Baroque Cycle: Odalisque

Previously, on the Baroque Cycle Reading Group:

And now:

Odalisque coverLike King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque opens with a step backwards. It’s Daniel Waterhouse’s turn in the spotlight again, specifically attending the death of Charles II in February 1685. As in Quicksilver, this strand delves into the scientific happenings of the day – notably the eventual publication of Principia Mathematica, complete with a review from Leibniz that basically predicts special relativity – but the primary focus, I felt, was the politics leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It’s the same in the book’s second strand, which picks up Eliza’s story in Versailles, where she appears to be working as a governess but is fairly quickly really working as a sort of financial manager to half the resident nobles, and all the time really really working as a spy, sending letters encrypted in a cypher she knows is broken to William of Orange (and, for reasons that I missed, letters encrypted in a much stronger cypher to Leibniz). Two very different courts, then, and although there are some similarities in how the two strands unfold — such as the complete uselessness of royal physicians — of course there are two different outcomes, for in France the story is of a rebellion quashed. The title at first suggests we’re going to be primarily reading Eliza’s story, and certainly her continuing progression from slave to noble takes up more pages than Daniel’s antics; but I think the title also has a more ironic sense, which ties in with the exploration of freedom in King of the Vagabonds, in which both Daniel and Eliza are slaves to the increasing complexity of the world.

On finishing Odalisque, which is the last part of the volume Quicksilver, I am struck by two main thoughts. First, I feel entirely vindicated in, and indeed grateful for, my decision to consider the volume as three novels: it simply makes no sense as one. It may be that The Baroque Cycle as a whole should be considered as a single, three-thousand-page novel, but it certainly isn’t three thousand-page novels. There’s no sense in which the volume as a whole achieves closure – but the individual books that make up the volume do, at least as much as, say, Snow Crash does. It will be interesting to see whether the decision to interleave Bonanza and Juncto — the two novels that make up The Confusion — gives that volume more of a unifying shape. If by this you infer that I’ve been won over enough to complete the Cycle, you’d be correct, although I still have the feeling I’ll enjoy having read it more than I’m enjoying reading it.

Because the most common emotion Odalisque evoked, like the two novels before it, is frustration. There is the question, for example, of what exactly Odalisque adds to the Cycle. Why do these 300-pages exist? The basic ingredients, after all, haven’t changed. The style is the same, pages and pages of talk relating events that happened elsewhere to other people; the overwhelming dumping of information is the same; and the sense that Stephenson’s main argument is that this period encapsulates the birth-pangs of the modern world is present and correct. The strongest justification I can come up with for Odalisque’s existence is that it’s a bit less annoying than Quicksilver and a bit more coherent than King of the Vagabonds. At times, it even seems like the book is in danger of developing a plot, although it always turns out to be just the natural momentum of historical events keeping the characters on the hop.

So you can look at the basic issues raised in the earlier books, and find that if Odalisque doesn’t have anything new to say, it at least says the same things more eloquently. For instance: all three books so far have, to one extent or another, foregrounded the question of historical accuracy, and of how history can (perhaps should) be represented in fiction; but Odalisque lays out the terms of the debate most clearly. Right at the start, the issue is cued up by a conversation between Daniel and Roger Comstock. Daniel describes Leibniz’s thoughts about the perception of reality, starting with the trivial observation that London “is perceived in different ways by each person in it, depending on their unique situation” (621), going on to argue that there is a sense in which the only meaningful description of London would be the sum of the descriptions of all of its inhabitants, and concluding by suggesting that some individuals’ descriptions will be more meaningful than others:

“Normally when we say [someone is distinguished or unique], we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity.” (621)

On one level, this is a way of explaining of why we read any writer: because their particular vision of the world reveals aspects of it that we did not see, or did not see as clearly, or because their vision chimes with ours. (We read Neal Stephenson because we like his geekiness.) But it’s also implicitly both an argument for Stephenson’s focus on the Great and the Good of seventeenth-century Europe in his narrative — being the people who, via Stephenson’s protagonists, can express the nature of the times most clearly – and, perhaps unconsciously, a way of highlighting the arrogance of that argument.

