Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Volume One of The Baroque Cycle
Neal Stephenson
ISBN: 0434008176 (Amazon link)

This is the third day in a row that I have sat down with the intimidating intention of reviewing Stephenson's monumental new novel; I say 'monumental' very deliberately as Quicksilver is about the same weight as a marble gravestone. At 927 pages, I think the last thing I read that rivalled it for sheer size was Mary Gentle's Ash, which makes me want to see her review of this novel, as Quicksilver is set close to her pet period of history. (By the way, am I the only one waiting for 1610 with bated breath?)

Neal Stephenson made his name with what I might as well call 'post-cyberpunk' novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Both were unashamedly SF, and aimed at the geekier end of the fan spectrum. [1] Personally I loved Snow Crash, though I am quite surprised how many people seem to read it seriously - surely it's a very obvious send-up of cyberpunk's aesthetics? Pizza delivery guy with a katana, called Hiro Protagonist, told in that prose style? Surely an obvious piss-take to anyone other than a trenchcoat and black lipstick wearing 14 year old. I'm not saying that to be critical, as I think Snow Crash is a terrific read, and a personal favourite, but let's face it, Stephenson was whooping with fun as he typed it, and wasn't aiming to win any critical attention from serious literature critics. (Before you say anything else, I'm with Ballard when it comes to literature.) This complete lack of literary pretension is probably just as well, as Stephenson has always had his detractors, who claim, justly, that he's a terrible author who cannot structure a novel to save his life, and is utterly incapable of writing a coherent ending, never mind a real, human character with a believable inner life. This is a viewpoint that I agree with, and yet I've found every one of his novels to be well worth reading, with the ideas quotient and the sheer manic energy of the story delivery off-setting any structural problems.

Cryptonomicon marked a departure from the established Stephenson novel - outwardly it seems to be a mainstream story, with no fantastical elements. One plot line concerned WWII, cryptography and GOLD!, while the other concerned modern day Dot-Commers and their search for a data equivalent to finance's Switzerland. And GOLD! Despite a marked improvement in writing quality, Cryptonomicon attracted as much discussion for its clunky ending as it did for its joyfully digressive info-dumps. Yes, I know, info-dumps are generally bad, but get a writer like Sterling talking about undersea cables, or Stephenson talking about operating systems, and some of us (okay, the geeks) will cheerfully lap it up [2]. The manic humour in Cryptonomicon probably put many mainstream readers off the scent, making it appear like a wacky adventure, a modern day Indiana Jones lark. Geekier readers however were quick to note to several arcane clues - yes, to most people Unix is arcane, put down the mail program - that all was not as it seemed. The theme of the book seemed to be how information in our hands actually is the agent that allows us to change our world; all that talk of cryptography and code was as much about perception of reality as it was about, well, cool cryptography and code. In particular, one character, Enoch Root, appeared to be much more interesting to SF readers. The mystery of Enoch Root, his accented latin, the golden punch cards, and that cigar box form the primary hook into Quicksilver for those who read beyond the gold hunt.

Stephenson has changed gears again with Quicksilver, from blatant neon-lit SF, to mainstream adventure, he's now written an ambitious novel which more closely resembles Gravity's Rainbow or Foucault's Pendulum. Quicksilver is described as volume one of The Baroque Cycle - volumes two and three are The Confusion and The System Of The World (what a loaded title), and both appear to be published relatively soon, in April and September 2004 respectively. Given the size of the first volume and that Stephenson is alleged [3] to have written the drafts for these novels using a quill pen, I can only imagine that he has denuded half the avian population of America, and destroyed his wrists forever. He seems well aware that he has written a monster novel, and I particularly enjoyed a little segment, presented in the style of a play, in which some of his characters exclaim over the size of Newton's Principia Mathematica: "Some sharp editor needs to step in and take that wretch in hand!" I'm certain Stephenson was mocking himself here, as Principia is positively terse compared to Quicksilver! (Slight correction: the original printings of Principia were typically three volumes, I was basing my comment on the modern, single-volume editions I'm familiar with.)

Yes, a familiarity with some of the founding texts of modern physics would be more than useful background for reading this novel; remember, his core audience is geeks. Personally, I loved the fact that central to the cast are Newton, Hooke - recently recognised after a very successful smear campaign by certain of his fellows - Leibniz, Pepys, Wilkins, Wren, Boyle, Huygens and plenty of others. The period, and in particular the formation of the Royal Society, is very obviously contrasted with the recent Dot-Com age, with the refining of modern science, particularly mathematics and physics, from the dross of accumulated esoteric belief systems like alchemy being central to the theme of Quicksilver, in which the titular element represents progress, a rising tide of history changing intellectualism crashing over Europe.

