Cultural Studies . Film and TV . Language and Literature . Politics . Post 19th Century Literary Studies

Techno thrillers, real life surveillance and data technology: mapping the future?

By Heike Henderson

What can contemporary techno thrillers tell us about possible future developments in the areas of surveillance, data mining and predictive technology? In my article for the newly launched journal Crime Fiction Studies, I analyse how bestsellers by Tom Hillenbrand (Drone State, 2014, and Hologrammatica, 2018) and Marc Elsberg (Zero: They know everything you do) explore moral grey areas in a security landscape affected by widespread globalisation and neoliberal privatisation.

Crime Fiction Studies from Edinburgh University Press

Set in the near future, these speculative crime novels borrow from science fiction and invite readers to imagine future applications of technological innovations that have already made inroads in crime detection and prevention. Lack of privacy, an elimination of boundaries between actual reality and the virtual world, and a blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction impact both crime and detection; this has ramifications on the way we will solve crimes as well as on the types of crime that will be committed.

Since these techno thrillers respond to crucial discussions about global security, (virtual) reality, and artificial intelligence, I argue that techno thrillers are today’s globalised genre par excellence. They cross national boundaries (there are no nation states in the digital world, and technological innovations are not deterred by borders) and tackle issues of utmost concern in today’s globalised, rapidly changing world. Through depicting fictional worlds that are simultaneously strange and familiar, they urge readers to reflect on possible trajectories of technological advances and innovations.

Hillenbrand and Elsberg’s contemporary thrillers show the implications of relying on digital technologies that can be gamed and hacked. Large-scale data collection allows companies to anticipate and even modify behaviour with increasing accuracy; Zero: They know everything you do explores how this can have deadly consequences. Through popular advice programs that give their users personalised recommendations in the areas of health, fitness, career, love and finances, business executives without scruples can manipulate users into reckless behaviour. A perfectly calibrated rewards system that is tied to an app that rates everyone by the value of their data offers strong incentives to follow the apps’ recommendations, even if they are contrary to one’s own core beliefs.

While targeted interventions before crimes are committed sound like a fruitful promise, Drone State provides a chilling reminder of how technologically mediated crime prevention can easily turn into a nightmarish scenario of repression and violence committed by the state (for example, children whose simulation of their personal future shows a life of crime, are preventatively executed). It explores a world under constant surveillance through drones and digital shadowing, and explicates how modern-day surveillance is both an instrument of control and intimately connected to consumer society. It also features a creative virtual world called the mirror space that provides its users with many benefits – and quite a few pitfalls that require the protagonist to fall back on intuition and human creativity.

Last but not least, Hologrammatica explicates the ramifications of employing artificial intelligence in trying to respond to today’s pressing issues like climate change. Although the AI is ultimately successful in its quest, its solutions might not necessarily be in our best interest. This thriller also features technological inventions like the holonet, a permanent holographic augmentation of reality, and technologies that are a little more far-fetched like mind uploading, that allow people to effortlessly switch identities by uploading digital copies of their brains into a body of their choice. This further blurs the boundaries between humans and artificial intelligence, and it also raises questions about what makes humans human, and how people can be held accountable for their actions if all physical characteristics become easily interchangeable and amendable.


Heike Henderson is Professor of German at Boise State University (USA). She has published on crime fiction, cannibalism, and literary representations of food in contemporary German literature. Her current research interests are transnational crime fiction and dystopian literature.


Crime Fiction Studies is a brand new journal publishing twice a year. The first issue, Crime Fiction Today, is out now. Find out how to subscribe as an individual or as an institution, and how to recommend the journal to your library. You can also sign up for Table of Contents alerts to keep up to date with all of the latest content.

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