With this in mind, it’s notable that most of Eliza’s narrative in the book is couched in epistolary form. Initially this is satisfying because it gives us direct access to her way of seeing the world, but the ultimate point is that this form — a single viewpoint — never tells the whole story. In her last letter to Leibniz, Eliza meditates on the limitations of historical knowledge, with reference to the birth, or not, of James II’s heir. Was there really a birth, she wonders? If their was, was James II really the father? If he was, did the child really survive? And so on. “In a sense,” Eliza writes, “it does not matter, since that king is deposed, and that baby is being reared in Paris. But in another sense it matters very much…” (895). Truth exists, and truth can be sought, and in certain ways — such as Principia Mathematica — it can be found. But in other ways it cannot, and both kinds of truth (revealed and hidden) shape our world. Put another way — and Stephenson loves nothing more than to put something another way — all history is a form of cryptography. “In the plaintext story,” Eleanor writes, putting the unencrypted description of the burden she felt after the birth of her child into context for Leibniz, “it is a burden of grief over the death of my child. But in the real story — which is always more complicated — it is a burden of uncertainty” (906).

That in a thousand details the Baroque Cycle is repeatedly and visibly not “what really happened”, then, is irrelevant. (If, to me, annoying.) The standard by which the story is asking to be judged (I think) is not a standard of detail, it’s a standard of the big picture: whether or not it fairly represents how the system of the world changed during the time in question. Again, this was clear from the start of Quicksilver, but Odalisque is more convincing as an argument for this particular slant on this particular period of history, largely because the Glorious Revolution feels like more of a meaningful change than (for example) the Declaration of Indulgence. It feels like an event that can function as a synthesizing narrative without having to be forced into an unnatural shape; and the pursuit of synthesis in politics mirrors the pursuit of synthesis going on elsewhere in science. In Daniel, in fact, the two come to be inextricably intertwined. The first mentions of Newton in Odalisque point out how irreconcilable his divergent interests seem. As Daniel puts it, observers are “trying to figure out whether there might be some Reference Frame within which all of Isaac’s moves make some kind of damned sense … You want to know whether his recent work … is a change of subject, or merely a new point of view” (665). Of course, in this instance we can see the Reference Frame before the characters, because we know how gravity links tides to comets and to the movements of Jupiter and Saturn. But Daniel, in particular, becomes obsessed with how the new scientific understanding of the world might link to a new political understanding of the world; as Eliza notes, he stakes everything on the Glorious Revolution, “not in the sense of living or dying, but in the sense of making something of his life, or not” (746).

I said in my first post that I wanted to leave the question of whether or not the Cycle is science fiction for later. This seems to be a good time to visit that question, at least to reach an interim conclusion, and not just because Quicksilver was awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2003. The Cycle as a whole was later awarded the Locus Award for best sf novel, so clearly it’s not just an isolated group of judges who’re prepared to consider it as sf. There are several ways of responding to the question, I think. One is to say that it just doesn’t matter, to which all I can say is that I think it does: if we can read the novel as sf, it says something about the way sf is working in the early 21st century, and that to me is an interesting subject. Another response is to say that it’s trivially obvious that it’s sf: there’s Enoch Root’s longevity, for starters, not to mention the alternate-historical flavour of the whole project. But the most interesting response, I think, is the one that argues that Quicksilver is sf because it appropriates the tools of sf, because it forces us to ask what those tools are. One, perhaps, is the portrait of the world that suggests it is best described in terms of interconnection and the flow of information; that’s a familiar approach in sf, from Stand on Zanzibar through cyberpunk to a work like River of Gods; and it’s not only sf that does this, but it tends to only be sf that has the characters recognise their position in such a world and comment on it. (In fact, it’s possible to read Stephenson’s extreme enthusiasm for trivia as an argument that a way of looking at the world that emphasizes information to this degree will inevitably become overwhelming.) The build-up to the Glorious Revolution as portrayed in Odalisque struck me as sfnal for two more specific reasons, as well. First is the way that Stephenson clearly teases us with the alternate-history possibility of assassinating William of Orange: “If they happened to light on the particular stretch of beach where William goes sand-sailing, at the right time of the morning, why, they could redraw the map, and rewrite the future history, of Europe in a few minutes’ work”, says one character, to which another responds that “It is a clever conceit, like a chapter from a picaroon-romance” (652-3). And second, there seemed to be something sfnal in the way that Daniel perceives the coming revolution: as a gateway to a new world.

