Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver

Quicksilver coverAnd we’re off! Somewhat later than planned, I admit, for which I apologise, but now the avalanche has started and it is too late for the pebbles to vote. Or something. To recap: I’m reading The Baroque Cycle, and some other people said they’d be interested in reading along and/or discussing it; but to make it a less daunting prospect I’m treating it as eight 300-odd page books rather three thousand-odd page volumes. Thus, this post, being my thoughts on the first book of Quicksilver which is, in a recipe for confusion, also called “Quicksilver”.

For those of you who aren’t reading or re-reading along at home, a brief recap is in order. Quicksilver-the-book alternates between two stories. In the first-met, set in 1713 and told in the present tense, Enoch Root visits Daniel Waterhouse at his adopted home in Massachusetts, bearing a message calling Waterhouse back to London. Cut to: England at various points between 1655 and 1673, and the past-tense exploits of Waterhouse as a young man, taking him from his youth (growing up under a puritan father who believes the world will end in 1666) through his university days (at Cambridge) to his time as a spectator-member of the Royal Society. The book ends with the latter strand having reached the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, and with the ship carrying Daniel having escaped from pirates in Cape Cod Bay and begun its journey proper.

Or, more prejudicially:

Quicksilver-the-book alternates between two stories. In the first-met, but rarely-thereafter-visited, set in 1713 and told in the present tense, Enoch Root visits Daniel Waterhouse in Massachusets, discovers that Waterhouse has founded MIT a few centuries early, infodumps about all the famous people he’s met in his journeys across Europe, and delivers a message calling Waterhouse back to London. Cut to: England at various points between 1655 and 1673, and the past-tense exploits of Waterhouse as a young man, taking him from his youth (growing up under a puritan father who believes the world will end in 1666) through his university days (at Cambridge) to his time as a spectator-member of the Royal Society, during which time Daniel encounters just about every famous late-17th-century Englishman you could care to name, without ever giving us a real sense of who Daniel is. The book ends with the latter strand having reached the apparently arbitrary cut-off point of Royal Declaration of Indulgence, and with the ship carrying Daniel having escaped from pirates, after a series of increasingly thin encounters that are clearly meant to (a) give the book some semblance of narrative drive and (b) carry some thematic weight, leaving Cape Cod Bay and beginning its journey proper.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy “Quicksilver”, per se; it’s just that I spent so much time engaging with the surface of the book that I never really delved down into its depths. So I want to leave the question of The Point Of It All (including whether or not the book is science fiction, if possible) for subsequent posts, and discuss here mainly the way Stephenson approaches his story: his style, and his focus.

On the latter, a confession of ignorance is called for. I am not a historian. In fact, I haven’t studied history since I was 14, when I decided that I couldn’t imagine anything less interesting than spending two years learning about World War II in preparation for a GCSE, and did Geography instead, which was about exciting things like volcanoes and earthquakes. (And town planning — although even that’s more exciting than you’d credit.) There is a slight exception to this sweeping generalisation, which is that I did a short History of Science course while at university, which gives me just enough background to know what Hooke, Boyle, Newton et al did, without really knowing the times they were living in or who they were as men.

Perhaps you can see my problem.

When I was about a hundred pages into Quicksilver, I had an email discussion with Dan Hartland about why I thought I was having problems. I need (I said) historical fiction to have authority. If I read historical fiction, I want to feel that it is giving life to a past time in a way that is, to the best of our knowledge, accurate — because otherwise what’s the point? If it’s not giving life, then I might as well read the non-fiction version; and if it’s not accurate, then I might as well read a fantasticated version. Dan argued, as Dan so often does, that my reasoning didn’t stand up, that the very concept of being authoritative about history is flawed. Perhaps it is. But I think that historical fiction needs something like authority if it’s going to stand up.

So another way of expressing my unease is to say that I feel Stephenson is biased. He has tunnel vision. The Baroque Cycle aspires to a vast canvas, yet Stephenson approaches this time when the (Western, European, yes) world was going through radical changes — political, religious, scientific, economic — with a clear agenda, a clear argument that this is the start of something, the beginning of the world we know. And it distorts; it gives the whole book a weirdly out-of-focus quality, except that presumably the focus is exactly where Stephenson wants it. And what that means, in the end, is that I don’t trust the book. Is this event important because it was important, or because Stephenson is emphasizing it to support his argument?

