Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

July 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment
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Note: The purpose of this site is to quickly summarize my feelings about a book while it is still fresh on my mind: i.e. after I have read it. Because of this I have not gone back to write reviews for the many books that I have rated but not reviewed…it’s not fair to the books. The ones I like a lot, I will review after rereading them. Recently though some people have wondered about my low rating for Quicksilver, and since I don’t intend to read it again my recall of the book (which I read a little less than two years ago) will never be better, so I thought I would go ahead and explain my problems with the book. Additionally, though it is lengthy, there are no spoilers in this review. In fact, few books have been written that are more impossible to spoil than Quicksilver.

I really, really was looking forward to Quicksilver. Having watched Neal Stephenson grow as a writer from Zodiac through Snow Crash to Cryptonomicon, I had high hopes that he had finally developed into the great author he always seemed on the cusp of being. Certainly he has raised his aim significantly since Crytonomicon. Where Cryptonomicon was, boiled down, a witty celebration of information theory, Stephenson clearly wants the Baroque Cycle to be a witty celebration of the European enlightenment. It is almost a propoganda document for what today are called “western values” (though, hopefully, many Asians would disagree): rationality, individualism, and meritocracy.

I am certainly deeply in favor of everything Stephenson is advocating, so what problem could I possibly have with the book? Alas, the execution is unfortunate. More than unfortunate, perplexing.

Quicksilver is historical fiction. Hopefully there was no disagreement on this score, but even today there are still people who insist on defining Cryptonomicon as science fiction when it is clearly a hybrid technothriller / historical fiction novel (the only reason Cryptonomicon, to these people, must be SF is because they like the book and they hate technothrillers…yet these same people complain that critics have stripped 1984, Brave New World, etc. from science fiction’s account for precisely the same reason). The reason Quicksilver‘s genre is important is that the very qualities that make Stephenson such an amazing author of science fiction (and technothrillers) completely sabotage the basis of historical fiction. After all, most historical fiction, and Quicksilver is undoubtably in this category as well, seeks to present an accurate picture of life in the given time period. Yet Stephenson’s humor and wit pervades his writing and he is always on the lookout for a good joke or clever turn of phrase. While this makes the book engaging (I would have never finished Quicksilver without it) it also means it is impossible to know whether a given detail is present because it is accurate or because it is working in service to Stephenson’s humor. To a small extent all historical fiction has this problem: what is fiction and what is history? Yet in Master and Commander this is easy enough to parse: the setting, technology, and politics are ruthlessly researched and accurate while the characters and events are fictitious. This division does not exist in Quicksilver because Stephenson’s wit operates on so many levels: puns, one liners, the written equivalent of sight gags, situational comedy, satire, and absurdism are all at work on every part of the story, from the dialogue to the characters to the setting to the events to the footnotes. What then are we to believe?

Of course, one solution to this problem is to read Quicksilver as straight fiction (leaving aside, temporarily, the fact this leaves Stephenson’s defense of western tradition, the book’s raison d’etre, twisting in the wind). But even as such, the fiction is stretched incredibly thin across a deluge of historical trivia. I may not be able to evaluate the history to know what is true and what Stephenson is making up, but I’m sure the vast majority of it is true. The amount of research that must have gone into the book is disturbing to contemplate. The trouble is, I just am not that interested. This is clearly a matter of taste. I’m well aware that many people are interested in the history on display in Quicksilver. Nevertheless, I am not interested enough to read a whole book on it, and I think I am very much not alone.

This problem carries over when we consider Stephenson’s mission. He wants to show people just how important science is in changing the face of the world, but by drenching his novel in detail he is ensuring he is only preaching to the converted. It is my opinion that very few people not already quite interested in history will get through Quicksilver and, of these, most will already have an appreciation for the role of the enlightment.

Still, despite the tedious stretches of detail, Stephenson’s humorous writing is in full effect and he is unquestionably more skilled now than he was when he wrote Snow Crash, which frequently made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, as part of his quest to show the reader just how privledged they are to have been born after these brave men reformed their primitive civilization into the science enabled jewel it is today, Stephenson spends a great deal of time in a very cruel type of humor. The best way to put it is that much of Quicksilver‘s humor is about making fun of the people in the 1600s for being irrational, barbaric, and, most importantly, extremely dirty. I don’t debate that they bathed rarely if at all, had very mistaken ideas about the transmission of disease, etc., but I found it poor taste to constantly laugh at them for it. If it had been one joke, or a couple hundred, I wouldn’t have noticed. Instead, practically every page somehow refers to how deplorably wretched their condition is. Again, the reason this is so prominent is Stephenson is showing the horrors that science has saved us from. And while I am glad I am living in a more enlightened age, I’m well aware of the fact had I been born in that time I wouldn’t realize anything was amiss. Humanity changes, if at all, much slower than technology, and it is odd that such a talented futurist would lose sight of this. I played along with the narrative on this for a while, but my breaking point was when someone dies of plague and the whole scene is played for laughs. A few weeks earlier I had read a book whose name escapes me where the process of dying of the plague was outlined in excruciating detail. That story brought home the heartbreak of watching your family die, and not just die, but die in fear and pain. I understand that Stephenson is not writing in that tone, but surely he had better options that to have a laugh at someone inconveniencing people by up and dying of the plague in a public place. In fact I think he misses a lot of power by never being serious, never showing the very real pain and suffering that science (particularly medical science) has saved all of us from having to face. That would be a lot more effective than just talking about how dirty it was back then, or how even the enlightened scientists keep dissecting dogs and getting the guts all over themselves.

Plenty of people love Quicksilver and the rest of the books in the Baroque Cycle. They’re welcome to it, but count me out. If I want to learn about the enlightenment, I’ll read a history book. If I want to read excellent historical fiction, I’ll read something by Dorothy Dunnett. If I want to read a really engaging narrative, well, there are many, many choices. If you haven’t read Stephenson’s other work, start with Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon. If you have, then give Quicksilver a try, but don’t be surprised if you find your patience being sorely tested.

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