For my taste I thought he laid on both the anachronisms and the contrast with recent history a bit too thickly; the former were clumsily employed and served only to jolt my sense of disbelief, and the latter is a pet peeve of mine. Maybe it's because I'm European and have a better developed sense of the past than some of Stephenson's target audience, maybe it's because I trained as a physicist, a field very aware of its origins, instead of training in the infantile field of computer science [4], but for some of Cryptonomicon and much of Quicksilver I was thinking, "Argh! Christ! Of course this idea seems to lead to the invention of a calculating machine - this little piece of history is indeed where that idea was born, it reminds you of where we are now as where we are now is built upon insights by these people!" That said, mostly the parallels work well, and I particularly enjoyed the characterisations of these figures, who, oddly, are the most lively and interesting of Stephenson's cast.

For the rest of the cast we have, well, most of the royal houses of Europe! Again, a familiarity with the history of the period would be more than useful, in particular a knowledge of the kings of England, France and Holland, and their major courtiers would be useful. Luckily for me, I grew up in a part of the world where even kids more interested in science than history learn a lot about William of Orange... I think Stephenson's research isn't worn as well here as for much of the book, in particularly the latter half, he seems to recite a lot of historical fact, but doesn't manage to imbue it with any sense of importance or drama. Events just ... happen, off-stage, and to someone else. Few of the characters, with some obvious exceptions (spoilers prevent discussion), seem to have a personal investment on who sits on the throne for example, which is particularly odd as I have already noted above, some of the bad feeling remains to this day! However, the sheer spectacle of the accompanying wars, political intrigue and financial ploys make up for much of this clumsier info-dumping.

So, Stephenson is playing with the history of modern Europe, and the formation of the modern scientific age. What sort of plot does he structure around this? Does he resolve the questions around Enoch? Er, a disjointed, awkward, plot and no, a few more hints, but Enoch remains a central pivot to the plot, but one usually noticed in the wings of the action, and rarely centre stage. In the limelight instead Stephenson places three ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon: Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan, later a Natural Philosopher and courtier; Jack Half-Cock Shaftoe, Vagabond; and Eliza, whom Jack rescues from a Turkish harem, but who ends up ensconced in the French court playing men, politics and infant financial markets with aplomb.

Typical of Stephenson's clumsy plotting is the fact that Quicksilver opens in 1713, with Enoch Root trying to persuade an elderly Daniel to return to England from America to help reconcile the feud between Newton and Leibniz. (By the way, the MIT jokes here nearly put me off the whole thing. YMMV.) Persuaded, Daniel boards a ship home, has a wonderful encounter with Blackbeard, and, uh, ceases to have any relevance to the rest of the book. This start to the book achieves only two things, well, three if you throw in an excuse for some pirate action. One, it permits Daniel to muse on his early life, and two, it utterly ruins an suspense the otherwise surprisingly wonderful ending might have had. (Remember, Stephenson can't do endings. I suppose thought, this is just a cliff-hanger chapter break and doesn't really count.)

The novel then starts again, back around 1660 as we follow a young Daniel to Trinity, where he is apprentice, friend, and nursemaid to Newton much as his descendant Lawrence will be to Turing in Cryptonomicon. Brought up by a deeply religious, and hence deeply political, father, Daniel is groomed to be a pastor to the coming apocalypse - sadly, he's much more interested in Natural Philosophy, and besides, he can't be a favourite of the Lord's: "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 Leibnitz".

Daniel's journey from idealistic young Puritan, to Natural Philosopher, to courtier is tremendous, and along the way he undergoes his own refining, continuing the alchemical theme - for example, The Great Fire of London provides a wonderful set piece which has a tremendous effect on Daniel's life. This thread of Quicksilver is by the far the strongest in my opinion, but I as less taken with the middle section, bridging Daniel's early academic and later courtly life.

In the middle book we instead buckle our swashes and follow Half-Cocked Jack, a Vagabond among Vagabonds, as he daringly, and without much in the way of forward planning, rescues the beautiful, intelligent and terribly written Eliza from a Turkish harem in the midst of a war. From here we have a superbly rousing adventure story, as the two stumble across most of Europe, making friends and influencing people. Jack has a gift for trouble and tends to listen too often to his Imp of the Perverse, while the beautiful Eliza discovers an aptitude for the financial markets, again providing excuses for both colourful set-pieces (Jack) and entertaining info-dumping digressions (Eliza). Sadly, their great love affair is doomed, not least as Jack's syphilis starts manifesting to great comic effect, and eventually they part ways, with Eliza coming back into the main plotline via her acquaintance with The Doctor, who turns out to be none other than Leibnitz. Enjoyable as Jack's spectacular outings are, Eliza's tale is much more interesting, and she soon becomes a key figure in the complex courtly politics in France, playing an important role as an agent in key events, which naturally dovetails in with another key theme - cryptography. If you'll excuse a small spoiler, on the downside, I'm still not quite sure why Stephenson build up the Jack and Eliza relationship and then choose to sever it in quite so abrupt a manner; to me it seemed like the characters suddenly became obvious puppets of the author, and acted against their apparent natures. I could almost see the plotlines suddenly turn 90 degrees, and it felt very clumsy.

