In The List, a new novel by journalist Yomi Adegoke, an anonymous list circulated on social media threatens to upend a flourishing relationship between a young It Couple. At the book’s crux sit all the anxieties and toxicities that social apps can cultivate. And it’s not the only work of fiction in recent years to put facets of modern technology under a microscope.
Among the most popular, chart-topping books of the digital age are those that dissect the role of contemporary tech in our lives. Gabrielle Zevin’s beloved Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow pores over themes of life, death, reconciliation, and love but does so through the lens of developing video games and online worlds. R.F. Kuang’s bestseller Yellowface investigates race, privilege, power, and the pitfalls of the publishing industry — but also the trappings of Twitter.
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Book blogger Julianne Buonocore tells Mashable she’s seen “an uptick in tech-based fiction” of late, attributing this in part to the fact that careers in social media and tech have boomed over the last decade. But she also said such books play on “the public’s interest”, especially around real-life tech scandals in Silicon Valley and Big Tech.
“Tech-based stories are so ripe for compelling and intriguing storylines, from diving into business and personal success and scandals, to offering inside scoop to outsiders,” she explains. “It just feels more modern and relevant.”
Credit: Mashable Composite: Penguin Random House / HarperCollins / Simon & Schuster / Pan Macmillan.
Twenty-first century novels are increasingly grappling with the ever-evolving nature of tech developments and their human impact. But this isn’t only the stuff of sci-fi. Not all storylines feature monstrous, otherworldly forms of technology, nor do they include a “tech bro supervillain”, the trope that has dominated recent films like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Don’t Look Up, Free Guy, and Luther: The Fallen Sun. And while the likes of TV shows like Mr. Robot or Black Mirror have socially satirised and scrutinised tech and the fears surrounding it, there is still an existential, dystopian quality to both.
Much of contemporary, tech-centric fiction is set in a more grounded reality, where tech isn’t portrayed in an ambiguous, hypothetical manner. Presented as literary realism, these books look into niche phenomena of our time, like Instagram Face, content moderation, and trial by social media. Consumer tech and online platforms can provide unique narratives, themes, and settings for more general fiction, bringing it closer to home and the present than the well-trodden paths of sci-fi, speculative, and dystopian fiction.
“For decades, seemingly futuristic gizmos and gadgets like AI-controlled devices and the ability to connect with anyone around the globe instantaneously were pretty much exclusively fodder for science fiction writers to explore,” young-adult author Wendy Mass tells Mashable. “Now, so much fascinating technology is part of our everyday lives, so authors of other genres can integrate it into their stories as well.”
“For decades, seemingly futuristic gizmos and gadgets like AI-controlled devices and the ability to connect with anyone around the globe instantaneously were pretty much exclusively fodder for science fiction writers to explore.”
Mass’ latest graphic novel Lo and Behold delves into the many benefits of virtual reality, not only examining VR as a tool (one that Mass believes can “make our lives better, more creative, and more full of awe”) but also includes technology into the reading experience itself. The novel includes augmented reality experiences through QR codes, which bring particular pages to life and launch activities for readers.
While that aspect to the novel may be unique, the underlying concept — that tech bolsters and transforms our lives in ways we often don’t quite know how to put into words — is one that is spurring a surge of such writing.
The Silicon Valley, startup culture novel
Novels about tech workers, for example, are becoming commonplace. Many authors have been lauded for their accounts of the people behind Big Tech and the darker side to the industry. At times, the industry is used as an allegory but more often, as a setting to explore the rippling consequences of hustle culture, freedom, and ambition.
There’s Happy For You by Claire Stanford, a 2022 novel about an academic entering the glossy world of startups with the task of understanding happiness. Or Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife, a book published in 2021 with capitalism at its core that tells the story of a coder in a high-profile marriage. Or Hannah Bervoets’ 2021 debut We Had To Remove This Post, a book about the harrowing task of content moderation. There’s Anna Wiener’s 2020 hit Uncanny Valley, a personal look at the misogyny and surveillance of Silicon Valley and the “end of tech exceptionalism.” There’s David Eggers’ The Circle, the 2017 thriller examining the evaporation of work-life balance on a not-Google campus. The list goes on.
There’s also a growing, niche pocket of fiction about the beauty industry, as it becomes more overtly influenced by aesthetic standards elevated on TikTok and Instagram. The consequence of social media on how we want to look has activated the beauty industry like never before, and writers are critiquing this with their narratives. Take Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom, a 2022 book about an aging influencer, #MeToo, and Instagram Face. Then there’s The Glow by Jessie Gaylor, a book published in summer 2023 that tells a TikTok-esque tale of a high-end wellness brand, a beauty guru, and the influence that sprouts via social media. Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang, also published this year, unpacks similar sensations at the intersection of beauty, tech, and identity.
Credit: Mashable Composite: Penguin Random House.
Tapping into our collective fears
Sophie Vershbow, a writer who previously worked in publishing for 10 years, believes that this kind of fiction taps into our very real, very human fears about the ever-evolving landscape of tech.
“Books that feature technology are very popular for the same reason dystopian novels were popular during President Trump’s presidency, and pandemic novels were popular during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vershbow tells Mashable. “Fiction is a way to indulge our fears and curiosities by experiencing them between the pages, and there are a lot of people out there grappling with a pit in their stomach about the technological world we inhabit.” Colin Winnette’s Users is a prime example: a book about a tech leader dealing with a fallout for his creation, interspersed with acute understandings of our anxiety, fear, and paranoia surrounding tech.
But for the very same reason, not everyone is ecstatic about the genre. As Buonocore points out, “I’ve heard readers complain there are now too many books with characters employed in tech.” This apprehension may be because books and technology are being increasingly entangled in ways beyond the page, too. Expanding book sales and readership have been credited to TikTok’s widespread community #BookTok. Less positively, the hovering threat that AI poses to publishing has become more potent in recent weeks, with many in the literary community protesting to protect their work.
Novels, in particular, may feel like a rare consolation in a world dominated by screen-time, even if you’re reading them on a Kindle or e-reader. So once their pages, too, are filled with social media, video games, and the chokehold of corporate tech ambitions, the gap between escapism and reality can seem compressed.
“Fiction is a way to indulge our fears and curiorities by experiencing them between the pages, and there are a lot of people out there grappling with a pit in their stomach about the technological world we inhabit.”
On the one hand, as Vershbow says, “Readers have always been fascinated by stories one step removed from their own reality.” On the other, some may feel they are made all-too-conscious about the terrors of tech once they’re on the page too. While books like Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow see tech as a beautiful connector between two people, other novels, like Bervoets’ We Had To Remove This Post, outline the harsher side of social apps laden with conspiracy theories and trauma.
That’s just it. Both are examples of a more human and moral examination of tech, one that is hard to see unless we – as people very much online – take a step back. Fiction, perhaps, can be the key to deconstructing the nuances and complexities of modern tech. The heightened presence of such fiction is a sign of our times, and may just help us make sense of what is unfurling in front of us.