When I reached the first mention of the CABAL of Charles II, I thought at once that it must be part of the anachronistic style. No way was that word used in that way by those people, I thought. But wait! Yes way! Charles II brought together a group of five Privy Councillors who effectively acted (so says Wikipedia, and so they act in the book) as foreign policy wonks. But wait! The five men who did that job in real life have been replaced by five men of Neal Stephenson’s invention — some of whom I recognised (once it was pointed out to me) as ancestors of players in Cryptonomicon — for no very obvious reason, it seems, given the number of historical characters he shows no compunction about fictionalising, except that he felt like it. It’s obvious from pretty early on that however many details Stephenson tweaks, he has no interest in changing the large-scale outcome of his story — no interest in writing an alternate history, in other words. Unfortunately, this meant that every time I hit a detail I thought might be anachronistic it threw me out of the book. Which happened quite often — Leibniz bringing an “arithmetickal engine” to England in the 1670s? Really? A gall-stone described as being about the size of a tennis-ball — when was modern tennis invented?

Historical ignorance is my problem, not the book’s; what I think is more the book’s problem is that I’m not inspired to rectify that ignorance to understand the book better. I hold Stephenson’s style partly responsible for this, and in particular the way he deploys anachronistic language. On a sentence-to-sentence basis, the book is rarely less than readable — sometimes the images are really quite striking, such as the “streets like stuffed sausages” when London is rebuilding after the great fire — and I don’t have a problem with the use of modern vernacular as such. What I have a problem with is the lack of consistency. It’s one thing for the narrator to look at events with a modern eye, and muse about “stocking/breach interfaces”, or to suggest a character is “crypto-catholic”; it’s another thing for characters to be manipulated into tortuous puns such as “that schooner, Doctor Waterhouse, sucks”, or to talk about the “umpteenth” time of something; it’s yet another for both narrator and characters to sometimes speak in this style and sometimes speak in a more elaborate pastiche of the style of their times. It drove me nuts. If you want to look at the seventeenth century through modern eyes (which seems to be what Stephenson most wants to do) then go ahead and do that; don’t just throw in “shew” and “neeger” and “coelestial” and all possible variations based on “Phant’sy” on (so far as I can tell) a whim. They just look like half-hearted concessions to an imagined need for stylistic “appropriateness”, and they make it hard to believe in Quicksilver’s story either as something we’re watching from the long distance of now, or as something immersive, told as it happened then.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all: there was enough to bring me back for Book Two (about which I shall post three weeks from now, if all goes according to plan). But so far I don’t think Quicksilver particularly good, not as fiction and not even as a delivery system for interesting things that Neal Stephenson wants to talk about. It’s true that it has good bits, but they’re almost all lectures or discourses or digressions on one bit or another of 17th-century science or philosophy or something else. The philosophic language; the invention of currency; the relation of different disciplines (“If money is a science, then it is a dark science, darker than Alchemy …”); the start of universal time; some of the eccentric (to be kind) antics of the Royal Society; Leibniz and Daniel discussing free will and, er, artificial intelligence; Daniel’s likening of the progress of human society to a shipwreck; and so on — some of these moments give a powerful sense of a world in flux, in the thrall of change, a sense that the roots of the system or our world are indeed being put into place. But already the bits that work are much more diluted in bits that don’t than was the case for (obvious comparison) Cryptonomicon; for every discussion of interest there’s a period of utter tedium, such as when the members of the Royal Society watch a play.

And it’s equally noticeable that those bits that are good are good because of what the characters are saying or doing, not because of who the characters are; some sections are thrilling, but they tend to be so because they draw on that sense of a world in flux, a feeling that everything is available for discovering. There’s nothing character-based that could be described as emotionally intense. Even the death of Daniel’s father feels flat, not just because at the time it feels like a surrogate for the wrench Daniel should feel at living through the year he had been raised to believe the world should end, but because we’re still told it’s a pivotal moment only for Stephenson to revoke that stance 150 pages and six years later, when Daniel really realises who he is –

His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might have once harbored about being a man of God had died with Drake, and been cremated by Tess. He very much phant’sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if he had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. Perhaps, like Tess, he would come to prefer it that way. (330-1)

— or maybe he hasn’t really realised, since there are still plenty of pages to go in which Stephenson could reveal this epiphany to be as transient as its predecessor. I couldn’t really say I like Daniel Waterhouse, since there’s so little there to like or dislike; but it would be nice if he gets to stop going round in circles at some point.

