The Unbearable Importance Of Detail

Or, The Importance Of Being Accurate

Every so often, I find myself reading something that I know I really shouldn’t.  It’s rather like food; the realisation that you’re reaching for the fourth unhealthy fat-filled biscuit, the knowledge that you should stop right now, the dread of knowing that you won’t.  With me and books it’s happened twice recently.

The first was with Tom Clancy’s recent slab of nonsense, The Teeth Of The Tiger.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the routine involved when approaching any book like this.  First, suspend your disbelief.  No, higher than that; as high as if you were watching a Bond movie, or anything starring Arnold Schwartzenegger.  Next, let go of your brain.  Convince yourself, against all reason, that complex geopolitical problems and deeply involved cultural clashes have simple solutions.  If you’re not American, adapt yourself now to that curiously parochial viewpoint, in which the concerns of the President are the concerns of the planet.  Now you may read a Tom Clancy.

But partway through I felt the suppressed parts of my brain trying to stir.  A muffled voice in my subconscious pointed out that Jack Ryan’s son (around whom the book is formed) is nothing like Ryan Snr who was (or could have been read as) a reasonably decent man.  Ryan Jnr is a prat.  He prefers classical music to rock.  He always wears a blazer.  He has no apparent life.  But I suppressed that voice, and told it that the suspension of disbelief is key.  And I continued to read.

Then two of Clancy’s characters ended up in the UK.  And here’s where the straws began to pile up on the back of the camel.  First, Clancy’s research seems to have consisted of a couple of visits to London, which has equipped him with an in-depth understanding of the local culture.  Not.  The final straw, which led me to throw the book across the room, adopt the position of the stork and hop around mouthing obscenities, was trival; his two characters have a drink in a pub.  With waitress service.  And when they get up, they leave money to pay.  Pubs don’t work like that.  They have never worked like that.  That is the way in which American bars work.  And it’s easy to find this out; just take a look at this excellent guide to pub etiquette.

Of course, I’m over-reacting hopelessly.  But then again; accuracy matters.  If Clancy’s so off-target on something that I know about (ie, what the UK is like), then I have to assume he’s equally wrong about, say, the culture of Russia.  Or Germany.  Or Italy, or various Arab nations.  And it brings into sharper focus how sketchy his understanding is of computers, or networking.  About all I’d grant is that he’s accurate about weapons, since he seems to have a rather fetishistic fascination with the damn things.

But Mr Clancy’s works are as the writings of Stephen Hawking for accuracy and clarity compared with the demon that Beelzebub has inflicted upon the reading public; the craven creature that unknowing mortal man names… Dan Brown.

Dan Brown, who believes (Da Vinci Code) that GPS tracking can work indoors, in a room with no windows, and to an accuracy of centimetres.  Dan Brown who believes (ditto) that a tiny solar cell can power a hard-drive recorder, as long as it gets a few minutes of sunlight.  Oh, and it can power a transmitter that can be received clearly at vast distance.  Dan Brown, who tells us that the Chief Constable of a British police force carries a sidearm.

Dan Brown, whose portrayal of the NSA, computer viruses and the Internet (Digital Fortress) is now accepted by millions of people.  Fear for the enlightenment, my people, for the rise of Ignorance is at hand.