October 03, 2003

Quicksilver Review

Posted by shonk at 08:24 PM in Literature | TrackBack

I've spent most of my free time in the last week reading Neal Stephenson's latest book, Quicksilver. Here's a short review:

Stephenson's style is obviously maturing, as he demonstrates more of an ability to capture moods, attitudes and thoughts than in previous work. Also, he experiments a bit throughout Quicksilver with different stylistic techniques and ways of telling a story that make the book more interesting and fun to read (it seems clear that he's trying to take some cues from Joyce at times, though, fortunately, not aggressively so). Another sign of his writing maturity is that, though he's telling stories separated by half a century, as in Cryptonomicon, they tend to be more plausibly connected than in Cryptonomicon (which, though I enjoyed, was frustrating to the extent that there was no explicit connection between the two timelines aside from familial relations and subject matter; Quicksilver doesn't suffer from the same flaw).

Now, as to the story itself, it's an interesting one, though, predictably, as this is the first book of a planned trilogy, much of the book is devoted to background and exposition, setting the stage for future books. The dustjacket blurbs say that this is a book about Newton and Leibniz, but, though they do play a strong role in the book, this is, to some degree, the story of the entire scientific and political atmosphere of that time (specifically between the Interregnum and the Glorious Revolution). It's not so much about Newton, say, as about the people around Newton. Really, I found it fascinating, but I'm having a hard time summarizing the plot, because it's so obvious to me that the plot is still underway and won't fully resolve itself for another two books.

One of the major strengths of the book is it's solid grounding in the "Natural Philosophy" that most of the main characters are so heavily involved in. In a way, this is a story of the human aspect of the birth of modern science, so it's quite gratifying that the science is good. Which isn't to say that you need to know anything about calculus or astronomy or chemistry to appreciate it, but that sort of knowledge doesn't hurt (this is in the same sense that you don't need to know anything about mathematics or cryptography or computers to appreciate Cryptonomicon, but it certainly doesn't hurt). Also, some of the critiques of science voice by various "serious" characters are either wrong, but for interesting reasons, or very good, which just adds to the enjoyment.

One warning, though. Do not get this book on the assumption that it is another Snow Crash or Diamond Age; it's not. The high-tech is three centuries old and terms like cypherpunk, or even democracy, would be anachronisms. This is a historical epic and, as such, is pretty slowly paced. Act accordingly


I won't be giving away anything major, but you may want to wait to read the following until after you've read the book.

Okay, you've been warned.

That all said, I do have a couple of complaints. First, I've never been a fan of the episodic style weaving multiple plotlines, where each chapter or section tells a bit of one story, then the next chapter tells a bit of the next, then the next goes back to the first (or perhaps on to a third, or whatever), though this "cliffhanger" style does have its advantages. Anyway, this is how Stephenson tells the story, which I find slightly annoying, but I guess it's hard to tell multiple stories-within-a-story another way, and he does do a pretty good job of making all the plotlines interesting and not making the jumps too jarring. Second, I wish he'd stuck with the Daniel in 1713 plotline for longer, as I found myself looking forward to the next installment while it was going on, and missed it once it dropped off. Presumably, the main thrust of the trilogy will be in that plotline, with the 17th century stuff primarily serving as intersting background material, so losing track of that timeline seems silly. But maybe I'm misreading where this thing is going. Third, within the scope of the trilogy, when it's completed, it may make sense not to mention Jack Shaftoe after he leaves Europe, but within the context of the book, it's frustrating, especially since it's so obvious that he'll be back at some point (and Stephenson drops a few hints to this effect as well). Fourth, though I applaud Stephenson for his stylistic experiments, some of them simply fall flat. The dramatic interludes serve as good commentary on how everyone is playing a role, even Daniel, but they simply aren't that good from a dramatic perspective. Stephenson seems to be taking a cue or two from the Circe section of Ulysses in these segments, but, if that's the case, he really ought to have cut loose a bit more. Fifth, and this is more a general critque of Stephenson than of this particular book, some of the coincidences are pretty over-the-top. Maybe he's making some commentary on history or psychology or genetics or whatever, but it's a bit hard to swallow that the same two families played important roles Cromwell's accession, the Glorious Revolution, World War II cryptography and modern data havens (those last two come from Cryptonomicon). But maybe that's just me. Finally, as usual, Stephenson doesn't write much of conclusion or climax to the book (his best attempt at ending a book is, in my opinion, in The Diamond Age, but even there there's too much that's unexplained going on), but, since the end of this book isn't really the end, is, in fact, intended not to be a conclusion at all, but rather to point towards the rest of the forthcoming trilogy, this isn't really a drawback.

Despite those complaints, I definitely enjoyed the book and would strongly recommend it to anyone.

Trackback from DarthPedro: Random Thoughts
April 16, 2004 01:28 PM
Finally Finished Quicksilver
Excerpt: I finally finished Quicksilver...