Everything is Sci-fi, Until it Isn’t

Probably the most intriguing response I received to my new novel The Exphoria Code was the editor who wrote, “I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure all this high-tech espionage is really the future.”

This message was transmitted via the reflections of pulsing lights along wire-thin extruded plastic cables, passed between silicon-driven temporary digital storage, broadcast into low earth orbit to be received, reconfigured, and rebroadcast by satellites placed there by space rockets, then beamed back to earth to once more be translated as a series of pulsing lights and high-pitched shrieking noises passing along copper wire. Despite its mind-boggling complexity, this transmission took mere seconds, in order to present the message to me on an enormous piece of glass illuminated by millions of liquid crystal diodes, invisible to the naked eye and powered by millions of microscopic transistors, all working in precise alignment.

In other words, she sent me an email.

I wanted to give Bridge a sense of ease with modern technology — not just from her perspective as a hacker, but as a young woman who’s grown up in an online world.

There’s a line in The Exphoria Code where its hero, MI6 cyber-analyst and hacker Brigitte Sharp, is patiently explaining the villain’s scheme to her MI5 colleague Andrea Thomson. Andrea remains unconvinced; “It all sounds a bit sci-fi, you know?”

Bridge replies, “iPhones were sci-fi, until suddenly they weren’t.”

Now, I don’t wish to pile on this particular editor. She was of course referring to the future of the genre, not humanity’s collective time to come. But still, the thought was revealing.

There’s a tendency in the crime and thriller genre to scoff at new technology. “Slow but steady old flatfoot solves crime the newfangled computer can’t” deserves its own entry on TVTropes, if it doesn’t already have one. (And that reference alone will neatly separate readers in two.)

But when I created Bridge, the aforementioned MI6 officer, I wanted to give her a sense of ease with modern technology — not just from her perspective as a hacker, but as a young woman who’s grown up in an online world. I’m old enough to remember the creation of the World Wide Web, and thus by definition to remember a time before the Internet was ubiquitous in our daily lives; hell, I’m old enough to remember when the hot new gadget in the school playground was a Spectrum ZX81, and if you’d said you were “going offline” people might have assumed you were talking about your tennis game.

The thing is, I already revisited 1989 in The Coldest City, which was recently adapted to film as Atomic Blonde. If you’ve seen that movie, you know computer technology is not exactly a big factor in its story.

By contrast, Bridge was still in diapers when Sir Tim Berners-Lee threw the switch on the WWW, and she’s never known a world without the Internet. Her best friend is a man she’s only spoken to online; they’ve literally never met in real life. She spends her evenings on a message board populated by other hackers, and none of them know one another offline. In the field, she communicates with MI6 headquarters over secure internet voice calls. Later, Bridge and her team occupy a virtual chatroom, all working remotely from separate locations to prevent a terrorist attack.

This stuff is here, right now, and it’s not going anywhere because it’s become an essential part of our lives.

Like the skeptical Andrea from MI5, some of you may think this all sounds a bit sci-fi… but is it really?

It’s 2018. We all have friends we ‘see’ more on Facebook than in person. Twitter users regularly converse with people they’ve not only never met, but whom they literally don’t even know. Anyone under the age of 20 has a dozen friends or more they’ve never seen in person — befriending people in chatrooms, through online gaming, on Instagram, on Tumblr, on Pinterest. And millions of people now work remotely, becoming as familiar with voice and video chat systems as we’ve all become with email over the past decade or more.

This stuff is here, right now, and it’s not going anywhere because it’s become an essential part of our lives. In the 1980s we wanted our MTV, but now we’re all about Netflix and chill, and nothing short of an apocalypse is going to change that sometimes rapid progression into the future.

So of course spies use this technology. It felt entirely natural to me that these characters should live in the same world we all do; where your boss texts you while you’re trying to watch The Good Place, your inbox is somehow full again every morning when you sit down at your desk, you iMessage holiday selfies to your relatives, and you shout questions about dead movie stars at the always-connected cylinder in your kitchen. Which then answers you back.

There lies another danger, of course: technology is changing every day. New products and services are constantly arriving, inveigling themselves into our lives before we even realise it. When I began writing The Exphoria Code you couldn’t even buy an Amazon Echo here in the UK, the Apple Watch was less than a year old, and the very idea that Russian hackers might soon pose as Americans to flood Facebook with propaganda and disinformation was a mere twinkle in the Kremlin’s eye.

On the other hand, in the previous two years Google Glass had arrived, flamed out, and disappeared; while the extremely popular Vine video service collapsed and shut down as I was writing the book.

Perhaps that’s why the technology I wrote into the story is a combination of old-school protocols like Usenet, IRC chat, and Skype (which was invented in 2003, and now don’t you feel ancient?); and fiercely modern tech like software espionage, smartphones, and autonomous military drones. Writing it was a constant, shifting judgement call, taking a gamble on which technology I thought would last, and which would probably not be around in a few years’ time.

But it was also important to me that readers don’t need to understand this technology — new or old — to enjoy the book. The Exphoria Code is about Bridge, and her mission, and the technology is there to support that; not the other way around. Everything a reader needs to know is explained, in clear language, so they can understand why it’s important to the story. But the technology itself is not the story — in fact, I went to a lot of effort to make it feel natural, and simply a reflection of the world in which we all live.

Because everything is sci-fi, until it isn’t.

‘The Exphoria Code’ by Antony Johnston is out now from Lightning Books.