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.

9 thoughts on “The Unbearable Importance Of Detail

  1. Clancy vs. Brown

    Tom Clancy earned a reputation for diligent research, at least with respect to planes, tanks, etc., that I am not sure is deserved. His books have been decreasing in quality and plausibility (I know, I know) for a long time. Is that any surprise given that pretty much any piece of junk he sticks his name on will sell? People actually buy those damned “OpCenter” novels that he doesn’t even write. “The Teeth of the Tiger” was awful; it was worse than “Rainbow Six”, which resulted in my vow to never again buy one of his books. I am not sure that the local (U.S.) public library is doing anyone a service by buying them, either.

    I have not read any of Dan Brown’s books other than “The DaVinci Code”, but I am going to give him the benefit of doubt and assume that he took some technological liberties for the sake of telling a fairly fun story. Of course, you could argue strongly that a better writer would not need to fudge things in order to tell a good story.

    • Re: Clancy vs. Brown

      Ah, “technological liberties”, I can live with. I’d argue that, say, the Matrix movies took technological liberties. But Dan Brown’s understanding of email, or encryption, or databases or anything in the slightest bit technical is as deep as… (pauses to come up with non-political analogy) Zsa Zsa Gabor’s grasp of the ontological model of hermeneutics.

      If Dan Brown had the sense to stop (or never to have started) portraying himself as the writer of Deep Truths Based On Historical Fact, then I wouldn’t really give a damn. But he has made such claims, which in my view makes him a more worthless person; exploiting gullibility to make himself rich.

      • Re: Clancy vs. Brown

        You may well be right, but I am constrained by not having read “Digital Fortress” and his other books. I do live near NSA, and it is much more fun to believe the tinfoil hat version of the Agency than to believe, well, what is more likely correct. It is pretty scary to think that people probably believe that the stories in Brown’s books are deep truths, though.

  2. I’ve not read Dan Brown (but I plan to do) nor The Teeth of the Tiger, but having read most of Clancy’s earlier novels I clearly see a downward trend in them.
    The Hunt for Red October was, after all, a semi-plausible story: sending Jack Ryan the analyst to have gunfights on a submarine stretches most people’s idea of good HR management but it is, at least, a traditional plot device.
    The problem is in the longer arc of successive novels. While James Bond remains Agent 007 in every novel and his adventures are self-contained episodes with some recurring but disposable friends and villains, Jack Ryan has a career. Not only a fulfilling career (“Cathy! I’ll be deputy director of the Agency!”), but a completely over the top string of unreasonable lucky events.
    It’s obvious that everything in the “Ryanverse” happens for the benefit of J.R. and his associates (quiz: what’s the worst way to become President of the USA?); even problems exist only to exhibit the characters’ virtue.
    This attitude about the story leads naturally to the problems you find in The Teeth of the Tiger: superficial pseudo-morality, maybe reflecting the author’s own thinking, and sloppy research, as the novels refer less to the real world and more to power dreams. I don’t want to get into unpleasant psychological considerations about this sort of literature.

    There is a similar devolving trend in Patricia Cornwell’s novels.
    She started with traditional detective stories in a traditional format (an active serial killer confronts the police and is identified and apprehended only in the last few pages) with important original traits (the emphasis on autoptical examination and forensics in general) and somewhat interesting characters.
    Gradually this simple structure is charged with more personal projections; fairly normal people become violent and self righteous, police leaves place to vigilante activity, random maniacs are replaced by personal enemies, local problems become international plots; in the latest novels the “good guys” are in fact a clique of psychos who consider themselves above the law.
    Another writer drifting from realistic and genre literature to a private self-indulgent world with its own rules, like Anne Rice, Robert Heinlein and others. Probably it’s an occupational hazard.

    Lorenzo Gatti

    • in the latest novels the “good guys” are in fact a clique of psychos who consider themselves above the law…
      Exactamente, and strongly so. But even that I could put up with (again, suspension of disbelief) if the details of the world around it made sense. Mad as the comparison may be, consider Tolkien. Whether one likes LOTR or not, the world in which it was set made sense, on the large scale and down to the detail. Clancy and Brown don’t even get right the details of the world they inhabit, which is arguably easier than having to keep a purely imaginary one internally consistent.

      • But Tolkien didn’t write about contemporary society and politics (at least not directly); a purely imaginary world needs only to be consistent with self-imposed rules, while realistic fiction has to be consistent with the real world. So when a fantasy author makes up details, it’s a decision, which can be good or bad for the story but never wrong; when a realistic writer makes up details, it’s an assumption (based on prejudice, sloppiness and ignorance).
        So I think writing about fantasy is easier than writing about realistic topics: the complexity is under the complete control of the author.
        For example when Tolkien made a mistake like calling two different elves “Glorfindel” (as a rule each has a unique name) he was able to reestablish consistency with an interesting story (they are the same person, returned from the dead).

        Lorenzo Gatti

  3. Re: Dan Brown

    Ouch; I must add A&D to my “don’t buy for reading on holiday” list. I think I agree with you about DB’s attitude, and that’s what annoys me most; that he’s willing to sacrifice accuracy and any efforts to portray science in a reasoned or realistic way as long as he makes money.

    Which would bring me to Michael “Scientists Are Evil” Crichton, but I did that rant already đŸ™‚


    • Re: Dan Brown

      Finished reading Angels & Demons; I think accusing Brown of “sacrificing accuracy” would be an undeserved compliment, implying that he knows the facts and he is deliberately bending them.
      I think he is really lying (maybe unconsciously) only on a few important points he cares about (mostly deforming the Church to fit his antireligious message).
      In most cases, he writes something superficially reasonable that is good for the story and my impression is that he doesn’t know it’s wrong; he seems to not realize how mediocre and inaccurate is his knowledge.
      For example, for unusually good narrative reasons, an Italian priest needs military experience. Dan Brown makes him serve in the armed forces him at 16 years for 18 or 24 months, while in reality he would have been at least 18 (plus a likely delay of several years to finish university) and the duration would have been 12 to 18 months (probably 12) depending on the chosen arm and the exact period. This kind of mistake can have no useful purpose, it is pure evidence of bad research (probably outdated sources).
      Other “mistakes” show a self-centered neglect for realism similar to Clancy’s. Dan Brown’s Rome is exceedingly empty: armed Swiss Guards go anywhere they please; Italian police makes only a cameo appearance, while authorities aren’t even mentioned; people can enter Piazza Navona with a van and have a protracted fight inside the fountain at ten o’clock in the evening without anybody noticing, while in reality they would attract both a large crowd and the undivided attention of police patrols.
      There are also internal contradictions that are clear signs of the author’s priority for effect over realism: for example when the two characters from BBC are introduced the conclave has very little media attention so they can feel lonely, but as soon as interesting things start to happen all TV networks are able to instantly bring full troupes and giant screens on the spot to provide excitement and dramatic visuals.
      I find very sad that large masses of reader are likely to accept Dan Brown’s garbage as realistic fiction.

      Lorenzo Gatti

      • Re: Dan Brown

        An interesting point; is inaccuracy by ignorance excusable? Well, in the case of most of DB’s books, given that it wouldn’t have taken very much Google and/or library time to find out the accurate facts, my vote is that no, it’s not. And I maybe give him more credit for intelligence; that’s not a compliment, though, because I think he is probably bending the facts for effect.
        The stuff about Rome is interesting (mea maxima culpa; I’ve never been). Sounds like the sort of detail that annoyed me about Clancy; local cultural issues to which an American author seems to assign no importance.
        And yes; it’s very sad. Thanks for the comment!

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