September 2, 2010
All current fiction must be historical, I decided some time ago. It’s a price we pay for technology.
What I mean is this: The details of our lives, the sights and sounds that give fiction its life, change so fast that anything written today will seem dated in a year or two. If that doesn’t sound obvious, take an example. A couple of years ago, a writer might have described a driver stopping to ask directions. Now readers will wonder why the GPS isn’t working, or worse, they’ll assume the driver is technologically inept.
Reasoning this way, I figure a novelist might as well date the tale immediately. If you’re writing today, place the story clearly in 2010, acknowledging that readers in 2013 will find it quaint.
So, picking up a quick vacation read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson—one of the few times I’ve managed to get to a bestseller within five years of its pub date—I was nonplussed to come across passages like the one below, when the heroine, punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, decides on a new computer:
Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners.
Originally published in 2005, translation copyright 2008, and already so outdated that geeks might laugh. This confirms my argument, I suppose, though the excessive detail still makes the author’s point about Salander’s obsession, and perhaps will continue to do so 20 years from now. Maybe that’s another possible tack, then—wade so deep into the nitty-gritty of the characters’ environment that the reader can’t help but accept it as a world of its own, whether dated or not.
My “literary” opinion of Larsson’s mega-phenomenon? Its dense, driving plot, spiced with multifarious secrets, conspiracies, violence and sex, helped pass time on the airplane. Yet I didn’t care how the mystery turned out, and the characters developed so little that I feel no compulsion to read the other volumes in the trilogy. Until I’m stuck on another plane. (I do admit to a vague curiosity about what the dragon means.)
By the way, Larsson’s underlying assumption—that a girl with tattoos and facial pierces looks out of place in the workaday world—itself seems, by today’s standards, almost quaint. Maybe the Swedes are stuck on an old-fashioned twentieth-century airbus; if so, at least they aren’t being charged for luggage.