Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

July 31, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in 3 stars | 5 Comments
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Seveneves coverWhen I started writing this blog, I had a strong preference for writing one review for a trilogy, not three reviews of the individual books. Most trilogies, I felt, were intended to be one work and should be evaluated as such. I’ve learned a lot about reviewing and my tastes have evolved in the intervening…yikes…eleven years, but I still like reviewing series together.

Wait long enough, though, and an exception will arrive. Seveneves is not a trilogy, it is a single novel. It’s long, but maybe not quite so long it could be split into three books. Nevertheless, it is easily divided into three parts, and these three parts really deserve to be considered separately. As a novel, it is rather less than the sum of its parts.

Neal Stephenson has a mix of registers, so it might help to note at the outset that Seveneves is told with the relatively dry, restrained prose that characterized Anathem. Stephenson is never entirely without humor, but this is far from the over the top fireworks of Snow Crash. Also like Anathem, much of the appeal here is in the detailed worldbuilding. The difference is that instead of Anathem‘s exploration of philosophy and quantum mechanics, Seveneves wants to look at the challenges humans face living in Earth orbit, now and in the future.

The novel opens with the unexplained explosion of the moon. Stephenson does his best to signpost the fact this will never be explained and follows through on that promise, something which feels a bit unsatisfying at first but doesn’t prove a serious obstacle. The moon explodes, and after just a bit of wondering, the focus is on what humanity is going to do about the significant amount of lunar material that is about to rain down on the Earth’s surface and render it uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The first third of the novel depicts humanity struggling to belatedly create a vast space program to get someone, anyone permanently into orbit where they can continue the species and recolonize Earth when the surface is once again inhabitable. I’m not a physicist, but there’s a lot of scientific detail here that sounds fairly convincing. The geopolitical details are less believable, but there’s a decent story here.

It’s a bit flat, though. Stephenson’s never been known for his characters and won’t change his reputation with this novel, but this section necessarily spends a lot of time setting up different characters and trying to get us to empathize. Mileage will vary, but I never cared all that much about any of the cast. The whole thing has a surprising (given what is actually happening) lack of urgency. Humanity is facing a doomsday clock counting down to the death of the entire species and the characters sort of putter around ineffectually.

The problem, perhaps, lies in Stephenson’s choice of characters. Foremost among them is Dr. DuBois Harris, a popular astronomer (and really a thinly disguised Dr. Neil DeGrass Tyson). At the beginning of the novel, the narrative allows him (not very plausibly, given he’s not a full-time scientist) to kind-of discover the implications of the moon’s explosion and (also not very plausbily) to brief the President of the United States, Julia Bliss Flaherty. But in the events that follow, he’s a bystander, called on to explain to the public what is going on and to appear at ceremonies.

The other main viewpoint character is Dinah MacQuarie, a robotics engineer who happens to also be an astronaut on the International Space Station. As one of only a handful of astronauts on the ISS at the start of the novel, like DuBois she is theoretically involved in the space program, but in practice mostly an observer as ISS is rapidly built out around her.

What’s missing is any perspective on the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who are surely pulling 80 hour weeks to create a crash space program that might barely save the species but won’t save them or their families. Stephenson’s choice of characters seems to reflect an interest in political hypocrisy, for DuBois and Dinah are both public figures who present a false image of themselves on social media. But this theoretically promising subject never develops into anything interesting. Both characters feel vaguely bad about it but decide it must be done. Each one also gets a bland romance as well for a smidgen of personal drama, but then it’s back to watching the space program happen around them.

Don’t get me wrong, the space program is pretty interesting. Stephenson has thought a lot about it and few science fiction readers will not find it amusing–perhaps even fascinating, depending on their interest in the subject–to watch him spend national treasuries on rockets and fly them around.

The second part of the novel is set entirely in space after the disaster is fully underway and depicts the embattled survivors trying to overcome a host of obstacles both political and environmental. The on-screen cast grows to include a broader range of stereotypes: the tough Russian, the lying, self-centered politician, the honest but naive scientist, the hard-working engineer.

