Have you noticed how whenever the main character of a book is about to get into trouble, something goes wrong with their cell phone? Battery dies, no signal, or it gets broken, or short circuited. Something that leaves the hero suddenly isolated, cut off from society, and forced to face the problems at hand with only their ingenuity and skill. Whenever I see an author find a way to nullify the inconvenience that is the cell phone in order for their plot to work, I find myself shaking my head. Denial!
The problem is connectivity. It’s hard to build suspense, to threaten your characters when they can call 911 at any point. When they can access the Internet via their cell, take photographs with it, figure out their location via GPS and Google Maps. Faced with a crisis, almost everybody calls the cops and then hang tight. This, however, makes for bad drama.
The same dilemma was faced by authors when the telegraph first arrived, and then the phone. I’m reading a Gothic novel written in 1899 at the moment, and the only means of communication at hand is the written letter carried by post. Ah, the suspense as they await the response to their urgent communique, each day dragging on! In the chapter I just read, the heroine agrees to one course of action, and sends a messenger forth with her letter, only to change her mind overnight. The next morning, ruing her decision, she contemplates sending out another letter, only to be told that her first had probably been delivered already, and the decision taken hours ago.
Today, there’s no such problem. Email, phone, camera, Internet, it’s all rolled into one hand held these days, and will continue to grow more ubiquitous and reliable. Soon, claiming that your phone had no signal will be as credible as claiming that claiming you emailed a response and don’t know why it didn’t arrive despite not getting it bounced back. What are horror and mystery writers to do?
Adapt. Horror and mystery will no longer be able to revolve around the age old fear of isolation. Many kids growing up in the US today have never experienced what it means to be lost; they may be stuck, but they know where they are. Their sense of privacy is changing due to social networking sites like FaceBook, and a scenario where they’re asked to imagine what it would be like to be cut off from everybody, with no way to communicate is increasingly growing untenable.
At some point authors and movie makers are going to have to stop coming up with reasons to nullify cell phones, and instead start imagining plots that incorporate this pervasive connection to the world. Drama will have to be derived from other sources than isolation, and fear will have to be sourced from realms other than solitude and ignorance.
It’s only as novels that are currently considered Science Fiction, like Cory Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER, Charles Stross’ HALTING STATE and others that embrace recent technological developments become mainstream that people will cease writing novels set in the 20th century and begin writing books of the 21st.