What was the first great novel of the information age? It’s not a trick question exactly, but the answer depends on what you think ‘information’ is – and when its age began. There’s no reason to think the information age uniquely our own; no reason to assume – like those 20th-century avant-gardes who imagined themselves the first true moderns – that we’re the first ones on the scene. Even in 1853, an editorial in The Times could claim quite confidently that the world had entered ‘an age of information’; a hundred and sixty years later, as the flotsam of our old media sinks into a new wave of digital solvent, we’re still trying to figure out what that might have meant and what it might yet mean.
This situation poses a particular challenge to the novel, not least because at one time novels were the solvent. Chivalric romance and traveller’s tale, love letter and diary: all were broken down and built into a new kind of storytelling with its own forms of coherence and meaning. By redeploying