Salander. Sula.

by wjw on July 26, 2010

We went to the movies this afternoon, and the theater was packed. But as I looked around I realized that no one in the theater seemed to be under fifty.

Okay, so the cheap Sunday matinees are attractive to people living on a pension. But why this movie, rather than the others in the multiplex? What was bringing a whole crowd of middle-aged to elderly people out to the cinema?

The answer? A tattooed, pierced, violent, half-crazy bisexual Swedish dwarf!

Lisbeth Salander. The disturbed, disturbing heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. That’s who the old folks are into!

These books are popular. A friend was on a commuter train from D.C. to New York and noted that everyone else in the car was reading a Stieg Larsson book. Larsson’s the new John Grisham. Except that he’s dead.

When I read the first of the books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I recognized Salander’s special vibe right away— in fact I checked the copyright, because Salander so reminded me of Sula in my own Praxis books. But no, it’s unlikely that Larsson was able to read a first edition of The Praxis in 2003 in order to postumously publish his book, in Swedish, in 2004.

And it’s not like the characters are identical. They’re both self-exiled characters with abusive backgrounds, unusual math skills, and a willingness to exploit violence as a means of solving personal problems. Both end up unexpectedly rich. But Salander is a crusader: she uses violence only against evil people, most of whom have attacked her first. Sula is of a more pragmatic character: she’ll kill people who get in her way, if she thinks she can get away with it.

And here’s the secret to keeping a character like this fascinating: their superpowers don’t help. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is shown to have a whole host of abilities— she’s a math genius, she’s a brilliant hacker, she has a photographic memory— but these abilities don’t solve her problems or make her happy. The opposite, if anything. She’s still alienated, she’s still an exile, she’s still alone.

Likewise Sula, for all her hypercompetence, never finds a place or time where she can be happy. (“Drive on,” she said.)

In the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson made a big mistake. He fell in love with his character.

Now I think it’s great when readers fall in love with fictional characters. I pat myself on the back for the number of readers who have fallen for Sula. But the problem with writers falling for their own character is that they start giving them too many expensive presents.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is no longer the bundle of fascinating contraditions we found in Dragon Tattoo. Instead, she’s an omnicompetent superheroine. She not only rescues a woman from her murderous husband in the teeth of a raging hurricane, she also rescues her boyfriend from a collapsing building at more or less the same time. She beats up a couple of Hell’s Angels and steals one of their motorbikes. (She’s 4″8″, by the way.) She’s an expert at breaking into buildings and at spycraft. She takes a bullet to the brain and still manages to dig herself out of a shallow grave and then go after the bad guy with an axe.

She’s no longer miserably unhappy, but instead reasonably content. While hardly a paragon of socialization, she does fairly well with people, having sex with the ones she likes, and avoiding those she doesn’t (except when she goes for them with an axe).

She even solves Fermat’s Last Theorem!

I wanted to give Stieg Larsson the benefit of the doubt, folks, but I really couldn’t.

The third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is about a governmental coverup of the events of the second book. In this one, Larsson made the mistake of telling the story in part from the point of view of the bad guys. This means (1) there’s no mystery to ensnare the reader, and (2) once you encounter the senile, doddering, delusion villains, there’s no suspense, because you know that Salander is going to make short work of them, at least once she recovers from being shot in the head.

That’s the problem with giving your protagonist too many presents, you end up making them so mighty that the story no longer matters. Then it’s just wish-fulfillment for the author and the audience both, with villains popping up only for the pleasure of watching the hero knock them down.

Still, if you’re longing for Sula, you could do worse than to pick up The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And if you’re one of the tens of millions who, even though the author is dead, remain desperate for another Salander book, you might just want to pick up a copy of The Praxis.

Just a suggestion, mind.