It is characteristic (although not universally true) of sf revolutions that they elide the pragmatic details of their construction, and focus on the world to come. There is something almost religious about this view of historical progress, and it’s a tendency Stephenson neatly draws out of Daniel, who initially argues that the Puritans who believed the Apocalypse was due in 1666 were on to something, and that they “merely got the particulars wrong … If idolatry is to mistake the symbol for the thing symbolized, then that is what they did with the symbols that are set down on the Book of Revelation … I would say that we might bring about the Apocalypse now with a little effort … not precisely the one they phant’sied, but the same, or better, in its effects” (743). Later he glorifies the process still further: “rebellion is … a petty disturbance, an aberration, predestined to fail. Revolution is like the wheeling of stars round the pole. It is driven by unseen powers, it is inexorable, it moves all things at once, and men of discrimination may understand it, predict it, benefit from it” (810). Since we know that there are still two thousand pages to go, we can assume that Daniel’s idealism is going to be sorely tested, but it falls, significantly, to Enoch to sound the cautionary note, when Daniel reiterates his grand desires:

“In a few years Mr Hooke will learn to make a proper chronometer, finishing what Mr Huygens began thirty years ago, and then the Royal Society will draw maps with lines of longitude as well as latitude, giving us a grid — what we call a Cartesian grid, though ’twas not his idea — and where there be islands, we will rightly draw them. Where there are none, we will draw none, nor dragons, nor sea-monsters — and that will be the end of Alchemy.”

“‘Tis a noble pursuit, and I wish you Godspeed,” Root said, “but remember the poles.”

“The poles?”

“The north and south poles, where your meridians will come together — no longer parallel and separate, but converging and all one.”

“That is nothing but a figment of geometry.”

“But when you build all your science upon geometry, Mr Waterhouse, figments become real.” (881)

It’s not just that who is looking matters; it’s how they’re looking. How very — dare I say it? — postmodern. The system of the world defines the world: it’s immediately after the Glorious Revolution, with its promise of a truer participatory democracy, that Stephenson tells us the word “shopping” has appeared in the English language. Welcome to consumerism. Equally, reality will always fall short of the idea, and it’s not a surprise that Daniel finds the Revolution, when it comes, somewhat anticlimactic, and makes plans to leave for another New World: he’s a utopian. He can’t stop chasing the future.

All of which probably makes it sound as though I really liked Odalisque, when in fact I thought it merely not bad. Certainly the problems with the book are less pronounced than in the earlier installments – as all of the above hopefully demonstrates, I think this time you can actually draw a coherent argument out of it – but there is fundamentally too much stuff. Individual threads may be beautiful, but the tapestry as a whole is no better than workmanlike. To be clear, I don’t think this is a case of bloat: I think everything that is in the book is meant to be in the book, because I still think Stephenson wants us to see the hints of a System of the World that makes the relations between all the disparate elements of the narrative as clear as the relations between the disparate items of Newton’s research. That, I think, is meant to be the key, which like the key to Eliza’s letters would explain why there have to be five words every time one would do, which would unlock the encryption of this history, which would reveal the plaintext. It just seems like meagre reward.

Baroque Cycle: King of the Vagabonds

Previously, on the Baroque Cycle Reading Group:

And now:

King of the Vagabonds coverWell: I wasn’t expecting that. King of the Vagabonds is recognisably by the same author and in the same style as Quicksilver, but for the most part it reads less like a continuation of a story in progress than it does the start of something new.

