On Technology in Stories

Here’s an interesting story about why so few writers include modern stuff like the iPhone or Twitter in their stories:


At least, I find this interesting, because I do think about this quite a bit. Not concerning the Avery Cates novels, of course, those being SF and thus by law chock full of all sorts of specious technology and psuedo-science. But I write other stuff, and lots of it. In those more reality-based, mainstream works, I actually purposefully avoid mentioning technology explicitly as much as I can. I don’t have a defined theory on this, but in my own reading I find that the easiest way to jolt someone out of a narrative flow is to mention some bygone technology that is no longer even the slightest bit relevant.

This may just be me, of course, my own experience, limited and shallow. It’s my blog, sadly, and limited and shallow is pretty much what you’ll get. I read a lot of older fiction, early 20th century stuff. Like, for example, Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers, of which I’m fond. The first book in that series came out in 1923. Strangely, I find very few things in those books jolt me out of my immersion in the story, and I realized that this is because most of the world described in the story still exists today, more or less similarly. There are cars, there are telephones, airplanes, world wars, etc. Most of the place names are the same, as are the drinks, food, clothing, etc. Not exactly the same. You do have to overlook some details, but in general, especially for the lazy minded (like me) it’s similar enough that you could set any one of those books in the modern age and change just slight details.

Certain things, like the aforementioned cars, planes, and phones, have existed for so long in basically similar forms that they don’t even seem like technology any more. They’re infrastructure. And thus I don’t hesitate to include them in stories. I don’t usually mention cell phones, or even computers, or, heaven forbid, the Internet. These all seem so recent and likely to be supplanted by newer and more garish forms, so I worry that having my characters rocking out to iPods or texting on their Sidekicks will make the story look very, very old in about ten years.

Naturally, I am no technological prophet, and may be wrong as often, or more so, than I’m right. Screw it.

As a result, a lot of my stories are set in a weird sort of 20th-century-on-a-Star-Trek-episode  time frame. It’s obviously a modern city, but it’s kind of a lame one: No one has a cell phone, no one Googles anything, everyone walks or takes trains (okay, it’s a New York-on-a-Star-Trek-episode thing). I like the atmosphere this creates. I like the unrushed pacing that a lack of modern tech allows.

Of course, I myself am a slight luddite who hates cell phones, has never sent a text in his life, and thinks the iPod is a fucking abomination. So maybe I’m just engaging in some wish fulfillment in my writing. I mean, hell, no one has a cell phone in the Avery Cates book either. Hmmmn…..


  1. Jayf

    You make an interesting point. I wonder though, if sometimes if ‘giving things a name’ in a novel isn’t a bad thing. I find when I write about growing up in the ’80s, it’s the details the really bring back the feelings of nostalgia -my BMX bike, my beat up Buick Centry Wagon (sad but true). Do they even make the Centry anymore? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question of intent. Do you want the writing to have a sense of timelessness, or do you really want to invoke a specific place in time?

  2. jsomers (Post author)


    That is a good point, that details like names of things etc play a big role in invoking a time, but there’s also an expiration date on that–i.e., when everyone who “grew up in the 1980s” or even lived in the 1980s is, um, dead. 100 years from now will anyone know personally what a Buick Centry is?

    On the other hand, when writing historical novels, people do a ton of research in order to get those details right. They just have to work a little harder to make things like that clear to a reader who may not be familiar with the time period and its technology.

    So, still a good point. I guess it’s a question of intent. If you’re invoking a specific period, it’s god – necessary – to mention the tech and name it. But I think if your main goal is to tell a story and not necessarily invoke a specific period, the tech details can drag you down.

    I dunno. I’m sitting here in a bathrobe drinking gin, petting a cat. Would you trust *anything* I had to say about literature?


  3. Jayf

    There is a certain level of value in a timeless novel that a period book just can’t achive. I agree.
    And I am reading your blog, so can I be trusted? Probably not.

  4. janet reid

    One of the most clever things I saw about technology in a book was when one character asked another if she knew how to use a telephone. Sounds stupid now, but in 19** when they were rare, it did reminded the reader perfectly that telephones were new then.

    And J, if you’re not getting my text messages, shall I start sending carrier pigeons?

  5. janet reid

    “did reminded.”
    Good thing I critique people brutally for a living right?

    Ok, opening the door to the glass house to hand stones to the mob.

  6. jsomers (Post author)


    Wait a sec, I can throw stones at you? Is this in the contract? Wow! I FEEL SO POWERFUL!


  7. Ken Latta

    The general issue is whether you are attempting a timeless story or one rooted in a moment, an epoch. Technology, brands, even nations can either enhance a narrative purpose or defeat it. Does “2001 A Space Odyssey” disappoint today because there is no USSR dominating space missions? Sometimes a purposeful creation is used, Vindicator bombers instead of B-58s, in order to avoid some of the “churn” in weapon system names. You could also manipulate the name space in order to put things in the future, mentioning say a laptop computer running Windows 12 (or perhaps better, 12.4 release 2). But ultimately you either have characters and a story–if the components are strong enough the details can be overlooked (my pager|cellphone|iPhone|telePresenceUnit rang|beeped|itched for the ….).

  8. jsomers (Post author)


    Good points–a good story well told can survive any number of awkward technological snafus.

    In “2001” I think the presence of Pan Am is jarring, but then I’m also probably one of the last generation that even knows why Pan Am’s in there in the first place; future generations may just assume it’s a made-up company for the future setting.


  9. Ken Latta

    Pan-Am indeed. I remember in the late 70s that there was an incentive to fly into Newark Airport–discounts on taking a helicopter to land on the top of the PanAm building in midtown. That was discontinued because of the high altitude winds altered by the World Trade Center (another branding issue perhaps). But Newark persists? Hmm, maybe that’s the metric, pure archtypes(essence de Newark?) will be around. Tech change gotchas: Have Space Suit Will Travel–hero has a space suit with a bayonet connector for his air tank whereas the newer commercial models used a screw connector (and hence he was screwed when running out of air)….

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