(That came out longer than I expected, and indeed longer than I intended the book-group posts to be. But hopefully there’s enough comment-hooks in there for you …)

34 Responses to “Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver”

  1. Graham Says:

    if it’s not accurate, then I might as well read a fantasticated version. Dan argued, as Dan so often does, that my reasoning didn’t stand up, that the very concept of being authoritative about history is flawed.

    I recently read Keith Jenkins’s Rethinking History, which is a possibly dated (~20 yrs old) but very clear exposition of the POV that Dan’s putting: that positivism about history, the belief that there’s an attainable version of “accuracy” from which individual texts’ deviations can be tracked, is a phantom. So your next question, about how a historical fiction might be judged “convincing” or not is partly a question of how much it adheres to “facts” – again a slippery term – and partly, I think, about how much the narrative voice sells its vision as a whole. What you’re saying, I think, is that because you can’t tell the rules by which Stephenson is playing, you don’t know what to trust and what not; and that undermines “convincingness”/”authority”. I know, in this context, I keep going on about Mason & Dixon, but I think in many ways it’s a comparable work. I find myself far more sold on its version of the period than Stephenson. But it gives itself far more license to mess with “the facts” – there’s an anachronistic Bill Clinton joke in the very first chapter, and the very first character we’re introduced to is called “Wix Cherrycoke”. Perhaps *because* I know Pynchon’s game-playing, I don’t find myself so bugged by issues of accuracy. Which is not to say that M&D isn’t constructing an argument about history – I’m sure it is.

    This comment brought to you by the programme to reduce the European quotation-mark mountain.

  2. Farah Says:

    Speaking as a historian with a very firm grip on the period, my problem was an ever increasing to desire to read his sources, rather than the book itself.

  3. Niall Says:

    Graham: I had a bet with myself as to how long it would take you to mention Pynchon. You exceeded my expectations! I have to say, from the Pynchon that I’ve read and the Stephenson that I’ve read, and from your description here, that I think the comparison isn’t very useful; they seem to me to have such different goals as writers that judging one by what the other achieves is a bit pointless. I mean, I think that uncertainty is something Stephenson is doing deliberately, so a book where what you can and can’t trust is heavily signposted can’t really be said to be an improvement, it’s just something different.

    This comment brought to you by the programme to reduce the European quotation-mark mountain.

    YA Dan Green AICM5P.

  4. Graham Says:

    Well, “trust” is the key word here, isn’t it? I maintain that the comparison/contrast between Pynchon and Stephenson is useful, because of the truth-claims that each seems to be making. Stephenson – you feel – is writing a work that “looks like” history, but that actually fails to be in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Pynchon fails, but (mostly) visibly and deliberately. They’re both being ludic postmodernists, but Stephenson is trying to pass as writing “accurate history”. But OK, another comparison: Oliver Stone’s JFK. The anger directed at that film stemmed a lot, I’d suggest, from the same sources as your problems with Stephenson – that it made a great (almost too great) point of “accuracy”, and founded its arguments on that accuracy, but at the same time played fast and loose with the facts when it suited the author.

  5. Niall Says:

    but Stephenson is trying to pass as writing “accurate history”

    I just said I don’t think he’s trying to do that. I said that I would be more comfortable if he was doing that, but I don’t think he’s trying to disguise anything from the reader in the way that you suggest Stone did. He’s just not being explicit about what really happened and what’s been changed. I think the uncertainty about the “accuracy” or “truth” of what he’s telling us is a deliberate effect, and thus different from either Pynchon or Stone. One of the reasons I’m reading on is that I want to see if I can come to accept that uncertainty — to see if I can learn how to read The Baroque Cycle, as it were.