We take a slight skip back in time, to 1665 London (pre-plague, pre-fire) to meet the oh-so-literally “half-cocked” Jack Shaftoe, one of seven brothers in a working-class family. Soon enough the eldest brother is dead, thanks to a blackly-humorous accident during an attempt to steal a boat’s anchor, but via his execution Jack and another brother, Bob, find themselves paying work as hangers-on. Specifically, they are paid to hang on the legs of execution victims in order to hasten their death. Jack’s character and circumstances established, we jump forward to 1683 (mid-way between the two Waterhouse narratives in book one), and find that Jack has become a vagabond (and, offscreen, a widower and father), although he signs up as a mercenary just in time for the Battle of Vienna. During the battle, for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, he ends up chasing an Ostrich into a harem and there rescues an actual female character. Eliza is (1) young, (2) a native of Qwlghm, (3) extremely smart, (4) extremely beautiful, and (5) generally all-around perky; and after her rescue she and Jack travel across the continent together, each spending a good deal of time lecturing the other about their personal history. They spend some time in Leipzig, where they participate in “the Doctor’s” scheme to sell shares in a silver mine, before eventually fetching up in Amsterdam. There Eliza becomes a businesswoman and helps to finance the Monmouth Rebellion; meanwhile, Jack goes for a wander around France, ostensibly with the goal of raising some money to care for his children.

For a while, I was convinced that King of the Vagabonds is hands-down better than Quicksilver; having finished it, I think it’s no less flawed, but at least it’s flawed in different ways, and has some strengths that Quicksilver lacked. As I said, the novel is recognisably of a piece with its predecessor — it has the inconsistently anachronistic language, the engagement with famous figures and events, the skewed perspective on what matters about these things — but they’re put into what to my mind is a better and broader context. The single thread, while it lasts, helps the whole story feel more focused and coherent, while the continent-spanning scope of the story provides a more useful backdrop. There are also fewer, or at least less violent, authorial prods about the Meaning of the Story, and a bit more demonstration. The underlying concerns are the same, but you could say that Quicksilver was Theory and King of the Vagabonds is Practice.

And thanks to the dynamic between Jack and Eliza, King of the Vagabonds is also a much more readable book – at least in its first half. Neither character has what you’d call great depth, and Eliza in particular is unconvincing as a person; sometime there’s a comparison to be written of her, James Morrow’s Jennet and (though she is from a slightly later period), Adam Roberts’ Eleanor as willful historical women interested in the workings of the world, written by men. (For what it’s worth, to my mind Eliza is more convincing than Jennet but less so than Eleanor.) Moreover Stephenson’s character decisions (particularly the contrivance by which Jack and Eliza are separated at the end of the book) tend to the worst excesses and implausibilities of soap-opera plotting. But while it lasts, the relationship between Eliza and Jack is lively and engaging and makes many things forgivable. I think it’s no coincidence that they separate the novel loses its way dramatically, and that the sections dealing with them individually – and Jack’s adventures in particular — are far less interesting than anything they get up to together.

The simple fact of having two non-historical characters talking to each other means that you can have, for instance, Eliza expressing disbelief at Jack’s encounters with the high-born and famous. It grounds the story — there isn’t the sense, which there was in Quicksilver, that there are only famous people in the world, even though quite a lot of famous people eventually turn up – and as a result, I believe in the verisimilitude of Jack and Eliza’s experiences much more than I ever did in those of Waterhouse. And because they offer a radically different view of the world — from their lower-class perspective, you wouldn’t know that Waterhouse and the Royal Society exist — the encounters they do have with historical figures (who tend to be of rather higher class) feel more like the atypical events they should be.

An obvious example is the Doctor – and conveniently he also ties in, I think, to the question of historical uncertainty that we talked about last time. Specifically: The Doctor’s identity seems to be obvious, but he is only actually confirmed to be Leibniz long after he’s left the stage. For a while, when he’s introduced, it’s at least plausible that he could be Newton, or even Waterhouse. This uncertainty of identity – not to mention the pop-culture echo, which I’m sure is deliberate – positions Leibniz as a figure of wonder, rather than the near-equal he was in Quicksilver. His pronouncements are on the edge of plausibility, and the edge of comprehensibility to Jack and Eliza: “It is a mathematical technique so advanced that only two people in the world understand it […] People will use it to build machines that fly through the air like birds, and that travel t other planets” (431). Later, another character summarizes “what the Doctor wants” this way:

“To translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers — and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy — whatever that means.” (476)

Because this is being said by someone who finds the Doctor outlandish – as we do – rather than by someone like Waterhouse who might accept these concepts without blinking, the self-conscious improbability of it is easier to bear. Moreover, because it’s embedded in a more conventional historical narrative, its extraordinariness is more powerful. This paragraph, and a couple of others like it, actually reminded me of nothing so much as Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry sequence, in which modern concepts are transmitted back through time with the hope of changing the course of past events. Almost all the attempts fail, but they fail in ways that highlight the contingency of history; and the “great project” here sounds like it could be exactly that sort of intervention. We should know how this story ends, because it ends with us; but we start to wonder whether that’s the right ending. (Tangentially, it seems odd to me that Baxter skipped over this entire period in his series; it seems ripe for the sort of story he was telling.)

