Le Carré, Of The Previous Century

by wjw on January 30, 2012

I’ve always thought of John le Carré as a role model.  He writes genre for a large non-genre audience, and pleases the critics as well.  (Of course it helps that he wrote the single best book, till that time anyway, in his chosen field.)

I’ve just finished listening to David Oyelowo read the audio book version of le Carré’s 2006 novel Mission Song, a book set against the terrifying background of the present-day eastern Congo.  The book’s protagonist is an interpreter— someone who, by profession, isn’t supposed to have an opinion— who gets in over his head when he realizes he’s interpreting for various factions involved in a seamy plot.

Le Carré pulls of a minor miracle in the middle section, which consists entirely of overheard conversations.  He makes them riveting, which should not technically be possible— though I will concede the possibility that it may be that it was reader Oyelowo who actually pulled off the miracle here.

But then the book just kinda falls apart, and all because John le Carré just doesn’t grok the internet.

The book’s maguffin consists of stolen audio tapes containing vital information, which the protagonist and his girlfriend have to haul around hither and thither in a sack.  The protagonist never seriously considers copying them in some way.   (In fact, in le Carré’s universe, copying a cassette tape requires a specialist with a lot of expensive equipment.)

Le Carré doesn’t realize how easy it is to rip an audio file, and that his characters’ computers come with the software already installed.  He doesn’t realize how easy it is to hide stolen files on the internet.  He doesn’t realize how easy it is to move them anonymously from place to place.  (A file does get send in an email eventually, so the possibilities of the internet are not completely beyond his ken.)

And the sad fact is that his plot simply doesn’t work if any of his characters have any knowledge of how the internet actually works.  And the characters twist their way through one hoop after another to justify le Carré’s lack of knowledge.

(Le Carré really doesn’t get smartphones, either, and Nokia had smartphones in the 1990s.  Though maybe none of his characters actually have smartphones, okay, I can live with that.)

Le Carré was in his mid-seventies when he wrote this book, and he’s not of a generation that grew up with the internet, and maybe he’s the sort of busy, successful person who hires other people to do the internet for him.  Professionally he’s never even graduated to the typewriter— he writes everything by hand.

But still.  His characters are under thirty and computer literate, and they’d know all about how to create and move sound files.

The fact that everyone in the book is so wilfully ignorant of digital realities leaps out of the book like the big screaming flaw that it is.

(At least it leaped out at me.  I’ve checked any number of reviews of the book, and the reviewers, while divided on the book generally, seem to live in the mid-20th century along with the author.)

Lord knows, writers try to avoid these kinds of errors.  We can’t be experts on everything.  I’ve had my own share of embarrassing mistakes— and the worst ones aren’t the mistakes of ignorance, but the ones where I actually do the research, and the research either lets me down or is misleading in some significant way.

(And no, I’m not going to give you a list of my written errors.  If you haven’t noticed them, you’ve had a smoother reading experience, and that’s all to the good.  Besides, the mistakes are embarrassing.)

But so far I don’t think I’ve made a mistake because I’m the wrong generation to know how something works.  At least, so far, I’ve been saved that embarrassment.

Sympathetic as I am to the problem and to le Carré generally, it must be said that as a reader, sometimes I stumble across something, and my brains says That’s now how things work, and I can’t get past it.  And this was one of those times.

S.M. Stirling January 31, 2012 at 2:57 am

Yup, this sort of thing is embarassing. I just try to avoid high-tech stuff… but my urban fantasy series is now committed to the enduring prominence of the Blackberry… ooops…. 8-).

’tis one reason why I killed off higher technology. That way all I have to do is understand pikes and crossbows. I -really understand- pikes…

Jeff Faria January 31, 2012 at 6:09 am

On the other hand, why did Princess Leia have to hide the stolen Death Star plans in R2D2? She coulda just posted ’em to Facebook.

Peter Sartucci January 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm

As one who came of age in the 20th century and has been feeling more and more like a fossil each time my 18-year-old son says something, I can sympathize. Technology is always potentially transformative, and we appear to have passed with a vengeance into another transformative stage with the internet and cell phones and their offspring. There will be a gulf between adepts of the new and adepts of the old that will shape basic perceptions of story validity from now on. Geezers like me find ourselves uncomfortably stuck on the shrinking side of that gulf. Perhaps this is why the apocalyptic novel has enjoyed such a surge in interest lately – lots of us aging readers want to vicariously smash the techno-beast that humiliates us so often!

Tom Barlow January 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm

I’ve noted some authors intentionally setting their stories in the past just to, I think, avoid the complications ubiquitous communications pose. Lawrence Block’s latest Scudder novel is one. According to an interview I read, Ann Patchett set State of Wonder in the Amazon to avoid the cell phone and Internet world.

S.M. Stirling February 6, 2012 at 7:08 pm

And in fiction, cell phone batteries always fail at crucial moments. Always.

wjw February 8, 2012 at 6:25 am

That’s only a mirror of reality.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.