if it makes me a good, bad or indifferent writer in this genre. All I know is this indifference, in some respects, to technology keeps the question ‘what if’ open to me. It allows the stories to keep coming.

Jodi Cleghorn admits in many of her stories she uses coffee, or the shortage of it, as a way of showing wealth and privilege. It’s ok to do this because she’s a tea drinker. I wonder if this opens the door for coffee substitutes or coffee as blackmarket currency? You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White or Twitter.
One Comment
  1. September 29, 2010 12:46 pm

    Great post, Jodi. I recently wrote my first sci-fi story and totally left out all the technological details. 🙂

    I agree with you that such details are not always necessary (and are often boring too). The best science fiction reveals human nature (no matter how many aliens or robots are involved…).

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