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B+ : digressive, over-full, following several very different stories
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The complete review's Review:
"I love reading novels", Neal Stephenson has the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz exclaim about midway through Quicksilver, adding: "You can understand them without thinking too much." He also explains why he prefers such fantasies to (others') philosophising:
"(F)ollowing another philosopher's meditations is like stumbling through a mine dug by others -- hard work in a cold dark place, and painful if you want to zig where they decided to zag. But this --" holding up the book "-- you can read without stopping."In many respects Quicksilver is like these entertainments Stephenson's fictional Leibniz enjoys: action- and adventure-packed, with colourful characters and exotic locales galore. But there's also philosophy to it (generally easily woven into the fabric of the narrative, but prominent nonetheless), and more, and this -- as well as the sheer heft and the many competing storylines -- forces something of a halting progression on readers. And in this halting progression it is also a book that zags where readers might prefer to zig, Stephenson unwilling to unfold it in the logical (or chronological) order that might facilitate an easier (one might even say: more logical-philosophical) approach to what is -- besides a good adventure yarn -- a text much concerned with knowledge and the acquisition and growth thereof.
Stephenson situates the beginning of Quicksilver with great (and arguably ridiculously exaggerated) precision: each chapter heading gives the location and/or date when the action described therein occurs, the first, on Boston Common, takes place: "October 12, 1713, 10:33:52 A.M." -- but after that it's much more free-wheeling. The second chapter advances the story by retreating -- it takes place simply in "1655" -- and back and forth it goes, zigging and zagging, at least for Book One of Quicksilver.
Part of Book One describes the events of the fall of 1713. Enoch Root has travelled to Boston to find Daniel Waterhouse, and deliver a message to get Daniel to set out for England. The story alternates between what happens in Boston (and on the ship bound -- eventually -- east) and chapters describing Daniel's earlier life in England, from his youth (he was born 1646) through 1673, as he finds his purpose in life.
Daniel is the youngest child of Drake Waterhouse -- a devoutly religious man, a successful trader, and a very vocal and active political agitator. Daniel doesn't fit ideally in this god-fearing family, more attracted to the Natural Philosophy (i.e. science) of the day. John Wilkins -- author of the original Cryptonomicon, seeker of a universal Philosophical Language and much else -- is an early mentor of sorts, and Daniel comes to spend most of his time in the company of scientists and philosophers, as well as later being active in the newly founded Royal Society (of which he eventually becomes Secretary). He studies at Cambridge, rooming with Isaac Newton, and keeps active in all sorts of scientific work under Robert Hooke and others. Still, he generally at best plays second fiddle:
It was funny in a painful way. God had given him the desire to be a great Natural Philosopher -- then put him on earth in the midst of Newton, Hooke, and Leibniz.This triumvirate of intellectual giants plays a significant role in the novel -- from the dispute about who deserves credit for the invention of Calculus to the political schemings of all three (as well as assorted other more unscientific doings, such as Newton's mysterious alchemical hobbies).
Stephenson does a fine job of describing these tumultuous times of Daniel's youth and early manhood, from the plague years to burning London to the political upheavals and the religious strife of the day. Oddly, only the science is a bit forced: there's fun description of many of the advancements, and especially of the Hooke-led experiments, but it's presented almost as a list of attempts and accomplishments, without adequate sense of what lay behind it -- incredible and fascinating stuff, admittedly, but without nearly enough exposition to convey to the reader how most of it came about.
The times -- the late 17th century -- were a mess of politics and religion, and Daniel is, if not squarely in the middle of it all, at least close to many who are. He makes a decent central figure -- not quite in the know, but often near the action.
Of course, Book One also deals with events in 1713, suggesting (but not revealing) some of what went on in the four decades between the last descriptions of Daniel's English years and how he wound up running a proto-MIT institution near Boston. It allows Stephenson to contrast the New World with the Old (and to indulge in some seafaring adventure -- he seems to like that). There are some nice bits here -- but the focus is certainly on the mysterious reasons why Daniel has been called back to Europe and on events back East.
