This year, author Sam A. Patel celebrated the release of his dystopian YA novel, Data Runner. Today, I’m excited to have YA’s the Word help kick off Sam’s blog tour with his guest post.
My Favorite Kind of Dystopian: When Hi-Tech meets Lo-Tech
One of my favorite things about dystopian worlds is the way that high technology gets diametrically contrasted with low technology. That’s certainly one of the things I love most about The Hunger Games.Here is this world where the technology exists to create an arena so advanced that weather and terrain can be manipulated and fireballs manufactured from thin air, and yet the tributes are forced to fight with classical weapons. In contrasting the efficiency of high technology with the messiness of low technology, Collins effectively contrasts the efficiency of war with the brutality of warfare. The theater of war is controlled by hands on a control panel, as it so often is, but on the battlefield itself, blood is spilled using the same age-old weapons that have been around for thousands of years.
This juncture of high technology and low technology is definitely something I wanted to explore when creating the world of Data Runner. In my world, communication technology has gotten so advanced that sending information over the wire is tantamount to sending a postcard through the mail. Anyone can read it. This in turn gives rise to a very old form of communication. Just like messengers did for thousands of years before wire-based communication, data runners have to physically move the information from point A to point B. The vessel they use to store their cargo is a cutting edge bio-identical cortex chip that fuses with the runner’s nervous system, but the method they use to get the information delivered is as old as legs themselves. Because sometimes the best technology is the one that’s been around for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, in too many stories the contrast between high and low technology is not handled well. Too often the gap between hi-tech and lo-tech is used exclusively to establish two different classes of people. There are the few who have access to all the best technology, and the rest who don’t. While there is a class gap in Data Runner, mine is a world in which the class gap is not defined by the technology gap. Instead of using technology to create the divide between the haves and the have nots, I wanted to create a world that was more reflective of our own, a world in which the very poor may not have the latest and greatest technology, but they haven’t been left behind either. In our world for example, when you take the subway or bus, you might see a less fortunate kid carrying around a 2nd generation iPod with a monochrome screen and a scroll wheel, but you’ll never see one listening to cassette tapes on a Sony Walkman. That’s the way it works in the world of Data Runner as well. Just like the world we live in today, it is a world where technology like old fashions always manages to cascade down. The have nots may be a few generations behind, but they’re up to speed enough to still be in the game.
Technology is a standard setpiece in sci-fi, and the contrast between hi-tech and lo-tech is particularly useful in dystopian sci-fi. It can be used simply, such as when the rich have it and the poor don’t, or it can be used with much more subtlety, such as the way it’s done in The Hunger Games. By thinking more deeply about what you want the contrast between hi-tech and lo-tech to say about your world, and how you want it to tie into the themes of your story, you can use it to great effect when building your own dystopian world.
In the not-too-distant future, in what was once the old City of New York, megacorporations have taken over everything. Now even the internet is owned, and the only way to transmit sensitive information is by a network of highly skilled couriers called “data runners” who run it over the sneakernet. It is a dangerous gig in a dirty world, but Jack Nill doesn’t have much choice in the matter. A brilliant young math whiz and champion of parkour, Jack must become one of these data runners in order to get his father out of a major gambling debt. But when a mysterious stranger loads Jack’s chip with a cryptic cargo that everybody wants, he soon becomes the key figure in a conspiracy that could affect the entire North American Alliance. Now it’s all up to Jack. With the help of his best friend, Dexter, and a girl who runs under the name Red Tail, Jack will have to use all his skills to outrun the retrievers and uncover the truth before they catch him and clip him for good.