Technothrillers tend to be fast-paced thrillers that are infused with elements from science fiction or tech. As a genre, technothrillers seem more prescient than ever since the discussion around state surveillance and government control has taken center stage around the world. What constitutes a novel as a technothriller is debatable but there are a few key characteristics.
Technothrillers occupy the space between a sci-fi novel and a regular thriller. While they deal with the advancement in science and technology, the plot usually has little to do with it. Unlike your usual science fiction, these books do not go into too many details about the scientific parts, since the readership it caters to are not hardcore science geeks. The plot of the book relies on a solid, character-driven storyline. The narrators are usually not “heroes” out to save the world or prevent it from a colossal calamity so the stakes are usually small. Sliver by Ira Levin is a great example in that regard—a well-written technothriller that relies on a taut storyline and clever writing that shrewdly illustrates how technology can facilitate voyeurism. The plot revolves around an apartment building in New York where a mysterious person is watching all the tenants via hidden cameras.
The following novels serve as diverse examples of technothrillers that cleverly utilize, and in some cases subvert, the tropes of this popular genre.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin
As a huge fan of Schweblin, I was naturally looking forward to reading her latest. I’m glad to report that it was worth the wait. In this book, Kentukis are smart toys equipped with built-in cameras that can be remotely controlled. These plush robots are all the rage, and can be controlled by people called dwellers who can monitor your every move through these high tech toys. This book gives us a harrowing glimpse of the near future in the age of voyeurism. Bought by people who are only craving human connection, it soon becomes apparent how in the wrong hands, Kentukis can be used as a means to devious ends, as in for blackmail. Schweblin unnervingly illustrates the dark side of technology and connectivity.
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Most people recognize Blake Crouch as the writer of the critically acclaimed Wayward Pines trilogy, which went on to become a hit TV show. As an avid reader of literary fiction, I love Crouch’s books for the simple reason that he makes sci-fi accessible for people new to the genre. Recursion is set in a world where a mysterious disease is afflicting people, driving them mad with memories of a past life they never lived. The protagonists are a brilliant neuroscientist named Helena whose groundbreaking research on Alzheimers will change the way we think about time and memory, and Barry, a NYPD detective who discovers that several people are suffering from False Memory Syndrome. Helena’s research eventually gets into the hands of influential people who want to use it to shift people’s reality. This evolves into a labyrinthine time-travel story replete with alternate timelines (which Crouch is a pro at!) and white-knuckle action. I enjoy reading Blake Crouch for his twisty, entertaining sci-fi narratives. Recursion reads like Minority Report meets Black Mirror.
Zero by Marc Elsberg
Cynthia is an old school journalist investigating a lifestyle app that closely resembles Facebook and aims to give its users everything they need to succeed in life. While Cynthia is mistrustful of new technology, her teenage daughter is her polar opposite and has no qualms in using the data that such apps monitor and collect from users, to her advantage. People can now sign up for an app called Freemee and sell their data for money or credits. Pretty soon, we realize how this is not just fun and games. This app is not just moderating young people’s activity patterns, but might also be using that information unethically. The takeaway message of this novel is that Big Brother is always watching. It shines a light on this generation gap and the contrasting ways in which we have adapted to the continuously evolving technology. This novel is deeply chilling and will make you rethink about all those habit tracking apps you have installed on your gadgets. After all, it’s no secret that the companies behind these apps collude with government authorities to track user data that we happily allow them access to.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
When Melisande Stokes, an expert in linguistics and languages, accidentally meets military intelligence operator Tristan Lyons in a hallway at Harvard University, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself. In this sprawling saga, witchcraft and technology combine with the invention of a time travel machine where witches can send people back in time. It aims to explore the gap between magic and science with a fair dose of imagination and dark humor. Sinister government agencies weaponize new technology in this novel which satirizes corporate culture and bureaucracy. At a whopping 752 pages, this epic door stopper might be a good pick for an escapism read.
The Dying Game by Asa Avdic
It is the year 2037. The world has seen another Cold War and the larger part of Europe, including Sweden, has been consolidated under the totalitarian Union of Friendship. Absolute loyalty to the autocratic government is paramount. Defectors are ridiculed and shamed. Seven people are brought to a remote island to compete in a 48-hour test for a top secret intelligence position; they are secretly being watched by influential people in positions of power. Set in a dystopian society reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 where autocracy and mass surveillance is the norm, the plot interweaves a locked room mystery with issues related to totalitarianism and the absolute power of government agencies. As a longtime fan of Agatha Christie, I quite liked this classic spin on a dystopian novel.
Zeroes by Chuck Wendig
In this apocalyptic technothriller, a motley crew of five hackers are recruited against their will by the U.S government to work on a top secret project to avoid criminal charges. They are whisked off to a remote location called The Lodge with a bunch of other hackers on several off-the-books government projects like NSA. This novel provides an enlightening peek into the world of cyber-espionage and hacker culture. I found this a quick, addictive read.
Originally published April 2020.
Rabeea Saleem is a Pakistan-based book critic presently writing for a bunch of international publications including Book Riot and Chicago Review of Books.