25. Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

16 Sep


Reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver I found myself standing by my fridge, glass in hand jammed under the ice-maker, gigantic tome in the other hand, still reading. The book was so gripping and fast-moving, it was actually impossible to put down. I don’t think I’d even realized I’d stood up.

And then I read 628 pages and decided not to finish it, so clearly this will be a tale of extremes.

Neal Stephenson books are thrillers, but they’re intellectual thrillers. Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s sometimes called historical fiction, since it’s set in the mid-1600s through early 1700s, but is in fact science fiction, about science in its infancy, when it was still called natural philosophy and was entangled with alchemy. Issac Newton, Leibniz and Spinoza are characters. The book’s breakneck pace is even more impressive considering that it’s stuffed with historically accurate politics, city geographies (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Colonial Boston) and war histories, and makes a genuine stab at elucidating various key moments in the development of mathematics.

The first section concerns a young natural philosopher named Daniel Waterhouse, the son of a Puritan revolutionary in London, as he leaves his father’s sphere of influence (but never entirely) and immerses himself in matters of science. Which naturally become political as well. The mixture of real, recognizable science we use today and total quackery is  delightful, and of course must have been how it was.  A man invents a thermometer on one day and then the next tries to make a dead man’s head produce a universal language. Others try to figure out how our hearts circulate blood by vivisecting a dog, which is depressing even to men of science. A man struggles to create a standardized unit of measure that can be replicated anywhere in the world. (I guess I’d imagined rulers traveling on pack-mules, but this way makes more sense…). It’s immensely pleasurable to see our daily technologies being invented—I feel like kids should read this for school, and then discuss truth vs. Stephenson. As a word geek, I was also in ecstasy over all the etymologies. “Cabal” was once an acronym; realize comes from real, the Spanish currency.

But then there’s the strange conceit that Quicksilver is three books in one volume. So about two-thirds through, Stephenson drops Waterhouse, Newton, etc., for two other characters, a vagabond named Half-Cocked Jack and his sort-of-girlfriend Eliza, a young woman from some made-up islands called Qwyghlm. Jack rescues Eliza from a Turkish whorehouse, and then their adventures speed up to the point of ridiculousness (though some of the action set-pieces are jaw-dropping). Neither character feels realistic in the slightest. There are excruciating passages in verse. Jack has syphylis and is losing his mind, resulting in boring surreal action. Eliza pursues a hokey and bizarre revenge plot against the French aristocrat who sold her into slavery, known for his love of eating extremely rotten fish. (If this is a real detail, it’s not convincing.)

Part of my problem with it, probably, is the difficulty of pulling off a happy-whore character, which Eliza is, to some extent. Stephenson handles it with sensitivity, giving her some power, and a lot of circumstantial outs. But…an incredibly beautiful young woman sold into slavery as a child gives me the rape-horrors; it’s hard to read such a character in the dashing-swashbuckling spirit she’s intended in.

I can sort of understand how Stephenson came up with the radical shift of the second book, since he was going for baroque, but it doesn’t work. And he’s so very, very good at so many things, I can’t understand why he doesn’t see it himself. How could the writer of book one, which had emotions, characters and high stakes, jump into the burlesque and not feel impoverished?

I dunno. Someone tell me. Should I keep going?


2 Responses to “25. Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson”

  1. robmoore October 15, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    I’m a big fan of the Baroque Cycle, so I say “Yes.” I’ve read all three books several times. To address a couple of your concerns, Jack’s situation changes significantly early in “the Confusion” and the surreal episodes become less frequent. Eliza never really gets entirely likeable, but her character deepens as the books go on and she ages and grows up (in both senses of the word). And finally, I really like the way Stephenson brings it all together in “System of the World,” as all the characters are finally pulled into the same sphere for the conclusion (he finally sticks the landing, so to speak; his weakness has tended to be endings, but I unequivocably love the ending of the Baroque Cycle).

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova October 15, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

      Thank you for commenting! If I get a few more votes in favor, I’ll finish it. I truly would like to see all the characters being pulled into the same sphere…. that sounds like an accomplishment.

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