Longing and Subtext, Future-Proofed

The New York Times rounded up some opinions from authors about the effect of modern technology on one’s ability to write contemporaneously-set fiction, and as you might imagine the perspectives vary widely. These two, however, seemed to represent the poles.

On one hand, fiction is based upon conflict, characters having to overcome something. Marisha Pessl rightly notes that modern technology makes it harder to truly alienate a character:

The trouble with technology is that it eradicates a character’s ability to be lost, and it’s the state of being in the dark and the journey toward understanding that has given rise to the greatest stories ever written.

No argument there. This is of course not to say that one could not contrive to have a character’s gadgets and Internet access confiscated in some way, but it would be just that: an additional contrivance on top of what is already, well, contrived. Indeed, I think this is part of what makes historical fiction compelling: the lack of technological options which which a character can save him or herself.

Two of my favorite books by Neal Stephenson come immediately to mind. In The Baroque Trilogy (which for the purpose of this post I’m considering one book…one 3000-page book), the most brilliant minds of the 17th century, including Newton himself, are constantly thwarted and put in danger, with only the “cutting-edge” tech of the 1600s to aid them. Watching a large set of extremely smart characters network and bridge divides over continents, cultures, and decades is utterly compelling, in large part because of what they don’t have available to them, and for which they must use their wits to make up.

Meanwhile, in Stephenson’s Anathem, my favorite novel, even though it takes place in a fictional “parallel” universe with futuristic personal technology, much of the action takes place in a kind of monastery-university, where men and women grow their own food, grow paper on trees, and solve complex math problems through choir harmonies. The lack of technology, as well as its sudden incursion into the characters’ lives, create the drama and conflict.

But don’t worry, iPhones (or, in Anathem, “jeejaws”) don’t spell the end of fiction. On the other pole we have Elliot Holt:

Good fiction depends on longing and subtext — the tension between what people say and what they want. Characters used to wait to receive letters; now they wait for Facebook messages or Twitter mentions. Characters used to wonder about lost loves; now they Google those ex-lovers. But they are still waiting and wondering. They are still aching and yearning, trying to overcome obstacles. Even in this hyper-connected digital age, there is desire and subtext, conflict and loss. So there will always be good stories.

Exactly. This calls to mind a time in my theatre life, in which I’m playing Trinculo in The Tempest, and I’ve been awkwardly directed to meticulously remove bits of my fool’s outfit (floppy hat, shoes, etc.) before hiding under/on/around what I do not realize is Caliban. It was at first incredibly awkward, because it took so long, and I didn’t have enough text to fill the time. But I was reassured, correctly, by a castmate: it almost doesn’t matter what an actor does on stage, as long as he or she is fully engaged in it, and the audience will therefore find it interesting. So I fully engaged in my piecemeal disrobing, developing bits and gags out of it and coming to enjoy the process.

That’s not “drama” in the sense of conflict, but it speaks to the larger point that Holt is making: it doesn’t matter so much what gadgets or crutches or assistive objects a character has at his or her disposal. Because that character is (presumably) human, and will inevitably find conflict–he or she will always want something. The getting of that something might involve the latest social media fad, or it might involve navigating medieval court intrigue. It’s the investment in getting that thing that makes the drama. Fiction will be fine.

And I say this as someone with no successful track record in writing fiction. But I’ve played it on stage!

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