Literature Reflects Our Digital Age

I love pre-20th-century fiction, but I’m going to ignore it today. That’s because I’ll be talking about literature featuring computers, email, cellphones, social media, and other manifestations of modern technology.

It’s a subject Jane Austen probably didn’t discuss on a smartphone, Charlotte Bronte probably didn’t text about, Mark Twain probably didn’t tell a Facebook friend about, and Tolstoy probably didn’t tweet about. Heck, the War and Peace cast has more than 140 characters…

Digital devices can appear casually in literature — a character writing something on a laptop, another character taking a photo with an iPhone, etc. — or they can be important to, or even central to, the story line.

Modern technology can certainly affect a plot. For instance, mystery authors of decades ago took advantage of the fact that potential crime victims might find themselves in very isolated situations. Now, potential victims could very well be toting a smartphone that could help them avoid mayhem.

While we might think tech began appearing in lit when the Internet became a mass phenomenon during the 1990s, computers of course were found in fiction — and particularly science fiction — well before that. A prime example is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — in which HAL the computer plays a memorably important role. Computers are also in decades-ago books aimed at young readers, with one example being 1958’s Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine by Jay Williams and Raymond Arbrashkin. Man, that homework-helping computer was HUGE!

But the digital age especially permeates literature of the past 10-20 years. This is mightily apparent in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) and the two other Stieg Larsson novels that feature major computer hacking by Lisbeth Salander, online research by her and others, and investigative stories and investigative books written on laptops. Tech stuff is almost as important as the human element in driving the story lines of Larsson’s page-turning trilogy.

Modern technology is also prominent in Lee Child’s riveting series of Jack Reacher crime thrillers. Worth Dying For, to name one title, has a pivotal scene where Reacher goes outside to retrieve a cellphone he had earlier grabbed from a bad guy — only to find himself in mortal danger from that bad guy’s just-arriving “boss.” Later, a cellphone conversation plays a crucial role in the 2010 novel’s shattering climax.

J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (2012) includes cellphones, texting, and computers, too — making for a digital landscape that’s at first a bit jarring after reading Rowling’s magic-filled but almost tech-free Harry Potter series.

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) opens with transcripts of emails that “introduce” readers to various characters. We learn something about Jerome Belsey (the emailer who’s staying with the Kipps family in England), about the Kipps (who will figure prominently in the novel), and about Jerome’s Massachusetts-based father Howard (including the fact that he’s too distracted, embarrassed, and self-involved to answer emails). Later in the novel, Howard the professor is very reluctant to switch from an overhead projector to PowerPoint — which symbolizes his becoming a has-been. (Not that he was ever much of a “was-been.”)

On a more positive note, Dellarobia Turnbow getting a job that includes some computer work is one example of how that rural, working-class, former stay-at-home mom gains confidence in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012). Also in that novel, computer modeling and online research help scientist Ovid Byron learn about the way climate change is hurting the monarch-butterfly population.

Another 2012 novel, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, includes a satellite-technology element crucial to the effort to try smuggling a prominent North Korean actress out of that authoritarian country.

Moving to the apocalyptic, we have Stephen King’s Cell (2006), in which cellphones don’t come off well. Neither does that novel; it’s one of King’s few mediocre efforts in the wireless or pre-wireless eras of his glittering career.

Last but not least, digital devices can also be a vehicle for humor. In Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company, for instance, protagonist Daniel Pecan Cambridge muses that his name is “D-control/spacebar” in the computer records of his therapist Clarissa — who, incidentally, once had her cellphone battery die at the same time her car battery died. What are your favorite literary works with modern-technology elements?

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