Friday, October 03, 2003

For those of you living under rocks, Neal Stephenson's new novel is Quicksilver, subtitled "Volume 1 of the Baroque Cycle". This is a fair warning - this is not a complete novel, but rather the first volume in a projected three-volume serial. It is a historical novel, covering events of the late 17th century and early 18th in Europe and the colonies, and so a further warning - don't expect protection from spoilers such as the eventual success of the Glorious Revolution, or the fates of people you bloody well ought to know about, such as Charles II, Isaac Newton, or Samuel Pepys. This all is important because Stephenson's last historical novel, the sprawling and brilliant Cryptonomicon, was vastly popular among the technocrati, which makes the publication of Quicksilver something of a literary event.

Quicksilver is something of a let-down after Cryptonomicon. It almost had to be; much the same way that Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky couldn't possibly measure up to A Fire Upon the Deep. An author rarely produces two free-standing instant classics in succession; most are lucky to produce two in their career lifetimes. So, a third and final warning: don't expect unalloyed brilliance and life-changing relevance.

All that aside, it is a damn good read. Stephenson is incapable of dull writing, and can be entertaining, clever, and illuminating even when he isn't being particularly brilliant. The book is historical fiction, indeed, but Stephenson has as much respect for history as he has for cryptography, math, environmental chemistry, computer programming, and most any other subject: he's more interested in tone, flavor and general outlines than getting the details right. Not that he doesn't know the details - his online Annotations to this book clearly show he's done his research - he just isn't inclined to let a Phanatiqual adherence to dead detail weigh down his story. And so, I strongly recommend that the reader *not* take his or her history from the pages of this historical novel - much of it is not exactly wrong, as it is hrm, in harmonic resonance with actual history. A quick read through the Annotations will show Stephenson admitting that many of his characters are amalgams of various historical personages; he gets away with it by claiming in the annotation that he's writing "slightly alternate history". That strikes me as something of a copout, but I'm willing to let it slide in the interest of entertainment.

And it is an entertaining book - in parts irreverent, solemn, sublime, and hilarious, it is distinctly a book of parts. Stephenson doesn't stay within one style, but slips from present-tense third-person limited narrative to past-tense third-person limited, to various exotic and esoteric styles such as epistolary, cyphertext epistolary, musical libretto, and play scripts. He doesn't do this as a Don Passos or John Brunner would - fragmented and frantic, alienating or alarming - but rather in the spirit of the age - renaissance men feeling out new ways of being, new tempos against new-made clocks. The frantic pace of modernism is yet to come for the players in this book.

Once again, though, I must repeat: a book of parts. It does not work particularly well as a whole - the themes rise and fall - the name of the book, "Quicksilver", is a thematic reference to the new flows of ideas, information, and capital that are beginning to define a new, modern world. But the individual threads are perforce new-woven and don't really make much of a picture, although the attentive reader can see the eventual outlines forming on the tapestry.

Mad as it might sound, I can't help but think that it would have been better if they had held off on publication and waited until the further volumes were finished and published; although that would have made a 2700 or 3000-page novel instead of the current 900-page fragment, it would still have been a complete work, and thus something fully digested.

Still, don't let my critical comments keep you from it; it is full of action, humor, and observation for the educated reader; Stephenson has never been one of those writers who neglected entertainment for heavier subjects. But it is not a book for the young or unprepared; much of the humor is inside-baseball for folks who have done their homework. And in the end, Stephenson writes for the glorification of those that have done their homework - the Robert Hookes of the world who, given the faculties of average men, yet manage to accomplish things far beyond the scope of the average, by dint of application and perception.

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