Throughout this part there is an ugly undertone stemming from the lifeboat morality of the entire space program. If only a few can be saved, who should be chosen? Why, surely it is the scientists and engineers, the same people who are always valorized in Neal Stephenson novels (and in science fiction more generally), since their skills are needed to keep humanity alive! The story swiftly creates a division between Good Guys, who are the conscientious scientists and engineers just trying to make everything work and who, it doesn’t let us forget, deserve to be there, and the Bad Guys, who get in the way by cynically trying to get power for themselves. The bad guys are without exception people who, in the view of the narrative, don’t deserve to be there. This includes the US president, who used her power to secure herself a place on the lifeboat, but also most of the young people who weren’t part of the initial effort to bootstrap the ISS. These theoretically deserving people were chosen by a political process and therefore are suspect as well.

It’s bad enough that you took some deserving scientist or engineer’s spot, the book seems to say to these newcomers, so be grateful you’re here at all and do what your betters tell you to do. Because in one of the least likely decisions among many improbable elements, Earth authorities (first among them the conniving, dishonest US President) put scientists in charge of the space colony. They benevolently rule from the ISS while most of the survivors are spread out among a trailing swarm of small spacecraft. When the political situation decays and the swarm refuses to accept the authority of their masters in the ISS, the narrative blames this on the swarm’s naivete and the machinations of the cartoonishly evil US president. No blame whatsoever is assigned to the allegedly charismatic leader of ISS Markus Leuker, to his chief lieutenant Ivy, or to DuBois, who is supposedly a great communicator but makes almost no effort to keep the ordinary survivors informed and then is shocked, shocked when they fall into believing pseudo-scientific plans. It’s not the leaders’ fault, the book seems to say, because ultimately these are well-intentioned Good Guys who are so good they can’t even conceive of anyone else not sharing their benevolent goals. They’re no match for the vast self-centereness and political superpowers of the US President.

Yet in spite of all this, the second section of the book develops into a very compelling story. After the surprisingly low-key and unreasonably upbeat first third of the novel, out of nowhere the second section takes an incredibly bleak tone. Not only do we finally see that Stephenson isn’t going to give Earth any salvation, we also experience firsthand just how terrifyingly dangerous it is to spend any amount of time in low Earth orbit. Micrometeorites rupture hulls, supplies of food and oxygen-creating algae dwindle, and people are poisoned by radiation from the sun, Van Allen belts, and their own spacecraft. Mistakes and accidents compound and the survivors’ situation gets worse to the point that all hope is lost. Then, it gets worse again. And then still worse! There are some strange pacing decisions where time skips forward unexpectedly, passing over some major events and allowing some seemingly important characters to die off screen, but what is shown has a propulsive pace. Characters struggle and die, and with each death the end of the human species seems to draw nearer.

This golden nugget of narrative, buried though it is within a clunky shell of infodumps and contrived events, is so good it’s worth reading the novel to get it. Too bad, then, that the last third of the book is an unmitigated disaster. Jumping forward a tremendous amount of time to when humanity is prospering again, it showcases a vast space civilization locked in a cold war. Thousands of years later, it seems the descendents of the previous section’s Good Guys are…wait for it…still the Good Guys. No points for guessing who the bad guys are. The story, which is very thinly distributed now between vast sections that are content to simply describe huge space stations and orbital mechanics, involves a mission to the slightly recolonized Earth to investigate reports of humans who allegedly survived the moon disaster without going into space.

This theoretically interesting investigation plays out tediously and with a minimum of drama. None of the characters believe there could really be any other survivors, but as readers we know there are, because otherwise why would we be shown the investigation? Worse, we already can guess who they are, because in the most contrived part of a massive novel full of contrivances, there are no less than two distinct other surviving groups that were each founded by someone related closely to a viewpoint character on the original ISS.

Readers who are really interested in what enormous mechanisms a far future humanity might build in space might still enjoy this section anyway for the exposition. Certainly the space science struck me, a total non-expert, as almost entirely convincing (the one doubt I have comes from the suspicious repetition of a few pet ideas, swarms and chains). But there’s also a lot of time spent on the dubious social dynamics of the two future societies, and here the worldbuilding is less than convincing.