    Of course, it may be that this interpretation is itself a function of my lack of knowledge, and that Stephenson is simply assuming a greater familiarity with the period than I have, assuming that his signposts will be clear. I don’t think so, but I can’t say. (On the other hand, if I did have that greater familiarity, I might just have Farah’s reaction.)

  6. Victoria Says:

    Yes, what Graham said, re. history and accuracy. (As you know, Nic and I have had this discussion many times…) I’m of the school of thought which says: the past is, more or less, what we make it. It is all a matter of your line of sight, your subjectivity and your bent of imagination. What I love about the Baroque Cycle (and you know that I *love* it) is the way that Stephenson spews up ‘history’ – bits of fact, bits of fiction, mixed with hubris, 20th century ‘isms’ and quirks and 17th century theories – and muddles it and makes something faintly disturbing from it. I think your discomfort at this point is the right reaction, and I think it’s what he was aiming at. This is how it feels to have history pulled out from under you – what if there was no authority? What if fiction was all we had? And what if we could write it anyway we liked? :-)

    I want to feel that it is giving life to a past time in a way that is, to the best of our knowledge, accurate — because otherwise what’s the point?

    I think you’re too focused on the fact that Stephenson has set his fiction in a ‘historical’ period. Forget accuracy. The Cycle flows from the idea that there is no such thing. History is just a story we tell ourselves along particular lines. Also, with regards to consistency: he is consistent in his inconsistency. ;-) Our conception of what is consistent for the past, linguistically and stylistically, is all tied up with our historical prejudices. I think Stephenson is keen to jettison our expectations so that we read on two levels – with an eye to ourselves and an eye to our ideas about historical ‘others’. When we’re disconcerted, when we think ‘huh, that’s not very 17th century’ or ‘that’s a mockery of accuracy’, we’re on his track.

    It’s obvious from pretty early on that however many details Stephenson tweaks, he has no interest in changing the large-scale outcome of his story — no interest in writing an alternate history, in other words.

    I both agree and disagree with you. First, I think that you’re right that Stephenson has no interest in changing the past in the ways that other alternate history novels often do – he isn’t going to fiddle with politics; kill off key players; or change the national religion. Nor does he envisage a 17th century that will change the world as it is today – he envisages a 17th century which is just slightly different. But I disagree that alternate history has to be about these kind of vast, cataclysmic shifts. His alternateness is all about the little things, here and there. At the same time (and this plays into the debate about whether or not it’s SF) Stephenson is about changing the world at a deep, metaphysical level, is about altering it’s very make-up. All of that is to come though. :-)

    I wish I was reading it again for the first time…

  7. Niall Says:

    I think your discomfort at this point is the right reaction, and I think it’s what he was aiming at.

    As I just said to Graham, so do I. I just don’t like it. :-)

  8. Jonathan M Says:

    There’s a video out there of a talk given by a writer of historical fiction and he talks about how VITAL it is for everything to be accurate and precise right down to the footnotes of the history books. He then says that his next book is about a fictional attempt to murder an American president.

    So it’s vital to be historically accurate, except when it isn’t.

    I think that point where historical accuracy is no longer deemed necessary is what defines books like this.

    Stephenson plays fast and loose with the fact at some points, being massively anachronistic at times, and at other points he gets horrifically bogged down in minutiae, but I think that’s because his history is deliberately slanted.

    It’s the history of a particular vision of the present day and where necessary he messes with the facts of history so as to emphasise certain broad historical themes. I can understand the frustration as he seems to have his cake and eat it, but I think that that is true of all historical fiction. It just depends upon where you place the emphasis.

  9. Niall Says:

    Victoria:

    History is just a story we tell ourselves along particular lines. [...] But I disagree that alternate history has to be about these kind of vast, cataclysmic shifts. His alternateness is all about the little things, here and there.

    I’m not sure whether this implies that all history is de facto alternate history (because we can’t ever know what really happened) or whether there is no such thing as alternate history (because we have no standard of true history to judge it against). It’s an interesting question to think about, though.