Michael Grosberg July 26, 2010 at 7:43 am

For the life of me, I can't understand what made Larson so popular. Yes, Salander is an interesting (if not believable) character. but the prose was soooo dull. It's the type of prose you expect to find in a ministry of agriculture quarterly report on cabbage yield in rural areas or something. And it had all those things we despise in the SF/F world – a map, a genealogy, and endless infodumps. Larson was a journalist, and he wrote like one.

As for the similarity between Sula and Salander – I don't see it. Salander is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, or so Larson would have you believe. I'm not an expert but I believe no one would call her a realistic depiction of one. She's a contradictory character because she changes when the plot demands it; that makes her unbelievable to me.
Sula's nothing like that. She's a complete, believable, *human* character.

Walter, please don't compare your writing to Larson's. Your books are so much better.

Kelly July 26, 2010 at 4:10 pm

I was very happy with the one present you gave Sula at the end of the Praxis trilogy. It was subtle, appropriate, and you just knew she was going to adore it.

Leon July 26, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Michael, I think I need to disagree with you regarding the prose of the millennium trilogy. Yes, it's kind of wooden, but that is what makes it all the more appropriate. That same woodenness allows us, the reader, to dissociate ourselves from the gruesome things that are being discussed. At the same time, it also conveys a sense of "alienness", which adds extra mystery, which adds to the book's ability to keep you engaged in the story. Contradictory, but it works!

Stroller July 26, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Don't worry, Walter! No one else noticed this "similarity".

I really enjoyed the comparison you make between the two characters, and your critique of Larson, but the two girls don't really strike me as so similar.

I think that ultimately your legacy will last far longer than Larson's – he's only got one book that will stand the test of time, but Dragon Tattoo is really good. Do you feel *The Praxis* was your best work?

john_appel July 26, 2010 at 8:14 pm

I'm about halfway through the second book and I'd been wondering what was bothering me about the character. But now you've hit it. She's become Honor Harrington.

Although as a computer security guy, I've got to say that while Larson included some a few whoppers, he actually got a lot more right on the infosec front than almost any fiction author.

Ralf the Dog July 26, 2010 at 8:26 pm

I have downloaded the Girl with… books, I have yet to read them. Every time I open up Amazon they keep showing up in my, "You must read this" list. I finally gave in and put them on my iPad.

I have no problem with giving your characters lots of cool stuff. This lets your character become dependent on them and fall apart when you remove them one at a time.

The other option would be to make a super character, then have villain inflation. Eventually, the author would need to put the hero up against four or five planet sized super computers that create universes full of antimatter as weapons. I know you would never do that.

dubjay July 26, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Michael, I wasn't comparing myself to Larsson, I was comparing his character with mine.

Yeah, his prose is clunky (at least in translation) and his idea of exposition is to toss vast heavy lumps at the reader. By the second book, his plotting starts to run heavily to coincidence: things happen just because characters run into each other by accident, or see each other in coffee shops.

But people keep coming back to read for one reason: Salander. I doubt they'd turn out in such numbers for Kalle Blomqvist.

Ralf, the Armaments Race of Cool is one of your best spectator sports. Salander should have been given a foe worthy of her gifts.

Stroller, I have my favorite books, but ultimately it's not up to me. -You- all get to decide what my best work is.

Rebecca S. July 27, 2010 at 2:57 am

I liked Dragon Tattoo (book and movie) but never felt engaged by Salander–always like a spectator, thinking, "What's she going to do next?" I thought that about Sula, too, but I cared more.

My vote goes to Hardwired. (So far.)

Foxessa July 28, 2010 at 5:41 pm

This is the first I heard the Larson's protag was a dwarf!

Probably will never read these books. Tales of graphic violence period, and graphic violence particularly perpetrated upon women and children, even if a victim turns the tables, just don't make good population for my psyche. The real world is really bad enough.

Love, c.

dubjay July 29, 2010 at 12:46 am

Salander isn't technically a dwarf, but on the other hand is 4'8". I was exaggerating for effect.

Foxessa, if you're not into violent revenge fantasies, this series isn't for you.

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