In my quest to read the greats, I recently stumbled upon Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series, a military suspense saga with nearly two dozen books and a whole lot to love. Make no mistake, I’m not criticizing the series here. Brockmann is an expert storyteller with remarkable skill at weaving several seemingly-incongruous narratives into a single story arc, and she creates unique and deeply human characters that it is a true pleasure to read about.
I have only one problem with these books and it’s not Brockmann’s fault. They’re dated.
Now, disclaimer, I’m only on book four of the series. But the audiobooks I downloaded from my library’s collection to my very advanced smart phone still have breaks at the end of each section that say end of disc one and that’s by no means the extent of it. There are obvious details in regards to technology, progressive thinking and political and social norms–most especially regarding terrorism– that make it a little difficult for me to relate to these books, even though I was born ten years before they were written.
Again, this isn’t a critique on Brockmann’s writing or her books, not in the slightest. Rather, it’s an open-ended question on how do we, as authors, work to avoid placing our books in a certain time and space, without knowing what’s going to come in the next one or two decades? And is it important that we do so?
Certainly, it’s a struggle that Brockmann is up against without a doubt. The first book in the series, The Unsung Hero, was published in 2000, well before the evolution of wireless Internet, smartphones, video communication and more. Email was in its infancy and, as Brockmann at one point references, telephone lines were a necessary evil for getting on the World Wide Web.
But nearly twenty years ago, who would have ever thought that the Internet would become the behemoth it is today? Even a wildly talent author like Brockmann can’t predict the future of technology. It’s just that with modern tech being as ubiquitous as it is– I have to charge my phone, headphones and my FitBit before I can even go for a run– references to pagers and cell phone antennas are almost difficult to comprehend.
And it’s not just the technology– minor details in the face of major social changes taking place at the beginning of the new millennium. Brockmann works well toward a diverse cast of characters, both in race and sexuality, like the dynamic FBI duo of Alyssa Locke and Jules Cassidy. But undoubtedly, the way we represent characters of color and the LGBTQIA community has changed. While it’s bold and progressive to put an openly queer character into the FBI, Brockmann’s progressiveness fades in the reread, as we reconsider how they characters are represented and the stereotypes often surrounding them.
Here, my perspective as a reader plays a part. I am 25. I was not alive during the AIDS epidemic. I watched gay marriage get legalized on national television. I have witnessed the rise of a society discussing gender-fluidity, transgender rights and doing away with the binary. For a character to be regularly reaffirming his homosexuality with generalizing references no longer feels progressive, even as I know it did when the book first came out.
The same goes for contraceptives. Brockmann is all about safe sex and I love it. Except sometimes her thing with safe sex is the next morning conversation of ‘whoops, we didn’t have safe sex’. This happens a few times over the course of the first four books and it gives me physical anxiety to hear about characters forgetting to put on a condom. Intelligent characters, with a lot to lose with an unplanned pregnancy.
My generation, with likely the environment where I grew up playing a large part, damn well knows better. We have access to the most advanced contraceptives in history, paid for by our government– and it well better stay that way– and the Internet is a boundless resource for determining the best way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and STD transmission. While I know that some romance novels are still hitting their head against this idea, the theme that safe sex is fundamental to good romance has become a very important and unavoidable one. This is another example of how progressiveness of the time has changed to no longer feel that way.
The biggest thing that I struggle with as a reader for these books, however, is the nature of terrorism. In Over the Edge, book three in the series, which was published in 2001, a plane is hijacked at gunpoint and we later learn of a bomb aboard.
I lived outside New York City on September 11, 2001. I lived in downtown Boston on April 15, 2013. My memories of dark skies over New Jersey that lasted for nearly a year, of a city on lockdown as the National Guard came into the streets in tanks, those are very real to me. I have stood in a thousand airport security lines and taken off my shoes, turned on my laptop, and emptied my water bottles and been happy to do so.
The world is changing. The world has fundamentally changed, and the question of how we as writers can properly represent that ever fluctuating society around us is not an easy one to answer.
Sure, there are some easy fixes– don’t reference Pokemon-Go or very fleeting and dramatic blips in time, like Janet Jackson’s nip slip. No, we don’t know which gorgeous male celebrity will be the next one to spew anti-semitic remarks in a DUI police stop, but maybe don’t make quite so many references to someone at the height of fame either. But these are just the details. These are just the moments and the small pieces, symptoms of a larger time period, not the cause.
I don’t know if there is any answer to these questions posed by this sort of challenge. Surely, books exist in the time they are written and it’s up to the reader to put aside their own biases and judgments in order to enjoy the story. Admittedly, it took me quite awhile to get over the various references to pagers, and far longer to figure out how to ignore the changing face of terrorism, but when I did I could give myself over to the story and the characters and all that makes the book great, both in and out of its time.
So what do you think? Should authors cater to the knowledge that times will change, or should we accept that truth and write for when we are? Does it throw you to read about things from before your own life, or are they simply more elements of fiction, another suspense of disbelief that makes a book an escape instead of a recounting? I’ll admit, I enjoy the brief look into a time that I lived as a child, even I as struggle to reconcile much of it an adult.
I don’t think there’s a clear cut answer. I think every writer and reader must grapple with their own obstacles when it comes to these kind of elements. I’m curious as to just how you, as reader or writer, rise to the challenge. ♥
If I have to refer to something pop cultury, I make sure to do it in generalities. Makes things a whole lot easier. If I do have to refer to something specific, say for example GPS, I simply connect it to something that everyone has, a smartphone. Everyone has a smartphone, so it’s very easy for someone to make that jump w/o getting confused.
Also, depending on the scene/storyline, I will get specific just to cover the particular plot. say like a western town in the late 19th century for example. I tailor the references to that particular era so as not to confuse either myself or the reader (ex. buckets of water and a large iron washtub).
I think where readers get confused is if they’re reading a story that takes place in a different time period and not realizing that certain things that really aren’t in use in the 22nd century were very much in use then. So when you’re reading a book of fiction, it really helps to know just a smattering of the background where the story takes place in order to understand and appreciate the story.
It’s a really smart idea! The more general, the less dating the information is, and I try to follow some of those same guidelines! But yes, of course we need some grounding elements to keep the story in the time and place. It’s all about healthy balance, right?
Thanks so much for stopping by!