And we’re off! Somewhat later than planned, I admit, for which I apologise, but now the avalanche has started and it is too late for the pebbles to vote. Or something. To recap: I’m reading The Baroque Cycle, and some other people said they’d be interested in reading along and/or discussing it; but to make it a less daunting prospect I’m treating it as eight 300-odd page books rather three thousand-odd page volumes. Thus, this post, being my thoughts on the first book of Quicksilver which is, in a recipe for confusion, also called “Quicksilver”.
For those of you who aren’t reading or re-reading along at home, a brief recap is in order. Quicksilver-the-book alternates between two stories. In the first-met, set in 1713 and told in the present tense, Enoch Root visits Daniel Waterhouse at his adopted home in Massachusetts, bearing a message calling Waterhouse back to London. Cut to: England at various points between 1655 and 1673, and the past-tense exploits of Waterhouse as a young man, taking him from his youth (growing up under a puritan father who believes the world will end in 1666) through his university days (at Cambridge) to his time as a spectator-member of the Royal Society. The book ends with the latter strand having reached the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, and with the ship carrying Daniel having escaped from pirates in Cape Cod Bay and begun its journey proper.
Or, more prejudicially:
Quicksilver-the-book alternates between two stories. In the first-met, but rarely-thereafter-visited, set in 1713 and told in the present tense, Enoch Root visits Daniel Waterhouse in Massachusets, discovers that Waterhouse has founded MIT a few centuries early, infodumps about all the famous people he’s met in his journeys across Europe, and delivers a message calling Waterhouse back to London. Cut to: England at various points between 1655 and 1673, and the past-tense exploits of Waterhouse as a young man, taking him from his youth (growing up under a puritan father who believes the world will end in 1666) through his university days (at Cambridge) to his time as a spectator-member of the Royal Society, during which time Daniel encounters just about every famous late-17th-century Englishman you could care to name, without ever giving us a real sense of who Daniel is. The book ends with the latter strand having reached the apparently arbitrary cut-off point of Royal Declaration of Indulgence, and with the ship carrying Daniel having escaped from pirates, after a series of increasingly thin encounters that are clearly meant to (a) give the book some semblance of narrative drive and (b) carry some thematic weight, leaving Cape Cod Bay and beginning its journey proper.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy “Quicksilver”, per se; it’s just that I spent so much time engaging with the surface of the book that I never really delved down into its depths. So I want to leave the question of The Point Of It All (including whether or not the book is science fiction, if possible) for subsequent posts, and discuss here mainly the way Stephenson approaches his story: his style, and his focus.
On the latter, a confession of ignorance is called for. I am not a historian. In fact, I haven’t studied history since I was 14, when I decided that I couldn’t imagine anything less interesting than spending two years learning about World War II in preparation for a GCSE, and did Geography instead, which was about exciting things like volcanoes and earthquakes. (And town planning — although even that’s more exciting than you’d credit.) There is a slight exception to this sweeping generalisation, which is that I did a short History of Science course while at university, which gives me just enough background to know what Hooke, Boyle, Newton et al did, without really knowing the times they were living in or who they were as men.
Perhaps you can see my problem.
When I was about a hundred pages into Quicksilver, I had an email discussion with Dan Hartland about why I thought I was having problems. I need (I said) historical fiction to have authority. If I read historical fiction, I want to feel that it is giving life to a past time in a way that is, to the best of our knowledge, accurate — because otherwise what’s the point? If it’s not giving life, then I might as well read the non-fiction version; and if it’s not accurate, then I might as well read a fantasticated version. Dan argued, as Dan so often does, that my reasoning didn’t stand up, that the very concept of being authoritative about history is flawed. Perhaps it is. But I think that historical fiction needs something like authority if it’s going to stand up.
So another way of expressing my unease is to say that I feel Stephenson is biased. He has tunnel vision. The Baroque Cycle aspires to a vast canvas, yet Stephenson approaches this time when the (Western, European, yes) world was going through radical changes — political, religious, scientific, economic — with a clear agenda, a clear argument that this is the start of something, the beginning of the world we know. And it distorts; it gives the whole book a weirdly out-of-focus quality, except that presumably the focus is exactly where Stephenson wants it. And what that means, in the end, is that I don’t trust the book. Is this event important because it was important, or because Stephenson is emphasizing it to support his argument?
