Quicksilver is a book by Neal Stephenson of Snow Crash
fame. In a sense, though, it is actually three books, as it runs well
over 900 pages and is divided up into three more or less freestanding
sections, each of which would make a decent-sized book on its own. And
in yet a third sense, it is one-third of a book, as it is the first volume
in Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," which runs in the neighborhood of 3000
pages. It took me seven plane rides, two days stuck in Long Beach without
a car and two nights in a hotel to finish this thing.
But Roger Ebert contends that no good movie can be too long and no bad
movie can be too short, and that's pretty much how I felt about
Quicksilver — since I was enjoying it, I didn't mind at
all that it went on and on and on. I suspect I enjoyed it more than
Stephenson's usual audience of science fiction readers did; while y'all
were hanging out on the Slashdot and lining up to see
of the Sith and what have you, I was reading 19th
century travelogues and playing Europa Universalis
II and basically being a history geek. I am not a fan of the science
fiction genre. But Quicksilver is a
different sort of science fiction: it is fiction about science, specifically
about the decades in the 17th century when science became a discipline
distinct from philosophy and mysticism. The main characters, at least of
the first novel-sized section, include people like Isaac Newton, Robert
Hooke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christiaan Huygens. This is much
more up my alley than is the year 2347, a world abound with nuclear alacrity,
when suddenly Frank enters with a smile.
That said, this is far from a history book. Yes, it's been well-researched.
Yes, Stephenson's prose attempts to convey a bit of the flavor of the 17th
century (though he can't resist the recurring joke of dressing up 21st-century
phrasings in 17th-century clothing). But still, this is Neal Stephenson we're
talking about. This means we get a parade of 17th-century versions of the
three characters Stephenson knows how to write: the nerd, the badass, and
the badass nerd. The main character of the first book of Quicksilver,
nerdy Daniel Waterhouse, is not much different from either of the Waterhouses in
Cryptonomicon, nor from Hackworth in The Diamond Age, nor, for
that matter, from Casimir Radon in The Big U. His character arc, like
theirs, is mainly a matter of growing from a nerd into a slightly badass nerd.
The main character of the second book of Quicksilver, badass vagabond
Jack Shaftoe, rides a horse instead of a skateboard but otherwise might as well
be Y.T. from Snow Crash. For established badasses, we have William of
Orange and Louis XIV, written pretty much exactly like Snow Crash's
Uncle Enzo. And the character who takes over the entire volume about midway
through, Eliza, is a badass nerd like Zodiac's Sangamon Taylor or Snow
Crash's Hiro Protagonist: like them, she both can handle herself in a tight
situation and knows her stuff, effortlessly picking up cryptography and
economics. (The latter, as we are repeatedly reminded, being the domain of
the god Mercury, who lends his name to a metal which is also called quicksilver...
wheels within wheels, man.)
Note that above I have listed certain male characters as interchangeable with
female ones and vice versa; Neal Stephenson still doesn't get girls. In a
1½-star review of the movie Stealth, Roger Ebert notes that
"At one point Gannon visits Wade's cabin, where she has laundry hanging on the
line, and is nearly struck by a wet brassiere. 'Pardon my C-cup,' she says, a
line I doubt any human female would use in such a situation." Stephenson
similarly has Eliza repeatedly refer to her menstrual cycle and such to cover
for his inability to write a character who seems psychologically female.
Bendis in this regard — he's perfect happy giving characters female
genitals, but they still think and act like guys.
Of course, you don't read Stephenson looking for a character study. If you
want to know what the 17th-century scientists mentioned above were like, read
some biographies; here the Royal Society might as well be
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And while Jack
and Eliza may have less artificial names than Hiro Protagonist, they're
no less artificial as characters, with unrealistic dialogue and highly
improbable adventures. In case we don't get what Stephenson's aiming for
here, he actually spells it out with repeated discussions of the picaresque
novel, a wildly popular literary phenomenon of the time. Stephenson loves
his meta: he peppers his 927-page opus with commentary about long-windedness
in narrative, pairs long passages describing clothing with plot points about
codes hidden in long passages describing clothing, and so forth. (There were
also no small number of extratextual meta moments given that I was reading
this book with its frequent mentions of The Stone on a trip to get my
kidney ailments straightened out.) And, yes, postmodernism gets wearisome
quickly. But I still like it more than conventional science fiction.
Because, as I have noted in various articles over the past few months,
I can't get past how poorly written most genre fiction is — and
Quicksilver, for all its faults, is entertainingly written.
Sure, it's occasionally sophomoric, and almost never more than junioric.
And yes, Stephenson's big chaotic action scenes are still pretty turbid.
But all in all, the book's still fun; I went to bed looking forward to
reading more in the morning. I will probably read the other two volumes
at some point. But, uh, right now I could use a break.
Return to the Calendar page!