This month we conclude our 2 part blog on the impact of modern tech on the modern author.
As well as modern tech placing constraints on the author, it also provides new opportunities. Exploiting them can lead to fresh and unique plots and helps to avoid the regurgitation of stale ideas.
Think cyber-terrorists for instance. Twenty years ago, such a term was unknown; now, they can hold major organisations to ransom or, as in the case of the attack on the Iranian reactors, invisibly destroy an enemy’s resources.
The hacker who stumbles over confidential government data, the virus creator who can infiltrate an organisation’s systems and extract sensitive documents, these all offer new plot lines that couldn’t exist in Agatha Christie’s day.
It’s too easy to be late at picking up such plot ideas. Ten years ago, it was a new and exciting idea to have hackers who become the CIA’s target when they accidently discover dramatic government information. Many authors spotted that opportunity, however; today it has already become clichéd and boring.
So keep ears open and receptive to new ideas as technology develops. But be there first—or your resulting plot could quickly feel clichéd. It’s not only tech that moves quickly.
Too Much Like Science Fiction
But here lies another problem. Adding very cutting-edge scientific advances to a thriller can easily get it booted into the trashcan labelled “unrealistic.” A step too far and it can seem too close to science-fiction for many readers. Of this, the author must beware.
The James Bond films are a good example of this, which for many people veer into unrealism. Think of 007’s Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day for example: it was a car that the touch of a button rendered invisible. The idea for this probably came from technology that even today is still in its infancy. Take an object you want to disappear and coat the side facing you with a full-size colour display. Next, fix a camera array facing away from you to its reverse side. Voila—you now have the ability to make your object disappear at the flick of a few trillion pixels: by displaying what the camera sees over the display, the item can appear to disappear because the user sees instead what is behind that object.
The technology is far from the state needed for that James Bond film, however—if the person moves, they need to see the image change angle, which if-course it can’t; the illusion is shattered.
Technology overcomes that issue by placing an additional camera facing the person and using eye-tracking techniques and advanced imaging algorithms to work out where they are looking. It then adjusts what is rendered on the display in response. Introduce a second observer, of-course, and that too becomes broken.
So the technology to provide an invisibility cloak is very much in its infancy. The basic concept has been demonstrated but, so far, the step to Bond’s Aston Martin is still too far. So despite having a foundation in reality, it appears to be pure science fiction to 99% of the population; the battle for reality is lost.
The scientific-aware author therefore needs caution in what they portray. Ensure readers don’t dismiss as unrealistic what you have carefully researched. The cutting-edge can often be a step too far.
I was caught out by this myself a few years ago when watching a film in which the CIA remotely monitored the conversation of two terrorists by using the microphone in one of their mobile phones. Working in mobile phone R&D as I was at the time, I dismissed this as nonsense, and it spoilt the rest of the film for me. However, sometime later, I read how, indeed, such an act can be performed by taking control of the phone with the aid of the service provider.
Again, this is a warning to the tech-savvy author to be careful, even when using proven technology—if the average reader deems it unrealistic, avoid it.
Or invest a large proportion of your chapters to showing why it is realistic. Take the reader through the invention’s development, show them how it works; perhaps then they’ll believe you.
A New Genre—the Technothriller
That drags us screaming into the realm of that new genre, the technothriller. No, we’re not talking science-fiction here, but a story that revolves around technology that is grounded at least loosely in reality. The whole plot can revolve around the development and use of some new gadget or scientific invention. This provides numerous opportunities for writers to introduce thriller elements into a story that focuses heavily on technology. Wikipedia proposes Alastair Maclean’s The Satan Bug and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October as good examples of this genre. Maclean dealt with the theft of germ warfare toxins to which there was no known cure; and Clancy chose to deal with an attempt to steal a highly advanced Russian submarine.
But the author must really know his field if he is to venture into this genre, and I would suggest the focus of such novels is so techno-centric that its readership might be limited in comparison to that enjoyed by main stream genre-fiction.
A Conclusion of Tech Versus Author
So the latest advances in science and technology provide new and exciting opportunities. They also scatter snares on the path of the unwary author and make traditional crucible-style stories harder to site in the modern day. Rather than leading to the death of the thriller, technology simply shifts the landscape that’s available to the writer.
Those who write novels based in our current era have a responsibility to keep abreast of technological discoveries. But much of an author’s life is dedicated to research anyway, so that is not really anything new either.
About the author
Eavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?
Ian posts on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates
His Tweets can be found at: www.twitter.com/@ian_coates_
Photographs (freeimages.com) by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.