The first problem is the narrative is obsessed with race. I just opened the book to the final third and literally the first sentence I laid eyes on was applying a racial stereotype: “like all [of his race], he put his family name first, because it was somehow more logical”. It would be an interesting exercise to count how many times a behavior is attributed to race in this section, but not interesting enough for me to actually do it. Suffice to say, it happens constantly. At first I wondered if some point was being made about the social construction of race, something David Anthony Durham did to great effect in his Acacia series, but instead it is made clear these races are the products of genetic engineering and therefore this racial behavior is almost entirely genetically determined. This is a legitimate thing to posit about the story’s races given their genetic engineering technology, but it’s aesthetically displeasing due to its close similarity to ignorant claims about the races of the present. Readers who don’t care about that will still find it tiresome, as nearly every page slows the narrative’s slow pace still further with constant asides about the racial origins of this or that character’s minor tic.

The second and perhaps bigger problem is that glacial pace. There have been many great novels written with a slow pace, and if this third section was a novel by itself it wouldn’t be quite so much of a defect. But this is just the third section of a larger novel, a third section that follows the extremely tense and bleak second section. Compared to what has gone before, it seems so slow that it’s stationary.

Additionally, whereas the survival of the human race was endangered throughout the second section and there was a real sense everything might be lost, the stakes in the third section are quite low. Again, the cold war plot might have seemed important in its own novel, but now it seems utterly trivial. Perhaps in some other universe there’s an interesting point being made, because there’s an interesting contrast here between the survival of the species against petty political concerns and showing how the “great events” that the characters (and often we, in our lives) think are so important are really insubstantial when viewed through a world-historical lens.

But the novel doesn’t seem to have noticed this contrast, much less orchestrated it. None of the characters we meet seem to care all that much about the war, either. And with the vast majority of the third section’s narrative is given over to description of space stations, aircraft, and other technological toys, there’s no time to provide any sociological detail beyond the onslaught of racial stereotypes, resulting in contradictions like continued assertions that one Bad Guy race are all masters of psychological manipulation yet the Bad Guy faction’s propaganda channel is a cheesy farce clearly based on hilariously ineffective Communist propaganda of the twentieth century.

And so Seveneves concludes by drifting through towering forests of exposition carpeted with an undergrowth of small events until finally, as in Stephenson’s previous book, REAMDE, everyone comes together for climactic gunfight described in tedious detail. It’s not nearly so long as REAMDE‘s, at least, and once the Good Guys have of course triumphed, representatives from all the different cultures of human survivors come together and–I wish I was kidding–make hotel accommodations. The end. Somehow this is simultaneously a damp squib of an ending and also full of the sort of contrived coincidences that are usually crutches to setup something genuinely exciting. Stephenson’s irritating need to pair off characters at the end of his books also makes an appearance.

Seveneves is a difficult book to rate and recommend because its quality is so uneven. The middle section, as I’ve said, is a great piece of science fiction despite some imperfections, yet it can’t be read without reading the so-so first part for context. And no one who has read that far will want to stop, however well-advised they would be to do so. And the fact is, for readers who enjoy infodumps about spaceships there’s a lot to like throughout, even in the third section. Over the years I have heard at least one person mention every single Neal Stephenson novel as their favorite, from The Big U through REAMDE, and I think Seveneves will attract more adherents than many, perhaps even more than my own favorite, Anathem. Perhaps I should be grateful, because if books like this could be boiled down to a simple thumbs-up or star rating, there would be no reason to read long reviews!

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REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

August 23, 2012 at 2:42 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews | 2 Comments
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Reamde CoverSince the publication of Cryptonomicon in 1999, people have been having a hard time putting Neal Stephenson in a box. It was his science fiction that first catapulted him to prominence with first Snow Crash and then the Hugo award-winning Diamond Age. Cryptonomicon felt similar somehow to Snow Crash, with its irreverent style, technological speculation, and (it must be said) paper-thin characters, but its two storylines were set in the present day and World War II, not the future. In the genre subsection of Wikipedia’s article on the book, it first notes that it was nominated for science fiction awards, then admits that the book is really closer to a hybrid between historical fiction and techno-thriller. Since then, Stephenson’s work has been more easily classifiable, from his enormous historical fiction trilogy The Baroque Cycle to the solidly science fictional Anathem. But his latest book, REAMDE, brings us back to something like Cryptonomicon‘s genre, whatever that was.

