My personal reading metabolism has been suffering for quite some time from severe constipation induced by Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. This book is very large and not a snappy read and I felt guilty about starting other things until I’d finished it. Now I have.

First off, I have to acknowledge that Stephenson has been a major influence on me. I would suspect that a solid majority of people who are about my age and partake of geek culture were at one time wowed by Snow Crash and have read Stephenson regularly since then.

For my money, his best work in the Nineties was a really long piece of reportage in 1996 in Wired about the laying of transglobal fiber-optic cables; wow, it’s online; note the little “Page 1 of 56” when you follow that pointer; as I said, long. But really worth reading. But I digress.

Quicksilver meanders for 900 pages or so across the late seventeenth century, with side-trips into early eighteenth. Others more worthy than I have reviewed it at length, so I’ll restrict my notes to a few points hopefully not covered by them.

Vivaldi, Bach, Handel · Since this is apparently the first of a trilogy, and since NS likes peopling his pages with famous real people (royalty, scientists, soldiers) I can’t help but note that as we get into the eighteenth century, the gentlemen named in this section’s title begin to become visible in London, Liepzig, and Venice, all places which this book visits. I would be interested to read NS’s take on what a conversation with the irascible Johann Sebastian or entrepreneurial Georg Frederic might have been like.

The Laws of Science Fiction · Quicksilver isn’t scifi at all, but the laws still apply. I am irritated that Google can’t turn those laws up, but I seem to remember that there were three of which the last was “Space is a friendly place; when you get lost it’s likely there’ll be a planet nearby you can crash-land on and where interesting things will happen once you do.” NS’s seventeenth-century Europe is friendly in the same way; impoverished wastrels can pretty well count on their wanderings involving them in intimate contact with the aristocracy, and in fact plenty of Royal Personages.

Mind you, this flaw (if it is one) is true of historical novelists in general, but not universal: Patrick O’Brian, obviously the gold standard, has his characters only incidentally and rarely exposed to famous names and crowned heads. So it is possible to get by on the basis of interesting people leading interesting lives. Still, I can understand the temptation to take the Royal Road.

Larger Than Life · NS’s characters aren’t just a little bit larger than life, they’re way way out there. Oh well, Anne Rice may be right in saying that realism in literature should be a seen as a failed twentieth-century experiment. But there are counter-examples; Vikram Seth comes to mind.

Pepys · Those of us who are enjoying the Pepys Diary on a daily basis will be stimulated by Sam’s bit part (well, large-ish bit part); a convincing simulacrum of what that private person’s public presence might well have been.

Language · I’m quite considerably bothered by the mixing of period language with aggressively modern English usage. I wonder why NS does that?

I have a few gripes with this book, and yet when the next volume comes out I predict another case of reading constipation; NS’s big, sloppy, floppy canvases always have enough dazzling slashes of colour and shape to keep you coming back. I will close with an excerpted paragraph:

Since the time of the Babylonian astronomers, solar eclipses had from time to time caused ominous shadows to fall upon the land. But England in winter sometimes afforded its long-suffering populace a contrary phenomenon, which was that after weeks of dim colorless skies, suddenly the sun would scythe in under the clouds after it had seemed to set, and wash the landscape with pink, orange, and green illumination, clear and pure as gems. Empiricist though he was, Daniel felt free to ascribe meaning to this when it went his way. Ahead all was clear light, as if he were riding into stained glass. Behind (and he only bothered to look back once) the sky was a bruise-colored void, the land a long scrape of mud. The tavern rose up from the middle of the waste on a sheave of pilings that leaned into each other like a crowd of drunks. Its plank walls pawed a bit of light out of the sky, its one window glowed like a carbuncle. It was the sort of grotesque sky-scape that Dutchmen would come over to paint. But come to think of it, a Dutchman had come over and painted it.

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colophon · rights
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December 17, 2003
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