Tuesday, February 28, 2006

QuickSilver by Neal Stephenson


Quiksilver is the first of 3 tomes in the Baroque Cycle. I was a fan of Cryptonomicon, his previous novel. I thought it was one of the best pieces of fiction I had read. In this book, Neal Stephenson weaves a great tail of adventure combining it with insight into early scienctific societies, friction between Newton and Leibniz, financial markets, and cryptography. He does a great job of making you feel alive during the era in which the book is based.

I oscillated from feelings of 'wow, what a crazy awesome story' to feelings of occasional boredom in a few slow moving parts (say, 15-20% of the book). Its a great adventure, but there seems to be lots of wandering around stumbling across interesting little adventures but nothing that is making them tightly bound, like a plot. There is the James Burke-ification of Quicksilver (mercury was called Quicksilver in those days, thus the title). Yes indeed, it ties many of these tales together but this is a self defining process (if I want to tie everything back to the discovery of rope its easy, or wine, or the pursuit of the perfect coffee bean, its easy to do and sound mystifyingly insightful, academics are very good at wooing undergraduates with these insights...see capitalism really is at the heart of all evil, and America too).

As a sidenote: think about 'the boston tea party' as the traditional start of the Revolutionary war. This wasn't the start. There was no start. There is instead a cascading set of issues that serve to anchor what we trendily call a 'tipping point'. Often things just aren't that simple, but the human mind can recall stories better when they are weaved into these simple minded cause/effect relationships so they are used by historians to tell of the past, usually neglecting the complications and manipulating it to advantage of one party or another. (Compare Howard Zinn's telling of the History of the United States to that of your history teacher for more insight).
I was at Fergburger in Queenstown and somebody asked me if I'd recommend the book. They had started it and didn't really know if they should continue past the 150 pages they had read, finding it too filled with a continuous stream of characters and chronological chaos. I said 'No', if you don't like that it doesn't get any better, and the first of the 3 novels in the first book is best. Its not until 2/3 of the way through the book I notice there is an appendix that acts as a decoder ring for all of the characters, several of which have multiple names depending on the context of the scene or timeperiod of the book. This would have been useful in the BEGINNING of the book where I would have possibly found it sooner.

I feel this novel is a work of art. However, as a criticism, I want and expect more from the authors I read. I want to learn more than I did on this journey. I want epiphanies. I want structures, artifacts, and the humanities captured in the work of fiction that are told as fiction because they are too hard to convey as non-fiction. Stephenson captures the human side of the struggles we have now and the nature of science and finance and their similarities and differences to today. He wrote this out by HAND before typing it, and for that I give pause. To feel those words were needed so much he was willing to put them down with a pen, wow.

3.5 out of 5.

1 comment:

kim said...

A lot of those 'separate' stories start to collide together in the second book,which is the best of the 3 (IMHO). By the third one, a lot of the plots have become very interwoven, but there's a little less swashbuckling adventure that I really thought carried the first 2.

Still an impressive work. that's for sure.