Now the above paragraph isn’t bad evidence for the argument we should dismiss genre as a marketing device and ignore it when we talk about books. The reason I bring it up, however, is that provided we all operate from the same definitions of the terms involved, genre distinctions allow us to say some complicated things quite concisely. Cryptonomicon was a novel that used the techniques of both historical fiction and the techno-thriller in service to a science fictional sensibility. Specifically, it was saying that technology had changed the world in interesting and not entirely understood ways, and entertaining though it was, the novel was attempting to illuminate those changes. That’s the mission statement (well, one of them) of science fiction, which is why the novel as a whole felt like science fiction even though none of its individual parts were.

Conversely, REAMDE uses some of the techniques of science fiction in service of a techno-thriller sensibility. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about science fiction and techno-thrillers. Anyone who has read this blog, or even just the right-hand sidebar, will be able to guess how I feel about it.

REAMDE is set in the very near future, a future that is almost exactly like the present except that World of Warcraft is no longer the dominant massively multiplayer role playing game. The new king of the hill is T’Rain, and Stephenson invests a fair amount of time in explaining the game’s development history and what differentiates it from what has gone before. He does so with his characteristic humor and clarity, and an ignorance of existing games is probably no obstacle to enjoying the novel. Unfortunately, as someone who does know something about the games industry, I never found T’Rain believable as an actual game. I’ve had this problem with Stephenson before. Snow Crash was the novel that introduced virtual reality to what seems like an entire generation of people, but when read closely many of the details didn’t make sense. In the case of T’Rain, Stephenson has a couple of interesting ideas about game economies and gamification, but he doesn’t seem to care much about actual games, so many of the details of the virtual world that he casually drops are jarring and bizarre. For example, we are told T’Rain is set on a virtual planet that is the exactly the same size as Earth and are treated to an in-depth discussion of the geological simulation software used to generate the terrain. Anyone who has played these games would know that’s absurdly large, and that in real games it is common for a game character to be able to jog across the entire “world” in less than an hour. That’s not to say it’s impossible to make a much larger game, or that it wouldn’t be an interesting thing to attempt, but it would have a lot of implications both for the gameplay as well as the development process, none of which are discussed in the novel. That’s just one example, but almost every gameplay detail that’s mentioned is like this (another example is the fact characters continually get stronger and there’s no level cap). These apparently throwaway details can’t be combined into a model of T’Rain the game that makes sense, presumably because the author doesn’t particularly care.

Since T’Rain is the center of almost all the book’s speculative content, if REAMDE was really a science fiction novel my difficulties with the game would have been a nearly fatal obstacle to my enjoyment. Instead, it didn’t matter much, and the true obstacles lay elsewhere. The novel’s actual plot begins with an extortion racket run by Chinese hackers. As described, their method for stealing data and selling it back to its owners is, if not completely impossible, then deeply implausible. It works almost perfectly, of course, and through an incredible series of coincidences they accidentally steal data from a Russian crime syndicate which in turn takes some Americans hostage and brings them to Xiamen to try to recover the data. Through a further string of coincidences, one of these hostages ends up taken prisoner by Islamic terrorists and brought with them back to the United States as they prepare a 9/11-style attack.

From the preceding paragraph it should be clear REAMDE is one of those stories that sounds utterly absurd when briefly summarized. I would put forward that whenever you notice this is true about a story, you resist the urge to immediately rule out the possibility that this is because the story really is utterly absurd. For much of the first half of REAMDE, Stephenson’s prose is amusing enough that I was willing to just go with it in spite of how increasingly silly it all seemed. But around the halfway point either the author or the reader ran out of steam and the whole thing became more and more of a slog (I want to blame the author, but it could have been my patience…though it’s worth noting that REAMDE is an extremely long novel and reader endurance, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons most authors avoid this kind of length).

