What Would Stieg Larsson Have Made of WikiLeaks?

Julian Assange is a character straight out of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

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Julian Assange, the mastermind behind the WikiLeaks circus, awaits likely extradition by a British court to Sweden for sexual assault charges. The Assange saga—convoluted sex charges, digital exposure of the world's most powerful government, and an assured melodrama in an overheated wood-paneled courtroom in Stockholm—is almost an act of plagiarism of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson by reality.

It is certainly hard not to see in his unfolding real-world story about sex and digital skullduggery echoes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Larsson grabbed our imaginations by exposing marginal hackers and digital practices then at the edge of our awareness. Seven years later, it can seem as if Larsson's menagerie of flawed protagonists and appealing villains has actually sprung to life, as if cut from the molten plastic of his imagination by a 3D printer. One can't help but wonder, then, what Larsson, felled by a heart attack at 50 in 2004, would have made of Assange and WikiLeaks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on WikiLeaks.]

Would Larsson have seen Assange as a digital version of his Mikael Blomkvist, a flawed but heroic journalist tormented by a legal system manipulated by powerful, unseen forces? Or would he have recognized in Assange's autocratic management of WikiLeaks the fatal tendency of anarchy to gravitate toward despotism, and wiki movements to fall prey to personality cults?

Had he lived, Larsson, shy though he was, likely would have been coaxed into the digital limelight to chronicle not just WikiLeaks, but also the flash mobs in London, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movements. They would have stirred his socialist sympathies, which would have been conflicted by his realist commitment to outcomes.

Of course, none of these things can happen. Larsson's only legacy is the signature protagonist of our times. Perhaps no phenomenon is fully understood—not the rationalism of the professional Victorian criminalist, not Cold War spycraft—until it incarnates as an immortal character. The "black hat" hacker as artist and adventurer, as investigator, as avenger, as spy, certainly found its avatar in Larsson's central character, Lisbeth Salander.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street]

Though Larsson died without completing his planned 10-book series centered on Salander, his trilogy and the Swedish and American movies they inspired are already such an indelible part of world culture that it is likely that Salander will live forever, much like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

In the construction of this character, there is no mistaking Larsson's flattery of the black hat hacker. No one, after all, wants to be thought of a petty burglar or vandal. The black hat, in Larsson's world, rises above these bourgeois categories through sheer cleverness as an avenger of the disenfranchised against predatory elites. Larsson's Salander, in fact, tells us a great deal about the self-image of black hats, as well as the supporters of Anonymous, sipping their eclectic brew of anarchism, libertarianism, and Marxism.

Salander is a genius who fiddles with Fermat's Last Theorem in her spare time. She has been mauled—literally raped—by authority figures engaged in secret conspiracies. She is a slip of a girl, antisocial, eye shadow like war paint on her pale face, spiked hair stiffened into a black saw, squeaky black leather outfits, and alternating moods of aggression (not constrained by legal concepts) and sensuality (not constrained by details like gender). It's as if the screaming, hammer-hurling woman from Apple's 1984 Super Bowl ad had been updated for the new century—exploding not one but a million computer screens to shower hordes of shaven-head proles with LCD shards. The female Thor is doing it again, only now in quiet clicks in front of a laptop. She won't stop until Big Brother is exposed, his means of control, smashed.

[See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.]

So Salander was Assange before WikiLeaks, Anonymous before the Guy Fawkes mask.

It is, ultimately, this Manichean worldview of Larsson's that fails to carry forward. There are just far too few neo-Nazis and homicidal bureaucrats to go around. The real cabals are in Moscow and Beijing, the real villains in Damascus, Tehran, Pyongyang. And WikiLeaks? It was its own scandal, with its reckless exposure of candid diplomatic discussions and its unconscionable listing of critical infrastructure for terrorists.

So perhaps Larsson's final gift is to show us how Assange can look in the mirror and see a genius and superhero, while much of the world just sees a narcissistic egomaniac.

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