I’ve mentioned the broader canvas of the book a couple of times. There’s a sense that there’s a whole continent in play, and a world beyond that, all gradually being knit together by the developing systems of the age, most notably trade. Against this Jack and Eliza are figures in a landscape; and when, for instance, deus-ex-Enoch turns up and drops some more hints that he’s engaged in (or the motivator behind) Leibniz’ utopian project to lift humanity up and better us, they seem truly improbable because of the vastness against which they are cast. That said, I have to admit there’s a whole level of information in this novel that I’m missing, because my eyes glaze over at the gossipy way in which Stephenson tends to have his characters relate Royal politics and high-level shenanigans. But for whole pages at a time, the sprawling messiness of the Baroque Cycle seems like it might actually be worth something, it seems that the absurd — I can’t think of a better word for it — excess of historical detail might be intended to draw just such a contrast between the landscape and the figures in it. Unfortunately, that theory gets dashed late in the book, when Stephenson suddenly elides part of Jack’s story to get him back to Eliza, and has him comment on it as like “a play, where only the most dramatic parts of the story are shown to the audience, and the tedious bits are assumed to happen offstage” (578), as though Stephenson actually believes that everything he’s told us up to that point is important and directly relevant to the story of Jack, when it so patently isn’t.

I suggested that King of the Vagabonds was the practice to Quicksilver’s theory, and I think it inverts the earlier novel in another way, too. If Quicksilver was about the developing systems of the world, King of the Vagabonds asks simply: what does it mean to be free? And in particular, what does it mean to be free when the world’s web is tightening around you? Jack’s answer, for most of his life to the point we meet him, has been the freedom to roam, the freedom of the vagabond; through his experiences with Eliza (after freeing her), he comes to appreciate the importance of economic freedom. And of course Leibniz’ maths would give humanity as a whole more freedom, freedom to do and act in the world. In its approach to examining this question, King of the Vagabonds feels less like an attempt to convey a historical agenda, and more like an attempt to translate its period for a particular audience. When Jack claims that “I know the zargon [zargon being to this book what phant’sie was to Quicksilver, i.e. annoying] and the code-signs of Vagabonds who, taken together, constitute a sort of (if I may speak poetically) network of information, spreading all over the world, functioning smoothly even when damaged …” (387), it’s still transparently artificial, but because it’s even further removed from the reality of what’s being described than were similar statements in Quicksilver, it’s easier to see it as a gloss.

And you can see the same sort of approach in Stephenson’s descriptions of 17th-century Amsterdam:

In the end, it took Jack several minutes’ looking to allow himself to believe that he was viewing all of the world’s ships at one time — their individual masts, ropes, and spars merging into a horizon through which a few churches and windmills on the other side of it could be made out as dark blurs. Ships entering from, or departing towards, the Ijsselmeer beyond, fired ripping gun-salutes and were answered by Dutch shore-batteries, spawning oozy smoke-clouds that clung about the rigging of all those ships and seemingly glued them all into a continuous fabric, like mud daubed into a wattle of dry sticks. The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news. (477)

Stephenson clearly fell in love with this setting — more, I would say, even than with London — and though there are awkward bits in paragraphs like this (is that “on the other side of it” really needed? For starters), you get occasional perfect images, such as that last line. “The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news”. It’s a clear and very precise evocation of the Amsterdam of Stephenson’s imagination: a place of fluidity, a place of trade, and a place where information is king. If the Baroque Cycle can be reduced to anything, this early in reading it, it seems to me that it’s reducible to this: that it’s an expression of information theory; that it’s at pains to show how every human transaction can be described as an exchange of information; and that the process of modernization is the process of learning to recognise and use that fact.

Next up: Odalisque. Date: Friday 6 June. In the meantime, I’m reading the Mundane Interzone, and expect to post about it this time next week.

Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver

Quicksilver coverAnd 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 …)