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November 03, 2003


The reason I am antsy is because after about five weeks, I have finished Quicksilver. Now there is nothing on the side of the bed for me to fall asleep to.

Like the rest of the world who is hip to Goto Dengo and Van Eck Phreaking, I eagerly awaited Neal Stephenson's next opus. When Quicksilver hit the shelves, well even before, we plunked down our ducats for the next adventure. Having completed it, I find it a mixed bag, but I'm still waiting for the next one.

Unlike Cryptonomicon, I can't imagine ever going back to parse the pages of Q for fun. But I can see myself digging into it once again to catch the flavor of the days before science. One of the reasons I haven't gone bugger all bonkers over the flap over the one minion who says this is a war against Islam is because, having been immersed in Quicksilver, I've been accustomed to hearing characters bloviate obtusely with no idea of the implications of their utterings. To read of Bulldogs, Frogs, Clogs and Wogs all ranting their zargon over the meaning of Papistry and other Christian cults is more a testament to my obsession to minutia than to Stephenson's art. But detail is fun for obsessives. Once.

As a chronicle of the evolution of a kind of literacy, Quicksilver pales in comparison to the Neveryon Series by Samuel R. Delaney. That is because it fails to bridge the gap between the fanciful and the historical. In otherwords, true ancient history told in realtime is boring as hell - the greater the verisimilitude the more appealing it is to historians themselves. The rest of us who are depending on the context of the narrative itself to fill in the blanks are left in the dark. Especially with a wishy-washy protagonist like Daniel Waterhouse, there is no telling who is good, bad or ugly. With such a galaxy of characters, their own tales would have added richly to the book. Instead, we only know them through their inscrutable interactions with the main characters, Waterhouse, Eliza and Shaftoe. Such simple, but structurally crucial narratives are subsumed into the the rococco tapestry of an all too well documented world. And so we are left with a map of a mysterious world, and no matter how much we fuss over the details, we have no idea what might happen next. This is the kind of mystery that is engaging for about 500 pages, but not 400 after that.

Reading Q itself becomes the subtext of reading Q. We know that Liebniz will get the credit for calculus while Newton's fluxions languish into obscurity. As an ur-text, Quicksilver invites further exploration of the characters of antiquity. I don't know why I know Christopher Wren, and reading Q does not help much. I should like to find out more. The same goes for Wilkins and his universal language. There's so much to know and Q provides a spine for tracking back. As a reference book made narrative, it works. I predict that will be much of the cache of Quicksilver.

I like the idea of an immersive franchise. As I write this, I am listening to the 'Truth and Reconciliation Suite' by O'Donnell & Salvatori. Hell, I even bought Myst III. Even though this volume is the kind of disappointment that would not stand on its own (without Cryptonomicon) I find that problem does not mitigate my enthusiasm for the next installement. There is much more history to pursue in the Baroque series.

Quicksilver has huge swaths of brilliance. The adventures of Eliza and Shaftoe in the lands of the Vagabonds was quite a rollicking section. The cat & mouse with Waterhouse off the Massachussets coast was extraordinary. The escape of Shaftoe from the costume ball, the descriptions of Hooke's laboratory and work, the very letters and dialog of Liebniz all great. The working of nobility, the mercantilist economies, the dangers of womanhood, the details of clothing, the odd mix of language all combine to illustrate a time and place which have become indelible in my imagination of London and Paris.

In Stephenson's next volume I am looking forward to the Renaissence in full splendor, the American and French Revolutions. This is going to be fabulous. This time, however I'll know to bone up beforehand.

Posted by mbowen at November 3, 2003 12:24 PM

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I just blogrolled you. I make it a point not to blogroll conservative pundits, but for you I will make an exception. I think it's because you like (and understand) Samuel R. Delaney. (NB: I found your blog following a link from Prometheus6 where he was taking you to task for quoting without a link. Isn't life funny?)

Posted by: Deb at November 4, 2003 02:06 AM