  10. Victoria Says:

    Ok, well, it took me a long time to write that comment (in between, erm, working) and so a lot has been said since then… To the extent that you’ve already accepted my argument:

    He’s just not being explicit about what really happened and what’s been changed. I think the uncertainty about the “accuracy” or “truth” of what he’s telling us is a deliberate effect

    Yes, exactly. I think you’d probably feel less at sea if you did know a little more about the history, and yes, part of the effect is knowing where Stephenson is diverging from the accepted narrative in tone and style and substance. But still, he signposts his trickiness often enough for it to still be effective. I’m glad you’re not giving up on it; I know it will grow on you. :-)

  11. Niall Says:

    Jonathan:

    It’s the history of a particular vision of the present day and where necessary he messes with the facts of history so as to emphasise certain broad historical themes.

    Yes, exactly. My dissatisfaction with this comes back to my need for authority — basically, I can’t help thinking that even if I read it with an awareness that it’s a version of history, some ideas about how to view this period will worm their way into my subconscious and take root, and what if they are, in some sense, “wrong”? Of course, as the other strand of this thread is arguing, this is itself the wrong way to think about history.

    Victoria: we seem to have crossed comments again!

  12. Victoria Says:

    I’m not sure whether this implies that all history is de facto alternate history (because we can’t ever know what really happened) or whether there is no such thing as alternate history (because we have no standard of true history to judge it against).

    I’d be happy to argue either way, although I think I would probably plump for the latter, if only because the world ‘alternate’ is predicated on their being a true narrative (that we can grasp) to diverge from.

  13. Victoria Says:

    Ooops. That should be ‘there being a true narrative’.

  14. Liz Says:

    I am with Victoria, in that I love the way Stephenson throws real history and his own fictions and mixes up 17th century with 20th century anachronisms. It works for me, and I have only the vaguest sense of which parts are based in historical record and which bits are completely made up. I do know that everyone with the name Waterhouse, Comstock, Shaftoe, Hacklheber, or Gomer Bolstrood is probably a fictional creation. So my only argument is that I think you’re right in that he’s having his cake and eating it and playing around with history a) because he wants to and b) because it’s unsettling, but these are things which work for me. Even so I think it’s still too long, and you can do digressions without going quite so mental with them.

    Your other points are a bit difficult to address because I’ve read several thousand pages more, but I didn’t really like Daniel in Quicksilver either – once he’s worked through everything and grown up a bit, he loosens up and becomes vastly more likeable and entertaining.

    I am currently hundreds of miles from my copy of the book, once I have acquired a replacement there may be more thoughts.

  15. Niall Says:

    Off on a tangent: Graham reports problems accessing the site. He’s using IE 6. I’m using IE 7 and not having any trouble. Has anyone else noticed any difficulties? (Of course, if anyone else can’t get to the site they won’t be able to see this to tell me so. But it would be useful to know if anyone’s been having intermittent problems, or if anyone else using IE 6 isn’t having problems.)

    I didn’t really like Daniel in Quicksilver either

    To be honest, it’s not even that I don’t like him — it’s just that there’s nothing there to like or dislike. He feels much more like Stephenson’s puppet than I think he should after 335 pages.

    A related issue of focus: It was interesting that most of Enoch Root’s dealings were off in the background (demonstrating Phosphorus and so forth). I’m not quite sure what to make of it; it’s not a correction of the distorted focus I was talking about in the post, because as far as I can tell Root is a part of the distortion. It’s almost as though Stephenson’s saying, “yes, there is a science fiction story going on, but I’m not going to show it to you; I’m only going to show you the ripples it causes, in the form of myriad minor distortions”.

  16. Donna Says:

    Hi, I’m not expecting to contribute much to this discussion… but I know tennis was already around at the time in which the story is ‘set’. It was popular with the Tudors and Shakespeare wrote a pun into Henry V about the French dauphin sending the English king a gift of ‘treasure’, which turned out to be tennis balls – the audience would have understood was a reference to the current monarchy. It wouldn’t have meant much to Henry V as tennis hadn’t been invented during his reign. Just thought I’d mention it! :)

  17. Niall Says:

    Hi Donna — yes, a judicious bit of googling uncovered that after the fact. (Whereas, so far as I can tell, in our timeline Leibniz didn’t work on his arithmetickal engine until the 1790s.)