I'm daunted by how little of the plot the above paragraphs actually cover, but don't think there's even any point in trying to describe quite how dense and convoluted Quicksilver is. I think the digressions and endless details are actually what make Stephenson's work so charming to read, but I really wish that an editor had stepped in more often. Some of his wordplay is wonderful, but at other times his writing falters, either losing any ability to make the characters seem like flesh and blood, though God knows how many other humours and fluids leak out of them, or losing the subtle touch that makes the difference between word play and unsubtle, anachronistic joking. For example, the splendidly written Leibniz, a man for whom the impersonal and rather distant characterisation Stephenson prefers actually seems perfect, gets involved in a scheme to make silver mining more efficient, and as such, decides to have Eliza shill for him in front of some venture capitalists. Unfortunately Eliza takes her role of Doubting Thomas too seriously, and starts to pose difficult questions:
"How easy would it be to slip a sabot off one's foot and 'accidentally' let it fall into the gears--" "Err, ... maybe I'll post guards to prevent any such sabotage." It might be a matter of personal taste, but I wish Stephenson would trust us to get the joke without hitting us over the head with the punch-line. However, that little excerpt is positively sophisticated compared to the cracks about 'canal rage' in Venice...

I was completely over-awed by this novel - it's big, brash, clumsily structured, has THEME running through it like letters through a stick of rock, has few characters with believable personas, drops terrible anachronistic clangers, lectures the reader on every topic imaginable and has a fascination with the runnier side of nature. I loved it. Every single page. Seriously. The writing kept jarring me, the structure annoyed me, Qwghlm is still ridiculously out of place, but there is so much else worth reading in here that at times I doubted Stephenson had written it alone! For every flaw there is a moment of genius (in particular I loved Eliza's thread playing games with how Eliza's thread was being told). For every awful piece of description, there will be a riveting page on a small, almost forgotten facet of history, or natural history, or perhaps a digression into the nature of coinage; there's always a new treasure overleaf, and the sheer joy Stephenson shows for how complicated the world really is, and how remarkable it is that we can derive any systematic description for it, easily offsets any pedestrian writing.

I do have one big unanswered question though: this book, and its previous, er, sequel, are obsessed with cryptography, with hidden messages. Cyphers play a major role in the narrative of Quicksilver, and there is a lot of political by-play in which the real moves are hidden behind apparent events, and yet I wasn't able to discern able hidden messages in Quicksilver - beyond the relatively simple hints about Enoch, and the mercurial theme. Maybe I missed it, maybe there are come cunning passages that we are told are cyphered which do contain something extra - that would transform this book into something much rarer and more interesting, which would be fitting as alchemical transformation is also a key theme. Or maybe this is just a particularly good novel, and I'm expecting too much. As Stephenson has Leibnitz say, "I love reading novels. You can understand them without thinking too much."

Judge the prose for yourself; there is a sample chapter here, but trust me, reading this excerpt is to reading the whole novel as drinking a mere cupful of water is to standing under Niagra falls.

[1] I'm using 'geek' in the modern, non-pejorative sense by the way - it's a title that has been reclaimed to more or less replace 'hacker'. Jargon pedants will quibble but I am allowed to use my own preferred definition as I am, by popular acclaim, a geek. (I might quibble over this if I wasn't sitting here writing SF book reviews using vi.)

[2] Anyone who has ever used a computer, particularly those of you who have only ever used Windows at home, must read Stephenson's wonderful essay In The Beginning Was The Command Line.

[3] I don't know for sure as Stephenson has a sensible policy of concentrating on his writing, and doesn't generate that much publicity material on his website. Oops, what am I saying, naturally with the release of this novel www.nealstephenson.com is all changed.

[4] Before anyone is offended, I am saying that the field is young, not that the content of any given academic course in the field is not challenging. That said, I did a joint degree with computer science but choose to stick with physics for my Ph.D. Read into that what you will about my personal biases, then wonder why I'm working as an analyst programmer!

Posted: Mon - October 27, 2003 at 12:39 AM