Spirits in the Wires: Mid-book Thoughts

I’m in the midst of reading Charles de Lint’s Spirits in the Wires, and what’s a really, really cool concept is choking me in the specifics. The book was published in 2003, the year I graduated high school. I don’t see any reference to dates that would place the novel’s setting as significantly before that, so my brain completely skipped the track when I saw the following statement:

I give the machine a quick look-over. It’s a 386–still running Windows 3.1, Geordie tells me–but it has a PCMCIA modem card so that I can get on the Internet and the processor should be plenty fast enough for what I need it to do. All I want to do is send some e-mail.

Even pushing the book back to 2000 doesn’t work here. Sticking with Windows, Windows 95/98 was the standard for non-power users, or–and don’t run screaming–Windows ME. Broadband was already fairly wide-spread. People wouldn’t have considered a 386 running Windows 3.1 “plenty fast enough”.

Even the hacker in the book is using a dial-up connection as standard fare, with no hint that it’s for security/anonymity reasons. I was no hacker myself, but I had a fly-ass network setup from 2000-2003. That was back when home wireless networks weren’t worth shit, by the way–good luck getting all your systems on at the same time, and have fun with frequent router reboots and connections that would “stick” in Windows, no matter how many times you “ipconfig /reset”. Desktop wireless cards cost more than a hospital bill for surgery, and were so not worth it any-damn-way.

Worse, almost any time de Lint describes something done on a computer, he “shows” it in a physical way that immediately gives away what software was used:

Using his mouse, he brought the arrow on his screen up to the menu bar, clicked on “View,” then on “Source.”

“See?” he said. “There’s no code.”

Ah, Internet Explorer. The browser for the l33t hacker.

I don’t like that transparency, good writing technique though it may be. De Lint did his research–that is, in fact, how you look at the jacked-up IE-ified HTML source code for a page–but it’s like he took too-careful notes on the physical process. That said, he nailed the thought processes of troubleshooting, though, so the scene in its entirety is fine.

Part of me feel like it’s a petty and silly thing to be hung up on–after all, I can easily laugh at computers on television–but this book is about computers. It’s about a seamless world of spirits and computers, but movement-by-movement descriptions of actions that separate a “mouse” from its “arrow” don’t portray fluency.

If your audience isn’t fluent, though, how much can you gloss over? For instance, in writing Lina stories, I feel like I need to ham up the body switching a bit to keep it clear what’s happening, even though Lina would barely need to spare a thought to make it happen.

Is that the same case in Spirits? Would getting the source code seem like magic if de Lint didn’t detail it out?


  • Jonas

    Writing in such an overly descriptive way is contrary to the nature of the medium, I think. If the writer cannot use the imagination (both the reader’s and the writer’s) to convey information, he or she should perhaps be making a movie, or a video tutorial.

    That’s what I think, anyway. I can’t abide books that keep telling me what things look like instead of what they mean or how they feel.

    • Melissa

      Jonas: I’m not sure I agree completely–I think stories need a mix of both. Without some description of the physical setting, characters, and environment, a story can end up just a plot full of nondescript characters in nondescript locations.

      Stories should, of course, still say how things feel and (at the author’s discretion) what they mean. 🙂

      • Jonas

        Oh, description is fine, just not too much of it. It’s a very common problem in science fiction, I find. People are so desperate to explain the technology that they forget they’re writing a story.

  • MaryAnn Harris


    Just a quick response about Spirits in the Wires and timeline of technology. The book would’ve been written at least two years prior to being published, hence the dated tech. Hope this helps you forgive my hubby. Most people wouldn’t be award ot this big lag in time.



    • Melissa

      MaryAnn: Yeah, I figured there could be a year or more lag in the publishing cycle, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take him to write a novel of that scale. (He seems very prolific, but this is the first book I’ve read by him.)

      If the book was written between 1997-99, that would explain the tech lag pretty well. Windows 95 was adopted quickly by consumers, and Windows 98 a bit more slowly, but Windows 3.1 would still be recognizable and passable (although old, as Christy points out in the book) to users in ’98. By late 2001 (when Pentium III processors were becoming affordable, I think), XP was out, and Windows 3.1 was just a nightmare in the shadowy recesses of people’s minds.

      Thanks for stopping by and chiming in! I totally wasn’t expecting a visit from the author’s wife. 😀