It’s fairly certain that I’m not the first person to point this out or to even notice this, but there has been a distinct lack of compelling suspense novels written in the second decade of the 21st century.
And it’s not just suspense. Crime fiction, adventure novels and near-future science fiction seem all to go through a crisis and it’s pretty obvious what did them in – the smart phone.
I have some fairly personal experience with this phenomenon from when I wrote Shanghai Gold in the mid-Oughties or whatever we are now calling the last decade. Shanghai Gold is conveniently set at a time when it was still just barely possible to pretend that the Internet had not just replaced nearly all communication devices and offline knowledge repositories of the 20th century – just a few years before the iPhone radically changed our idea of what a phone can do.
But that is now seven, eight years ago – which, as it turns out, is a lifetime in Internet years. What has changed? Everybody has an all-knowing near-magical device in their pockets. Try and write a plot around that!
Most writers of suspense/crime/adventure novels have always spent a lot of time trying to get their heroes into impossible situations and then – to the delight of their readers – have the character work their way out of that mess with a combination of wit and luck.
Many of these basic story concepts of the typical 20th century plot are now defunct: Running to get to a phone. Not knowing how to reach somebody. Getting basic information about a person. Finding a place. Not knowing what somebody or a place looks like. Losing important documents. Making something public. Staying in contact. Waiting for a letter. Waiting for the news to come out. Stopping the news from coming out. Getting lost. Getting found.
All of these basic concepts were the staple of a suspenseful story line and they can now all be reduced to a sentence like “She took out her phone and…”
Once you’ve spent a little time thinking about this it is quite strange to go back and read older novels or watch older movies and to realize that many of the stories would literally end after one or two chapters or after the first 20 minutes of the film if all the problems facing the main characters could be solved with a sentence like the one above.
I guess most older readers are willing to accept these limitations of incomplete access to information in novels specifically set in older times, but digitally-native generations may have less of a tolerance for these hurdles, since seen from the perspective of somebody who grew up with always-on Internet the frantic race to a phone booth may sound as interesting as a step-by-step description of how to skin a deer with flint stone.
It is even worse for science fiction, especially near-future SF, where we would all assume that our near-magical access to information will be preserved or even enhanced. Near-future SF written in the late 20th century is now often unreadable since – quite naturally – the authors have for the most part not anticipated the Web or the dramatic effects of smart phones on society.
New novels set in the near future are the hardest hit. There is pretty much no tolerance and the story falls apart completely if our heroes – let’s say a group of astronauts in fictional 2030 – don’t habitually use the Internet for everything.
For the reader it is catastrophic to hold a brand new novel in their hands where the author has neglected to even acknowledge the presence of the Internet. One is damned – after a baffled look at the copyright date – to silently scream at the main characters to just go and look it up!