Technology

Evelyn Waugh was proud that his 1930 novel Vile Bodies had the longest telephone conversations in an English (country, not language) novel to date. It may be that American novels did it first, in hardboiled fiction, but I haven’t found a reference. 1920s Hammett has telegrams sent between offices but no telephone calls.

Through A la recherche du temps perdu Marcel Proust has many telephones and telephone conversations, though they are reported, not reproduced. Starting from the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, he says he had one installed so he and Bloch could chat; he talks about the technology and even something like video calls in the future. There is a section called Albertine au telephone. His telephone conversations with the Verdurins’ telephonage (like ‘telephoning’) a word that has died since his period and use.

In the 1930s Italian cinema made the telefoni bianchi films: sophisticate comedies, the white phone represented style and status. For most viewers at the time these were aspirational and completely unrealistic.

These cases indicate the network effects. Phone penetration was slower in England than in America. Proust’s characters were rich and acquired phones early, Proust was listened to operas on his; Waugh’s characters are mostly middle-class and the phone entered their experiences later.

The short story Corporate is conveyed in emails, complete with email headers, addressee email, CC and subject lines and also the typical misspellings. While this presentation appears new it is closer to the epistolary novel, of a Pamela (1740) or Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782).   I carried this story for a while before I had the idea of writing it as an email thread, the corporate communications of our era.

In The Hidden Bend technology establishes dividing lines between characters: the Ukrainian character, Yeva, is studying advanced computing; another character, Piers, use of technology may seem primitive until it is understood that the narrative is set forty years before. By contrast the Asian soldier is almost defined by machines; he is an able mechanic: radio-tape players and cassette tapes are the mobile music systems in his time period.

None of these books are really about technology, not in the way science fiction treats technology, that is central to the work and determining the plot.

It may be that in future, just as the telephone became universal, the technologies of the future which people will use are advances in communication and transport: driver-less cars which find a parking space every time.

New technology fascinate and in the last 20 years the use and access of technology has made the novel seem a tad dowdy, less exciting, than competitive formats.  Book design acknowledged web design layouts and principles and movies have incorporated in-screen email and texts to display the technologies viewers know. It remains for readers to choose.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.