Changing Stories: Social Media in Speculative Fiction

How can an immersive media environment inform literature – both in terms of the stories we tell, and the ways in which those stories are told?

This question was one of several that I wanted to explore when I wrote Gemsigns. I've read novels in which the interactions of email, instant messaging and social media are reproduced on the page; but they are rarely more than a 21st century version of the classic epistolary narrative, with modern media being used within the story primarily as a way of transmitting information between individuals. It's a plot device wherein the risk is of exposure to a wider than intended audience – much as a letter falling into the wrong hands might trigger a series of developments in a 19th century novel. I've also encountered stories that talk about media and messaging, incorporating it as a social, cultural or economic artefact, but not really using it. And we're all familiar with various experiments in multimedia storytelling; moving beyond the printed (or e-reader) page to tell tales that are audiovisual and interactive.

So far so fun and entertaining, but not particularly progressive. I'd read little if anything that I thought really tried to engage the potential of social and mass media, as both plot and narrative devices, within a traditional literary form. I suspected it could be done without sacrificing the drama, tension, emotion and pathos, the illumination of the human condition, that we expect from a good book; it just wasn't getting done very much.

This is how I tackled it, and why I think it's important.

The story of Gemsigns is in part about the impact of a saturated, inescapable media environment, now and in the future. It was clear to me from the beginning that, even though the imaginary neurological disorder I called the Syndrome had been caused by information technology, the technology would not be rejected; we'd choose to alter ourselves so we could survive it, rather than give it up. That suggests a society in which the technology would have become even more ubiquitous than it is now. It further infers that the use of media platforms to influence public opinion would have become even more important, pervasive, and sophisticated. If you'd rather die than lose it, you're not going to be shy about using it.

I needed to find a way to portray such a society that was more persuasive than simply telling the reader How Things Are; a way to try and transmit that sense of immersion. At the same time I was trying to work out a strategy for dealing with the dreaded info-dump: how to transmit essential information about the context in which the story takes place without it feeling incongruous, given that the characters already know all the things the reader doesn't. It was something of a eureka moment when I realised I could use one device to accomplish both objectives. By embedding the media within the story itself, I could relay crucial information via newstream articles and socialstream threads.

So I set the action around an important anniversary, when it would be logical for the streams to be full of retrospectives and cultural commentary (much as the centenary commemoration of the First World War means that at the moment our newspapers and television schedules are full of memorial and explanation). That let me write a variety of pieces, in different journalistic voices and from different political perspectives, and scatter them throughout the narrative. Their point was not only to give the reader key intelligence about the world of the ®Evolution, but also a sense of what it would be like to live in it, constantly bombarded by conflicting currents of fact and opinion.

Having set up that dynamic, I went further. Gemsigns is a novel told from multiple points-of-view, which in itself infers a sort of of journalistic voyeurism. As the story progresses, a number of key scenes are seen through the eyes of a character who isn't actually present, but is watching events unfold on a tablet screen. This essential communications/computing/entertainment device, which every character carries, becomes an essential narrative device. The reader is aware that, as they observe from the point of view of a character who is in turn observing a stream transmission, the character is not receiving a private one-to-one communication but is witness to a public event.

It was a consciously different choice to the more common plot device in thrillers, in which part of the protagonist's struggle is to reveal things that others do not want them, or the public, to know. In Gemsigns most of the key moments in the plot are public in the instant they happen; the struggle is less for knowledge than for interpretation. It's for control of the narrative.

As the story barrels towards its conclusion, the immersion increases. The hunger of the press for ever more instant content, an ever more immediate perspective, leads to them being drawn into the tale; no longer merely a platform through which events are witnessed, but now a plot device that influences as it observes. And that let me write a denouement which, instead of happening in typical hero vs. villain, mano-a-mano, no-one-will-ever-know-what-really-went-down-here secrecy, is streamed live – becoming possibly the biggest media moment in history.

That felt both true to the story I was telling, and relevant to the real-life experience of the people who would read it – people who watched the towers fall on 9/11 and revolution unfold in Tahrir Square, who saw children die of hunger in Ethiopia and Columbia explode in the skies over Texas.

Everyone knows what happens. But does everyone know what it means?

That, I think, is a challenge for writers – and an opportunity. Information may want to be free, but understanding is as elusive as ever. Spin doctors – whether in politics or advertising, entertainment or religion – work hard to manipulate our perspective. But writers are the ultimate, the original spin doctors. It's in our gift to fully inhabit the reality of social and mass media, with all their layers of confusion and ever-increasing complexity, and from them pull the stories that illuminate our lives today.

About Stephanie Saulter: Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She lives in London, blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus.

GEMSIGNS is Stephanie's first novel and it will be published in May 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books (an imprint of Quercus). It is the first book in The ®Evolution Series. Its sequel, Binary, has just been published in the UK and Stephanie's busy running late with the third book, Gillung.