When I reached the first mention of the CABAL of Charles II, I thought at once that it must be part of the anachronistic style. No way was that word used in that way by those people, I thought. But wait! Yes way! Charles II brought together a group of five Privy Councillors who effectively acted (so says Wikipedia, and so they act in the book) as foreign policy wonks. But wait! The five men who did that job in real life have been replaced by five men of Neal Stephenson’s invention — some of whom I recognised (once it was pointed out to me) as ancestors of players in Cryptonomicon — for no very obvious reason, it seems, given the number of historical characters he shows no compunction about fictionalising, except that he felt like it. It’s obvious from pretty early on that however many details Stephenson tweaks, he has no interest in changing the large-scale outcome of his story — no interest in writing an alternate history, in other words. Unfortunately, this meant that every time I hit a detail I thought might be anachronistic it threw me out of the book. Which happened quite often — Leibniz bringing an “arithmetickal engine” to England in the 1670s? Really? A gall-stone described as being about the size of a tennis-ball — when was modern tennis invented?
Historical ignorance is my problem, not the book’s; what I think is more the book’s problem is that I’m not inspired to rectify that ignorance to understand the book better. I hold Stephenson’s style partly responsible for this, and in particular the way he deploys anachronistic language. On a sentence-to-sentence basis, the book is rarely less than readable — sometimes the images are really quite striking, such as the “streets like stuffed sausages” when London is rebuilding after the great fire — and I don’t have a problem with the use of modern vernacular as such. What I have a problem with is the lack of consistency. It’s one thing for the narrator to look at events with a modern eye, and muse about “stocking/breach interfaces”, or to suggest a character is “crypto-catholic”; it’s another thing for characters to be manipulated into tortuous puns such as “that schooner, Doctor Waterhouse, sucks”, or to talk about the “umpteenth” time of something; it’s yet another for both narrator and characters to sometimes speak in this style and sometimes speak in a more elaborate pastiche of the style of their times. It drove me nuts. If you want to look at the seventeenth century through modern eyes (which seems to be what Stephenson most wants to do) then go ahead and do that; don’t just throw in “shew” and “neeger” and “coelestial” and all possible variations based on “Phant’sy” on (so far as I can tell) a whim. They just look like half-hearted concessions to an imagined need for stylistic “appropriateness”, and they make it hard to believe in Quicksilver’s story either as something we’re watching from the long distance of now, or as something immersive, told as it happened then.
None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all: there was enough to bring me back for Book Two (about which I shall post three weeks from now, if all goes according to plan). But so far I don’t think Quicksilver particularly good, not as fiction and not even as a delivery system for interesting things that Neal Stephenson wants to talk about. It’s true that it has good bits, but they’re almost all lectures or discourses or digressions on one bit or another of 17th-century science or philosophy or something else. The philosophic language; the invention of currency; the relation of different disciplines (“If money is a science, then it is a dark science, darker than Alchemy …”); the start of universal time; some of the eccentric (to be kind) antics of the Royal Society; Leibniz and Daniel discussing free will and, er, artificial intelligence; Daniel’s likening of the progress of human society to a shipwreck; and so on — some of these moments give a powerful sense of a world in flux, in the thrall of change, a sense that the roots of the system or our world are indeed being put into place. But already the bits that work are much more diluted in bits that don’t than was the case for (obvious comparison) Cryptonomicon; for every discussion of interest there’s a period of utter tedium, such as when the members of the Royal Society watch a play.
And it’s equally noticeable that those bits that are good are good because of what the characters are saying or doing, not because of who the characters are; some sections are thrilling, but they tend to be so because they draw on that sense of a world in flux, a feeling that everything is available for discovering. There’s nothing character-based that could be described as emotionally intense. Even the death of Daniel’s father feels flat, not just because at the time it feels like a surrogate for the wrench Daniel should feel at living through the year he had been raised to believe the world should end, but because we’re still told it’s a pivotal moment only for Stephenson to revoke that stance 150 pages and six years later, when Daniel really realises who he is —
His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might have once harbored about being a man of God had died with Drake, and been cremated by Tess. He very much phant’sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if he had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. Perhaps, like Tess, he would come to prefer it that way. (330-1)
— or maybe he hasn’t really realised, since there are still plenty of pages to go in which Stephenson could reveal this epiphany to be as transient as its predecessor. I couldn’t really say I like Daniel Waterhouse, since there’s so little there to like or dislike; but it would be nice if he gets to stop going round in circles at some point.
(That came out longer than I expected, and indeed longer than I intended the book-group posts to be. But hopefully there’s enough comment-hooks in there for you …)