Review: Neal Stephenson – Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Book 1)


My review of Book 2 of The Baroque Cycle, ‘The Confusion’.

My review of Book 3 of The Baroque Cycle, ‘The System of the World’.


Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Book 1)Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Book 1) by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Institution

In reviewing Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon I gave it four stars, and confessed myself somewhat generous. In giving Quicksilver three stars I am, perhaps, being a little harsh – but less harsh than I was generous with Cryptonomicon. Thus Stephenson is still winning, so I don’t feel guilty.

Where to begin? How about with institutional matters? Stephenson’s work – at least with Cryptonomicon and here with Quicksilver as the first of three works in the Baroque Cycle – has to be considered as something of an institution. Quicksilver itself is a huge work, being composed of three novels in itself. The characters, set as the work is in the early period of the Enlightenment, are the ancestors of the characters in Quicksilver, thus stretching coincidence rather much in seeing happenstance place them in one another’s company in this fashion as their descendants are to later be placed in one another’s company again by pure chance.

Though the work may be regarded as – essentially – historically accurate, with many notable individuals of the period, (Newton, Hooke, the nobility et al), playing significant roles in the narrative, two fantasy elements intrude. One is Enoch Root, an individual who – presumably in the period of time this work covers – discovers the secret of longevity, if not eternal life, as an alchemist, thus enabling him to pop up again in Cryptonomicon three hundred years later. I say ‘presumably’ given we’re not actually told this, nor how it happened, it just is. The other is the fantasy island of Qwghlm located somewhere off the coast of, (I think), Scotland. (You will see ‘I think’ cropping up a great deal in this review I suspect).

Another unifying theme is that of cryptography. In this work, it is used largely by aristocratic or other noteworthy characters communicating with one another in the knowledge that their writing is to be perused by various courts’ spies at a time of considerable political unrest.

The Plot

The basis for the institutional nature of the work out of the way, this is the point where I would usually turn to the plot. Well, forget it. It’s not going to happen. As far as I can work it out, book one, Quicksilver, (which is to say book one of the first book of the Baroque Cycle, itself called Quicksilver, in the three books the first volume spans, if you follow me), we’re confronted by two main narratives; one involving the friendship between the character Daniel Waterhouse with Isaac Newton in its development at college; the other his being called back from the Americas to where he has migrated to mediate in a feud between Newton and Leibniz. The ship upon which he sets sail is beset by pirates. Book two, The King of the Vagabonds, has as its central character one Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond and adventurer, who rescues one Eliza from some sort of a harem thing before returning across Europe with her, at which point their narratives, too, bifurcate. Book three, Odalisque, throws us back into the politics of the period in England, largely through the eyes of Eliza and Daniel Waterhouse, rather annoyingly as a prequel to book one. Why this order, Mr. Stephenson? Again, the narrative suffers – and I do mean ‘suffers’ – from bifurcation.

In all this rattling around it would be difficult to ascribe ‘a plot’ to the narrative, though there are sub-plots aplenty. Consider the period. Indeed, consider any historical period. There is no plot, only events, effective anecdotes that may or may not interrelate and impact one upon another, but no plot as such. Stephenson models his narrative upon this even when, (most notably in the second book), he may instead have drifted into some more traditional approach to narrative structure.

A Pre-emptive Compliment

Before I start hacking Quicksilver to bits – and trust me, I’m about to do just that, the odd passing remark up there is nowt but practice thrusts with a broom handle – a compliment. If I had half his talent I… well, I wouldn’t use it for a work like this. It’s too ambitious, overstuffed and, while doubtless brilliant in its scope, misses too many tricks in its actual execution. That’s the problem with institutions. They’re prone to forget people matter. In the case of Quicksilver, the forgotten people are characters and the reader both.

So, now for the fun bit. It’s gripe time.

Structure

First, structure. You get the feeling that Stephenson would have made good as an architect. Look around the book and it’s littered with embellishments, odd furnishings, interesting little alcoves, grotesque statuary, wonderful stuff. Trouble is, a novel is not a house you live in for a month or more, (in this case), and explore, going from room to room and back again. It’s a path. Whether Stephenson likes it or not, a novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You start on page one, you work forwards. You don’t skip from chapter to chapter and then back again and then sally forth into another part of the book altogether for an interesting change. Progression is linear. The reader has no choice.

Stephenson clearly detests linear narrative.

Okay, that’s no bad thing. Trouble is, if you’re going to go off that and bounce your reader all over the show, you’ve got to provide signposts, give the reader a chance to get his breath back, give the odd in-passing recap. If you’re going to present a reader with a townful of characters on page 19, then you’d better signal which one of them is going to prove to be of significance on page 691, not just hope the reader can remember the face from the crowd. If you’re going to amaze the reader with numerous architectural embellishments, make sure he knows what is embellishment, and what’s actually required to hold the roof up lest he forget about it and, two-hundred pages later, the ceiling caves in on him and he’s left trying to reassemble the story from the rubble.

The work is just too bloody hard.

You see how I did that? I just said it. In looking at others’ comments, so few do. Here’s the thing, you see. I can say something is too bloody hard because I’m a really clever bastard and I know it. If I say something’s too bloody hard, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It just means it’s too bloody hard. There now! If you read it too, found it too bloody hard and didn’t dare say so, you’re exonerated. Now go back and edit your review and say so, you wuss.

That unnecessary difficulty is not my only gripe, but it is by far the most frustrating thing about the work, particularly a work so gargantuan, and particularly so gargantuan a work with two equally-gargantuan sequels I am about to read. Pity me, darlings. Obsessive completism is a burden. Let’s hope that someone pointed out the error of Stephenson’s ways and he took it to heart after Quicksilver, what follows not being so onerous. This one issue, resolved, would have added a whole ‘nother star to this review. Other concerns are minor by comparison.

