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 Revenge 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. He's like Brian 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!