With the end of Book One, one third of the way through this volume, comes no immediate answer to either what happened to Daniel between 1673 and 1713 or to why he is needed in Europe. Indeed, Daniel resurfaces only some three hundred pages later, in Book Three -- which begins in 1685. Stephenson there suggests:
Much had happened in the previous twelve years, but nothing was really different. Daniel's world had been like a piece of caoutchouc that stretched but did not rupture, and never changed its true shape.It's an odd admission from an author who had been so prolix previously -- but the times were perhaps quieter, events less eventful. To bridge the sections Stephenson offers Book Two -- near three hundred pages dealing with completely different characters and matters (with only a handful of cameos by characters familiar from Book One.)
Book Two centres on Vagabond Jack Shaftoe, and then Eliza, whom he saves from a harem after the defeat of the Turks in Vienna in 1683. Shaftoe is an adventurer who frequently finds himself:
presented with the opportunity to be stupid in some way that was much more interesting than being shrewd would've been.Eliza was kidnapped from Qwghlm as a child, and vows revenge on the one responsible, a man with a nauseating but very distinctive appetite that makes him hard to miss, and who appears as a shadowy figure several times in the course of the book. She's a bright young woman: eventually she and Jack hook up with Leibniz, and Eliza continues to correspond with the diplomat, businessman, and all-around genius when they go their separate ways. She is impressed by Leibniz's ambition (echoing John Wilkins'):
"To translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers -- and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy -- whatever that means."Smart, coy, and virginal (for a while, anyway) but sexually very knowledgeable Eliza and painfully stunted vagabond Jack (who is not quite the man he appears to be) make for an interesting pair, and Book Two is an enjoyable adventure yarn. From the defeat of the Turks in Vienna through German territories to Amsterdam and Paris they (together and apart) have quite a few adventures. Leibniz and a few others connect the narrative to Book One, but only barely: it reads largely like a separate story entirely.
Eliza has a gift for business, while Jack seems only to have a gift for getting himself into trouble, but they also come to feel quite deeply for each other -- not that that works out too well (at least for the time being). A wanted man (ever more wanted -- and notorious --, as events proceed), Jack tends to be on the run, and his story is mainly one of narrow escapes (colourfully described). Eliza, meanwhile, is more patient in her plans, and makes herself useful to some important people.
Much of this is good fun, but much of it is simply ... much -- Baroque adventure on an admittedly grand scale, but much of it appearing to be a bit forced, the author inventing adventure for the mere sake of adventure.
At times the narrative is also unevenly paced. Jack explains why he can't relate some events:
"It's how my mind works. As in a play, where only the most dramatic parts of the story are shown to the audience, and the tedious bits assumed to happen offstage."This seems to be Stephenson's theory too, but he doesn't always follow through (there are a few bits that certainly can't be counted as among "the most dramatic") -- and the lacunae, these supposedly uneventful and hence ignorable gaps, are sometimes too large or prominent not to be missed (and Stephenson simply doesn't always know how to bridge them, making the fault all the more obvious).
Book Three returns to Daniel -- while, fortunately, also not completely forgetting about Eliza (Jack, however, rows off into the distance -- though brother Bob takes at least part of his place). Politics (and escapes and captures) again dominate (over science and philosophy), and Eliza moves up (a bit) in the world, keeping some fancy company as well as shacking up -- though purely platonically -- with another of the brilliant minds of the age, Christiaan Huygens.
Much is also related in coded letters from Eliza to Leibniz -- whereby Eliza notes:
Since you employ the Wilkins cypher, which uses five plaintext letters to encrypt one letter of the actual message, I must write five words of drivel to encypher one word of pith, and so you may count on seeing lengthy descriptions of clothing, etiquette, and other tedious detail in future letters.(The ratio of drivel to pith isn't nearly as bad in Stephenson's text, but one can't but help but occasionally wonder whether this massive work isn't also written in a similar cypher .....)
There's some fun with the codes and cyphers and communication -- and always the question of who knows what (letters tend to go through many hands -- and past many prying eyes, though it's sometimes an open question as to who can decipher what). There's a striving for clarity -- the ambition of most of the scientists, the alchemists, and even some of the politicians (though hardly all of them) -- but it's not reached by the end of Quicksilver. The book tends towards convolution rather than resolution, with some changed circumstances towards the end (in 1689) but little finality -- Daniel is (one hopes) soon off to Massachusetts, Eliza has complicated her life quite a bit -- and Jack is presumably still floating somewhere out there in the distance. There is still an enormous gap between the end (1689) and where the book began, with a glimpse of events in 1713.