Characterisation

Nonetheless, they exist, and the next is characterisation. The period of the Enlightenment – or the pre-Enlightenment, as some would suggest the period to be – is a fascinating one. Imagine the existential impact. For, quite literally, millennia, the world has been ordered by a God. Not a blade of grass grows, not a sparrow falls, the paths of the planets in their orbits and all the rest of it. The Hand of God is everywhere and yet, in a sudden swerve of understanding, people begin to discover a mechanistic universe, a universe in which God – at least in terms of intervention – appears to be increasingly absent, leaving things to their own devices. It’s as if some particularly absent-minded child were to realise that, for the past fortnight, the microwave has been set up on automatic to provide all his meals, commands to go to bed came courtesy of a tape recorder on a timer and that, unknown to him, his mother had run off with the milkman a fortnight earlier. That’s gotta have an impact. And yet we don’t see it. Stephenson deals with this massive change not in a study of the angst and confusion of the individuals with their discoveries but, rather, as the founding of new institutions and the splitting off of differing ideals. The theological implications must surely have been at the forefront of his characters’ minds. They were, after all, men of faith themselves on the whole. Indeed, at one point he almost seems to suggest something evolutionary. Enoch Root finds himself in an encounter with a young Benjamin Franklin, still only a child, and notes the child’s tendency towards the analytical approach. His observation upon it is as if some new species has intruded and that Franklin is merely one of its exemplars. In reality, though, it is – of course – false. The change was happening at the level of the individual, the transformation from men of faith to those having that faith at least challenged in its broad sweep in a universe which refused to conform to it.

Stephenson loves intellectuals. Well, good on him, so do I but really, they can be overused. Few of the characters are ill-equipped for timely, witty ripostes, even the vagabond and the peasant girl kidnapped from her homeland and sold into slavery who compete with the best of ’em, and though it makes for some lively writing, it tends to undermine the realism. It doesn’t descend quite to the level of Monty Python’s Oscar Wilde sketch, but it comes perilously close.

Cryptography

If an absence of realism is the fault underlying some of the above, so to with the cryptography references. Now, I’m no cryptographer, but I’m guessing this is how it would work. If you’re going to recount the events of the week in cogent fashion and yet somehow hide within that a message, then I suspect it would take a day or two to come up with a half a page of decent writing to disguise nothing more than ‘Behind the bike sheds, 3.00pm. Don’t tell Bill.’ And yet our kidnapped peasant girl, Eliza, has such a facility with the art that she is able to write entirely factual and verifiable accounts of her activities that disguise a message within it all that tells the truth about what was really happening; a truth that comes out in thousands, tens-of-thousands of words of the most exquisite prose, complete with playful asides and inconsequential diversions. A lifetime’s work and maybe, but a regular chore on Thursday afternoons? I think not.

The Mysteriously Pointless Mr. Root

Ah, but – you may say – Stephenson is clearly not interested in realism to that extent. This seems more of a fantasy. What of Enoch Root?

Well, no, sorry. With Enoch Root, Stephenson – in Quicksilver as in Cryptonomicon – neither eats his cake, nor has it. We know that Root is immortal, or at least ridiculously long-lived, given his alchemic experimentation, but we only know that because we’re told. We see nothing of the drama of his discoveries, nothing of the impact it has upon him, nothing of the way he has to organise his life to accommodate so drastic a change… indeed, we see nothing at all. Root is just another character. He comes and goes and, aside from being somewhat wiser than his fellows, his role may readily be filled by any normal individual with somewhat more insight than most. Even on the odd occasion we see the world from his perspective, we see the world through the eyes of a perfectly normal man without idiosyncratic concerns as we may expect a man who has hundreds of years of life ahead of him to have. All told, we hardly see anything of him at all. He’s a pointless embellishment, like an iPhone 6 in a Botticelli painting. Without him, we have a historical novel without any fantasy element whatsoever. With him… well, we have a historical novel without any fantasy element whatsoever as far as I can see. He doesn’t even intrude into the narrative enough to stand out like a sore thumb.

Much the same may be said of Qwghlm. What’s the point?

Summary

To summarise. Stephenson is a brilliant writer, but he lets himself down badly with this one, many of the complaints being similar to those I would level at Cryptonomicon. Primarily, Quicksilver is a difficult read, unnecessarily so, and this would have been a four-star, not a three-star review were it not for that. The other criticisms are niggles by comparison; not insignificant, but not gravely threatening to the integrity of the work. Still, they’re niggles that would have been better off in their absence.

Overall, this is a masterful work. Stephenson’s knowledge, his depth of research, his ability to write in such breadth all seem almost superhuman. I, for one, would have no idea how anyone could sit down and write anything so ambitious and succeed to the extent that Stephenson has. It verges upon the frightening. It would be tempting to say that – like one man building a castle with his bare hands – Stephenson had to skimp on some things just to get the job done, but that’s not it. The job is done, and done well. Every gargoyle is different, pleasing; every room has its own character. The problem is quite the opposite. Stephenson goes overboard. There’s too much of some things at the expense of some others. There are pointless extensions and needless blind corridors. There are too many cooks and not enough kitchen, and what they cook up is overspiced which is a nuisance because he appears to have not bothered with washrooms – too prosaic – for when the eating gets too rich. Above all, it’s almost impossible to find your way around.

It’s too much, Mr. Stephenson. It’s way, way too much.


One thought on “Review: Neal Stephenson – Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Book 1)

  1. Pingback: Review: Neal Stephenson – The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Book 2) | Pete Marchetto

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