Dating the Techno-Thriller

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

There’s little greater testament to the incredible pace of technological progress than the rate at which books set in the present day become dated.

Science Fiction, stories set in the far-flung future of interstellar colonisation, faster-than-light travel and so on, never seem to date unless they dare set themselves a date not far enough away – the events of “2001” clearly haven’t happened, but the technology is still somewhere distant on the roadmap of human achievement. We still feel like we’re going to get there someday.

Near-future dystopias, cyberpunk, they date much more easily. Maybe, back in the Eighties, it did seem like the future was in virtual reality, cyberspace as an immersive 3D world of glittering corporate data-spires, jacked straight into your central nervous system. But thirty years on, we have the internet and we watched VR be born and die. We know that world is not quite where we ended up.

But the present-day equivalent stories – I’m told these are “techno-thrillers”, despite my initial impression that that was some kind of Michael Jackson bastardisation – seem to date immeasurably quickly.

I’m currently reading “Spook Country” by William Gibson. It was written less than three years ago, and heavily involves the technology that was contemporary then. And by god, it feels old now. The first chapter refers to a PowerBook, and immediately the point in history the book occupies is precisely dated. There are clamshell phones with separate GPS receivers wired in; this book hit the shelves scarcely a few months before the iPhone came out, and three years later damn near everyone’s toting a smartphone with a GPS. Overlaying virtual objects on real space is edgy in their world, it’s new, it’s art. In our world, we got bored of Layar months ago. Cell-tower triangulation is advanced tech there. In 2010, I don’t know of a location-aware phone that can’t do that.

So unrelenting is the pace of technological change that what was cutting-edge three years ago is now jarringly antiquated.


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