Reading: What I Saw And How I Lied, with a rant on technology-ignorant authors

I wanted to like What I Saw And How I Lied, not because of the National Book Award, but because of reviews from people I respect, and also the really fine 40’s, George Hurrell-style cover photo. How could a cover that good be bad?

Hmm. I guess the whole thing is edgy and noir, and the time and place are drawn decently. The hurricane section did not remind me of the hurricanes I was in while growing up in Baton Rouge, it sounded more like the news reports from Hurricane Andrew. There is an odd oscillation between foreboding and surprises, but it is told from the viewpoint of a 16 year old girl, and she isn’t catching on to everything that she sees. So maybe that works.

The end (no spoilers here) seems a bit over done. I can see how Evie would think to do that, but it is really abrupt, and I can’t see how she could do it without standing up to everyone and burning every bridge with her family forever. Yes, all that stuff before was traumatic, but enough for her to betray her mom and dad then still live with them? That’s cold. And it doesn’t fit with her new-found sensitivity to other people.

Thinking further, we see what Evie sees for the whole book, then at the last, we’re divorced from that, and what she is thinking and planning is the surprise twist. Because we aren’t part of it, we don’t believe it. That is a big structural problem that weakens the ending.

But there is one thing that just pisses me off. Why don’t writers and editors think it matters to get technology right? At the end of chapter three, we have this dramatic flourish:

Sounds cozy. But it was just like buzz bombs—the V-2 rockets the Germans launched at London near the end of the war. You couldn’t hear them, not even a whistle. Until your house blew up.

Read the whole page here.

Dramatic, but painfully ignorant. The buzz bomb was the V-1 and you could hear it. It was a pulse jet, sub-sonic and loud, coming in at a low altitude, an early version of our modern cruise missiles. You could hear it coming, though often with not enough time to get to shelter. Almost 23,000 people were killed by the V-1. The V-2 was a rocket. It was launched with a boost phase, then inscribed a silent parabola across the sky, as Pynchon put it, “gravity’s rainbow”. The silence of the V-2 was truly terrifying, specifically because it was not a “buzz bomb.”

It is really clear that neither the author or the editor actually understood what a buzz bomb or a V-2 was. How did they think a “buzz bomb” was silent?

No one in 1947 would have made this mistake. Why isn’t it important to Judy Blundell (the author) and David Levithan (her editor) to look this up? Is it because technology just doesn’t matter to East Coast writers and editors? Is it something that doesn’t matter because only fleece-wearing West Coast nerds care about it?

The acknowledgements describe her research on the period with thanks to lots of people. But no research on technical stuff. Not even a suggestion about why the boat motor might have died. Bad gas? Clogged fuel filter? Can we get someone who cares? Joe would have made a stab at an explanation, I know that.

This isn’t an isolated problem, it’s a pattern. In Infinite Jest, a book about detail if any book is about detail, David Foster Wallace spells RISC computer as “RISK” and goes on about how a few megabytes are some humongous amount of storage for video (holding “the Entertainment”, the film somewhere near the center of the novel). Ten years before Infinite Jest was published, a CD-ROM could store hundreds of megabytes. RISC processors upended the industry and (arguably) put DEC out of business. But clearly, neither the author nor his editors cared to check that, despite being precise about the shape and color of an OxyContin pill.

I remember reading an introduction to the best short stories of some year, and a well-known writer was cited on factual accuracy. I don’t remember exactly who it was, but she observed that if a writer didn’t care to get the capital of New Hampshire right, then she didn’t care to read them. I feel the same way about technology mistakes. If they don’t respect the reader enough to check that stuff, it isn’t worth my time to read their book. Next time, I stop reading right there, National Book Award or not.

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2 thoughts on “Reading: What I Saw And How I Lied, with a rant on technology-ignorant authors

  1. There’s the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, errors of fact to a point of comedy. Our copy (which, oddly enough, I can no longer find) claimed that Gainesville was the capitol of Florida. And what about SuperFreakonomics, where it is claimed that solar panels contribute to global warming, because they’re black (ignoring the CO2 emissions avoided).
    So I think you’re being a little harsh, Walter. The books that bug you, at least are upfront about being fiction.

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  2. What gets me is that the errors are about science and engineering. They author talks about all her research into the gold train in WWII and recommends a book about it, plus, the book is heavy on place and atmosphere. Except for the tech, which clearly doesn’t matter to her or her editor.
    Errors like that jar the reader out of the story and the place. Bad mistake.

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