Why can't novels get technology right?

A lot of very successful fiction authors have been criticized for how they write about the opposite sex. Normally this criticism is directed at male authors not knowing how to write believable female characters.

Everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Stephen King has had such accusations leveled against him. And it's not just male authors either. Many female chick-lit writers use men more as plot devices than real characters.

But while there are classes writers can take to learn about crafting the opposite sex on their pages, another problem remains largely unaddressed: writing about technology.

I made the mistake the other day of picking up Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress,” his techno-thriller set behind the walls of the National Security Agency.

Now, I’ve visited the NSA several times. Back when I was a civilian agencies reporter for GCN, they were on my beat (and although Brown’s book was published in 1998, my NSA experience predates that).

I can tell you that Brown got a lot of his facts about the agency incorrect. But what’s more glaring is that the technology in the book is completely and utterly wrong, even in 1998. I mean, it’s so wrong that it had me laughing out loud at parts that were supposed to be serious.

I was going to list all the flaws with the book, but Impressions columns are supposed to be brief, so I decided to skip it. However, I do need to say that:

  1. The NSA is not filled with aging room-size computers that need to be rolled under like a vehicle getting a lube job.
  2. Brute force encryption breaking techniques are not cutting-edge, or even used all that much.
  3. I’ve never strung a 12-gauge printer cable in my life, and I’ve worked with some big boy printers.

In Brown’s defense, this was one of his earlier books. He got better over time. And really, it’s not that easy to write about technology these days when so many people are familiar with it. You can’t fudge the facts without getting caught by someone.

In a way, guys like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein had it easy in that respect. They were around at the dawn of modern technology, before most people were fluent in it. Computers and robots were all future technologies, at least in their modern forms. Computers did not live in wristwatches and car dashboards and washing machines. Not every college kid was required to take at least basic computer classes, and elementary schools certainly did not have computer labs.

You can still have realistic fiction books set in the future, but first you need to remove your world from reality somewhat. One of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read was “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, published in 1992. In the book, he describes the evolution of the Internet, the fall of the U.S. government and the new society that forms from the ashes.

Looking at the pathetic battles in Washington over the debt limit this past week, it’s not hard to see how Stephenson’s future could come to pass. And his technology is surprisingly believable, even if the Internet looks a bit like a modern MMO (massively multiplayer online game).

My point is that if you want to write good science fiction, you are probably better off setting your book far in the future. Contemporary tales involving computers can work well and be a good read, but you better get your facts straight or you might as well hang the idea with your 12-gauge printer cable.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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