By Russel D McLean
It was a question that came up at Bloody Scotland this year. And it was a good question.
I was on a panel with Gordon Ferris and Craig Russell, both of whom answer my long-asked question of "who else is writing about Scottish PIs" with their superb novels. It was interesting to me that both authors set their books in the past. Russell in the '40s and Ferris in the '50s. Especially as it made me wonder if for many people the Pi might seem like a character from the past, but that's a rumination for another time.
We had a good chat about a lot of things, and then someone in the audience asked the question:
"Doesn't modern technology make sustaining tension difficult? Is it better to set things in the past?"*
It is, as I say, a good question. After all, help is only a phone call away. Cell reception is good in most places. We have google maps if we get lost. We can track people down on Google. We can... we can... we can...
CSI and other TV shows make it seem like computers can do almost anything in the blink of an eye. Even those adverts for the Chromebooks (of which I have one) or the IPhone (I don't have one) or whatever make it look like so much can be done in seconds (but do pay attention to the little "sequences shortened" tag on the lower left of the screen). The truth is that for every advantage we have, there are still disadvantages, and tension can still be wrought. That old example of "but you can just call for help on your mobile" leads to a "race against time" scenario. You can call for help, but can you hold on until it arrives. And even if you've placed one of those parental traces on your child's phone, can you reach them before they get into trouble and how do you know they really have that phone?
Even Google searches, despite the advertising, are not as effective as you might think. You have to be pretty damn talented to get all the information you'd ever need, and even if you could, what if you're up against a similarly sharp mind? The tension comes from move-counter move, just like a game of chess.
The truth is that tension and drama are possible whenever human beings are in opposition. Drama comes not from a lack of technology or some sense of character isolation, but rather from two characters who want different things and have to overcome each other to achieve their goal. Tension comes from opposing goals between two sentient beings.
Tension and drama can be created in any setting, Its just a matter of understanding the rules. Okay, so your character can call someone to ask for help, but then what if that person can help them but something else goes wrong? What if the person they call is the wrong person? What if they get a text that seems to help them, from a friend, but its not the friend sending the text? There are a million ways to pull drama out of modern technology that don't involve merely having batteries/signals running out or other hoary and cheap conventions. And the fact is that you don't have to let the technology go "wrong" to create the tension. You can have it work perfectly and still create a sense of tension and suspense.
24 was a great TV series. Why? It used and abused modern and sophisticated tech to create drama. Phone calls at the wrong moment, mis-interpreted data, hacks and counter-hacks, it employed everything in its bag of tricks to make life difficult for the protagonists (by the end, it was becoming a bit of an ensemble show, even if most of that ensemble kept dying) and by God it worked. The show was in touch (just about) with the modern world, and it employed that world in the name of dramatic tension.
Look, technology just means you build up the tension in different ways and if you use it realistically and use it right, it can create some really good drama. Recently myself and the Literary Critic wound up watching the Godawful 1994 Michael Douglas film Disclosure on late night TV. The following evening we watched the Harrison Ford starring Patriot Games.
Now, both films were made in 1994, and its funny to see the primitive nature of tech as it was then inclduing some ludicrously heavy mobile phones and some very text-based computers, but of the two, it was interesting to see how they approached computer technology. Disclosure creates some science fiction fancy-schamncy VR interface that it clearly believed was going to look futuristic to the audience (it just looks daft and utterly unreal) while Patriot Games uses real computers (albeit amped up a little from real life) and screens that look like the ones that real people used at the time.
Both movies involve their protagonist trying to download information from a shared network before another user spots them and deletes the files that Our Hero** is trying to open. The Disclosure sequence is not only dated, its plainly ludicrous and utterly laughable because it so removed from the tech of its time. The film clealry wanted to sex up the use of computers and make them more visual. But Patriot Games has Harrison Ford typing really fast while calling the guy he wants to distract so that he doesn't notice the files being opened on his system. Its real, its the way that we would use a computer as Real People, and by God it works as an example of dramatic tension.
Tension and drama are what we make of them. Having tech doesn't solve old problems and make things too easy; it creates new problems and makes the author have to find new and different ways of upping stakes.
And new and different are what fiction should always aspire to. Even fiction that sets itself in the past. Because fiction set in the past should not be set there simply because the author finds it eaiser to wring tension without cell phones or video chat or Google, but because the authors feels the past is the right setting for the story.
Dramatic tension is not about not being able to make a phone call or do a Google search. Its finding yourself wanting something that you cannot get, its about - as all fiction is - people.
*this may be a slight misquote, but the basic essence of the question is there
**Although given that Disclosure was part of the "Michael Douglas as sleaze" period of Hollywood - featuring sleazy turns in Fatal Attraction, Disclosure itself and of course Fatal Attraction - I'm a little hesitant in calling him our "hero"