Sunday, January 16, 2005

Novel: Slow Going

Quicksilver Neil Stephenson, Morrow Publishing, 928 pages

I once said the Neil Stephenson writes the best first fifty pages in SF, and did not mean it as a compliment. Snow Crash had an amazing opening sequence, but the rest of the book never lived up to that opening. Diamond Age posed the same problem for me, and after the initial chapters, I trailed off in my devotion to it and eventually abandoned it like a bad date.

And Cryptonomicon, well, it frustrated me, so much so that I gave the volume away after I had finished it (A friend noted I must have a library of mediocre books – the ones I like I recommend I give away to others, while the ones I dislike I send into exile). Several images stay in my mind – broad stone steps in the Philipines, an exploded airliner reconstructed in mid-disaster, and gold flowing from beneath a mountain, but in the end I had to admit that I didn’t get it. Well written? Yes. Informative? Uh-huh? A doorstop. OK.

Yet despite this I asked for Quicksilver as a birthday present and took it along as my sole reading on the trips to Canada and California (but not Pittsburgh – I’ll bring along weighty tomes for car trips but not onto an airplane these days). In between trips it sat next to the bed, read a chapter at a time before bed, almost abandoned, but not quite. A 12-hour service upgrade on Comcast gave me the reason to finish it.

Now all this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, and indeed it is a bit of an climb (Not El Capitan in Yosemite, perhaps, but a good-sized cliff in any event). Yet I got it because it dealt with a period that I was interested in and had only passing knowledge in – the Enlightment at the end of the 17th Century. I had listened to the Pepys diaries, and knew that it was the period after the Restoration and before the Glorious Revolution and there was fire and plague and war, and various Worthies had been rolling around that time, but that was about it.

And Stephenson’s verbose style and textural density works for him incredibly well in this volume while the same traits failed for me in Cryptonomicon. Here was is a place, much like traditional fantasy, where long explanations of minting coins and ship’s rigging and Natural Philosophy is not only expected by required for basic understanding. More than a few times the rivets of research show, but it has the feeling of a lot of solid backing.

The book is about the ancestors of the main characters in the Cryptonomicon. We have Daniel Waterhouse, who thinks much and acts little, and Jack Shaftoe, who thinks little and acts much. The pair do not even meet in this first volume, but they share the point of being witnesses and catalysts to history (The Monkey King puts forward the idea that this is where the title comes from – Alchemical quicksilver causing changes in others while remaining unchanged itself). Indeed, the men hew to their chosen courses like great ships running before the wind, and are instrumental in many small doings that have much greater results. A third character arises Eliza, from the mythical Cryptonomicon nation of Qwghlm, who is mostly with Jack but glances off Daniel, and who has her own arc, carrying through in areas where neither man could go. Indeed, Eliza takes over for Jack when the latter disappears from this volume about two-thirds of the way through. And there is the mysterious Enoch Root, who may or may not be the same character we see in Cryptonomicon - he may be an ancestor, an alchemical immortal, or a time traveler, but he fills the role of the strong wooden club that comes along and slams the characters back into the path of onrushing history.

If you can see the rivets in research, you can also see the style points in certain scenes, such as the page-long dissection of the horrid state of British coinage, which presages Newton's running the mint. Waterhouse’s bits felt ponderous and learned, and while Jack’s were more swashbuckling, these stylistic star turns were cases of the author showing off (and showing off well). And then we hit the Broadway number.

This one bit was the tipping point for me, at which stage I put myself entirely in Stephenson’s hands, where I surrendered to his literary seige. Jack is syphilitic, and prone to delusions. While riding into Paris, he starts to have a bout of madness, in which all of Paris begins to sing – bakers, clerics, mourners, soldiers, Huguenot prisoners being marched off to slavery, everyone. And I read this and I realize I am suddenly in the middle of a musical, sort of a twisted version of Oliver. The text itself just takes wing at this point and Stephenson triumphs.

And at that point I knew I would have to purchase the other two doorstops in the collection for future reading -The Confusion and The System of the World (which I received for Christmas, so the publishers may sleep easy this evening). I have no idea where Stephenson is going with these characters, but I’m will to follow along, out of deep curiosity if nothing else. Shaftoe, Waterhouse, and Eliza and engaging, modern characters who bring across the values of the times past, and while flickers of the modern world glimmer in the darkness (banking, binaries, and abolition), it is very much of its times.

But for the moment, I need to read something a little lighter in the lifting category. More later,