Quicksilver is fairly consistently entertaining and engaging -- though it's a novel that ranges widely (and wildly). The science isn't overwhelming -- it is carefully dosed and fairly clearly explained (and worked into the stories) -- but the politics and history can cause some confusion. Densely populated, with many historical cameo-appearances, Quicksilver rushes through late-17th century Europe, covering what seems like most of the many political upheavals and conflicts of those years.
Newton and Leibniz are quite well positioned as adversaries, though one assumes that here it is merely the stage being set for a conflict that will grow in the next two volumes. They are among the more successfully drawn figures; Stephenson is good at describing events (especially of the more dramatic sort) but less so in making his characters distinctive and alive (the focus on (literally) flesh and blood -- there's a lot of bleeding and flesh-injuring in this book -- perhaps preventing the characters from really becoming (figuratively) flesh-and-blood figures). Wispy Newton might not be how one generally imagines the genius, but Stephenson's portrayal is at least a solid, three-dimensional one (though even he backs off, leaving Newton long in the background). Eliza, Jack, and Daniel also are fairly well-drawn -- but the constant shifts of the narrative (and the competition from so many other players on the various scenes) mean there's no dominant figure to identify with.
Occasionally, Stephenson tries too hard to show off with historical colour and detail, as in an exchange set in 1684, where Leibniz has just showed off some machinery that can easily replace human labour:
"And how do these miners feel about being replaced by machines, Doctor ?"Quicksilver is full of ahead-of-their-times ideas, but occasionally -- as, most obviously, here -- Stephenson lays it on too thick. Sabotage is an Industrial Revolution notion (and the OED finds its first English usage only in the twentieth century), and though the idea is almost cleverly spun into the narrative (the French footwear in question, sabots, are mentioned earlier) Stephenson doesn't have the self-control to use it to best effect, gumming up the works instead by showing no restraint. (The passage might have worked if he could have kept himself from using the word sabotage -- leaving the exchange a teasing, presaging reference to the term, but this is one of the few areas in his writing where he still lacks confidence (in himself or in his reader) and so opts for the easy and obvious -- and artless.)
(Other modern echoes -- a Venetian precursor of road rage (gondoliers suffering from "Canal rage") and similar transpositions of modern expressions or notions -- also tend to be more annoying than amusing.)
Stephenson also occasionally (but very jarringly) gets carried away by hyperbole -- a literary device which he continues to have no feel for: there's "a table that had the size and weight of a medieval drawbridge", or a grandfather clock with a "cannonball-sized pendulum, which made the entire house lean from one side to the other like a drunk out for a brisk walk." Given that most of the novel is written without resorting to such extravagance the few times he succumbs it stands out particularly irritatingly.
There's a wealth of information in the book (about everything, from the most diverse scientific titbits to politics and religion), and while some of it can be a bit much there are also some wonderful observations, often left nicely incidental -- Daniel opening the windows in a house at which rocks are being thrown:
to preserve the glazing. Then they all retreated to the center of the room and perched up on the bed and watched the stones come in.Or a house in which lead is stored, sinking into the mud twice as fast as the houses next to it:
because of the weight of all that lead. The neighbors are beginning to complain. He is taking the whole neighborhood down !History is well-used in the novel, and fine (and very fantastic) adventures spun around it. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, but it's also entertaining stuff. Stephenson does have a tendency to prefer the outlandish to the realistic (nowhere more than in the sex scenes, which include an astonishing array of very creative (and not at all straightforward) forms of gratification). Even so, the book does have some flat spots -- in the letters, especially. But Stephenson displays impressive invention throughout the book.
Quicksilver feels incomplete -- as, presumably it well should, being only the first third of a much larger work. It is a good read and offers good stories -- and considerable promise --, but is not entirely satisfying, left as is. But it's certainly fine enough that we'll be glad to wade through another thousand pages, twice over, in the volumes to follow.
(Note that Quicksilver is a prequel of sorts to Stephenson's Cryptonomicon: that book's Lawrence and Randy Waterhouse, and Bobby and Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, are, of course, the descendants of the characters from Quicksilver. Familiarity with one book is, however, not required to enjoy the other.)
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American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.
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