Thanks to the T’Rain material, there’s a novella’s worth of good science fictional ideas contained within REAMDE‘s plus-size length. As I’ve said it wouldn’t be a good novella, but it’s worth mentioning that inside that novella is a novelette about the two fantasy authors contracted to write T’Rain’s lore that’s a funny and effective satire. But all of this is a sideline to the novel’s real business.

REAMDE‘s true identity as a techno-thriller is revealed by its deep interest in questions of tactics. What’s the fastest way to find a Chinese hacker in Xiamen if you know their IP address but can’t leverage local law enforcement? What should an MI6 operative do if their espionage operation’s cover is blown? How do you take a stolen plane from China to North America without the authorities detecting you? Stephenson has what seem to me believable answers to these and many, many similar questions, culminating in the novel’s “climax”, a large gun battle described in excruciating detail across hundreds of pages. Stephenson has choreographed every second of this afternoon-long engagement, frequently slowing down to inventory the orientation of a character’s hips and the inclination of each arm. The result is like watching a tabletop wargaming enthusiast demonstrate their favorite game by playing both sides for hours while you sit and watch, and about as interesting.

Throughout this process no attempt is made to address any questions more substantial than this endless tactical trivia. You’d think a writer as thoughtful as Stephenson wouldn’t be able to write such a long novel with Islamic terrorists as the bad guys without saying something about Islamic terrorism as a phenomenon. But no: though Stephenson is careful to draw his terrorist characters from a vast variety of backgrounds, he never presents any thesis about why they are doing what they are doing. This is particularly noticeable with the chief villain, Abdullah Jones, born and educated in the West and portrayed as culturally distinct from most of his fellow travelers. Why would a man with Jones’ background become an Islamic terrorist? It’s not that I didn’t like the book’s answer, or found it unconvincing, but rather that the novel does not provide even a banal answer to this question. Maybe we shouldn’t expect psychological realism from a novel with a plot as hard to take seriously as this one, but for me it was frustrating to read a book so focused on answering how at such incredible length without ever discussing why.

This is why I began with a discussion of genre, because this is not a flaw unique to REAMDE, but rather one it shares with many techno-thrillers. While there are other antecedents, what most people think of as techno-thrillers were born out of the Cold War of the late 1970s and early 1980s in America. The American military had changed dramatically since Vietnam but the long-awaited fight with the Soviets failed to materialize. To a certain type of person, this aroused an intense curiosity in the form a modern war would take. Writers like Tom Clancy did their best to provide realistic renditions of the mechanics of a modern first-world conflict, but they had to resort to increasingly implausible geopolitical measures to generate these narratives. There were good reasons, after all, this sort of war wasn’t happening in the real world. In Clancy’s case, this meant he eventually was delivering impeccably researched descriptions of the American military in cartoon strategic settings, like a Japanese invasion of the Marianas islands. In REAMDE, Stephenson posits there are Islamic sleeper cells in the United States and Canada with an operational strength of several dozen suicide-willing people unknown to American intelligence. A few people really believe this is the case, but you never get the feeling Stephenson is one of these people. He just wants to have enough tokens on his final battle gameboard to make it interesting.

Because REAMDE has a plot that punishes any attempt to look at the big picture, I’ve so far ignored the characters. By Stephenson’s standards they are pretty good, especially at first, but the longer the story goes the less impressive they are. Richard Forthrast appears to be a stand-in for Stephenson himself, being about Stephenson’s age and interested in most of the same things. The main difference is that Richard is incredibly rich…make of that what you will. Other than being a vector for the author’s opinions, Richard never gets to do all that much, and the book’s real action revolves around Zula, who is sympathetic but very generic, despite what should have been a fascinating background as an African war orphan. Beyond them there are a dozen or so minor characters, all of whom are characterized by applying a single adjective to a national stereotype. So there’s the crazy Russian man, the competent Russian man, the friendly Chinese woman, the geeky Chinese man, etc. In a startlingly old-fashioned maneuver, at the end of the story the author hands out relationship assignments for three pairs of characters.

Like many of REAMDE‘s problems, the characters would have seemed stronger if the book had just been shorter. Stephenson’s chief weakness, in my estimation, is that he has the stamina to write at such incredible length (and so much success that editors have no desire to rein him in), a length which magnifies other problems while undermining what is clearly his great strength, his wit and humor. What we need is for some hero to offer Stephenson an incredible amount of money to write an 80,000 word self-contained novel. I say hero, but actually everyone would make out like bandits when Stephenson’s usual sales volume rolled in and weren’t weighed down by production costs (the costs of editing and production should mean a bigger margin on shorter novels, even for ebooks).

I can’t end this review without mentioning the title. Thanks to the slow pace of book publishing, before the book even came out I had many months to consider it. Well, actually for the first month or two I misread it and thought the book was going to be called README, a reasonable title for a book I thought was about the Internet. Then I realized it was, in fact, REAMDE. Although for years I have wanted to write a post on this blog about SF titles, I’ve never wanted it quite enough to actually do it, so I can’t link to my criteria. You’ll have to take it on faith that REAMDE is a bad title, record-setting bad, by all but one (whatever its other faults, it’s very easy to Google). A lot of genre books have bad titles for understandable reasons, but it turns out REAMDE is called REAMDE because the Chinese scam uses a file called REAMDE. Why is that file called REAMDE, you ask? The answer provided by the novel, which you recall analyzes everything in tedious detail, turns out to be that REAMDE is just what the file was called. It doesn’t mean anything. So perhaps it’s an apt title after all.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

February 23, 2009 at 12:46 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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When I first heard a new Neal Stephenson book was coming out, I wasn’t too interested. When I heard it was a space opera, I started paying more attention. I’m one of those people who enjoyed Stephenson’s work up to, but not including, the Baroque Cycle. I only made it through Quicksilver. I wrote about my complaints somewhat after the fact, but basically it boiled down to the book being about five times too long, historically untrustworthy, and thematically uninteresting (“enlightenment: yay”).

The good news is that Anathem is two times too long, in fact maybe even only one and a half times too long. Instead of being an endlessly discursive narrative, it’s a very focused narrative that just spins its wheels for a couple hundred pages in the middle. That’s a much more forgivable problem. Meanwhile, Stephenson is still writing all this for the greater glory of modernism, but in this time, it’s philosophy that’s on the menu, and the portion size is very large. I enjoyed this, but if you don’t like philosophy, this is not the book for you.

That said, the best part of the book is the marvelous world he has constructed for his philosophy lectures. Stephenson’s monastic theorists are probably his most interesting creation, and his social satire is more subtle than usual–that is to say, still not that subtle, but more effective. The plot isn’t bad, and while the ending wasn’t what it could have been, I always go into Stephenson expecting the worst when it comes to his endings so I was fine with it. The characters are, well, who reads Stephenson for his characters? The main characters are drawn from broad types and there’s some incredibly chemistry-less romance. The two reasons for reading the book are the world-building and the philosophy, and while that praise sounds a little faint, I enjoyed both a great deal.

Much of the online discussion of the book has gravitated towards Stephenson’s invented vocabulary. Yes, sometimes it’s clever and more often it’s annoying, but really while it’s going to shock any non-genre readers he’s picked up from Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, by science fiction standards it is on the high end of the scale but not off it. The real problem I had with the invented lingo, which I haven’t seen much in discussions, is the fact that in reading the book I learned a lot of philosophy, but all that knowledge is filed under invented terms instead of the ones from our world. I mean, I kind of see who the Plato analogue was, but I don’t know enough real philosophy to connect a lot of the terms and the other philosophers. I’m sure someone will create a nice chart, but I probably won’t see it before I forget everything the book taught me anyway.

All things considered, this might be Stephenson’s best work. It’s not as fun as Snow Crash and not as effective as Cryptonomicon, but it has a lot more interesting world-building and didactic content than either (don’t get me started on Snow Crash‘s faux-linguistics). Stephenson’s come a long way from the bold stylist who made a name for himself with outlandish satire, and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

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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