  18. James Says:

    I also had thoughts now and again about wanting to read the “real” history, but at the same time, being an ex-physicist and not an ex-historian, I was also happy to let things go and enjoy all those famous (and slightly crazy) scientists have some adventures. My first year physics degree text book had little sidebars with bios of the famous scientists, and I always loved reading them, Quicksilver was like that, but longer. Scientists as heroes! Now that’s real SF ;-)

    I can’t remember exactly what was in Book 1 cf. 2 + 3, it’s been a while since I read it, but I do know that I enjoyed The Confusion more than Quicksilver.

  19. Victoria Says:

    Graham reports problems accessing the site.

    I’ve also been having a few problems. Each time I try to move between posts and/or post comments I receive a message telling me that IE is having problems with a ‘script on this page’ and do I want to ignore it. If I click ‘yes’ then everything works fine…so tis annoying but not prohibitive. No idea what version of IE I’m using, but I imagine it isn’t the newest one. :-)

  20. Karen Burnham Says:

    Well, James pretty much beat me to the punch. As a physicist raised by historians, I loved the whole Baroque series. The only part that really had me eye-rolling was the name dropping: as you say, could one guy really have met *every* famous Brit of those decades? I agree with you that Daniel is quite passive at the beginning, and thus hard to like/relate to. He certainly isn’t the source of any narrative drive then. I think that situation will improve with the two main characters of the next “book.”

    I was completely willing to roll with Stephenson’s historical vaguery – after all, if he couldn’t put his own dramatic spin on things, he’d be writing a non-fiction book about the history of ideas. That would still be interesting to read, but in a different way. I’ve also got a very high tolerance for historical tidbits/trivia scattered throughout a narrative willy-nilly; it comes from that whole “raised by historians” background.

    On the other note, I access this site with Firefox, and have had not trouble at all.

  21. Paul Raven Says:

    Early days yet, Niall. Don’t fight it. It’s a bit like the Bill Hicks version of reality – just go floppy and enjoy the ride, and don’t feel embarrassed about screaming at the screamy bits. The question-asking will come afterwards … inevitably, inexorably.

    Damn, I wish my schedule had let me get on this train like I meant to. :(

    On another note, all those struggling with site access using IE … hello, FireFox? ;)

  22. Friday Photo Blogging: the sun sets on the back of the Empire | Velcro City Tourist Board Says:

    [...] readers will doubtless be unsurprised that I utterly missed the boat for the Baroque Cycle Challenge. I really quite fancied doing it, too, but life got in the way. [...]

  23. Liz Says:

    I value accuracy and staying true to the period in my historical fiction as well. El Tigre is by John H. Manhold and tells the story of Johann Heinrich von Manfred, from Prussia, through Spain, to the Americas. Manhold is intimately familiar with the subject — his grandfather was a graduate of the Prussian Military Academy and he had two uncles who were gunfighters in the Nebraska Territory. He’s already written six textbooks, and a lexicon in four languages. So — though this is fiction — the scope of historical research and its seamless weaving into the narrative is extremely impressive. Those of you who value accuracy will be pleased!

  24. Tony Keen Says:

    There’s something a lot of novels set in historical periods do, and it bugs the hell out of me. This is to have a section introducing some character, and then right at the very end, trot out their name, which turns out to be somebody historically important/famous/interesting. It annoys me because the revelation of the name almost always is of no significance to the other characters, and so the writer is indulging in a knowing nod-and-wink game with the readers that has nothing to do with the actual story they’re telling. It doesn’t help that often the reader has been clubbed around the head with clues to the person’s identity, so that when it is finally revealed the reaction is “Yes, we bloody know!” Kim Newman does this in the Back In The USSR stories, and Baxter does it in Time’s Tapestry. There’s a particularly annoying example in Quicksilver, where, about twenty pages after I thought to myself, “If this turns out to be Isaac Newton I shall get very annoyed”, that’s who it turned out to be.

    And I agree with Niall about the mixture of idioms – anachronistic references to Isaac Newton’s ‘shit list’ just got my back up.

    But I also agree with Paul, that the Cycle as a whole improves as it goes on. The appearance of historical characters becomes less gratuitous (I think Stephenson does give Daniel a career trajectory that would allow him to meet most of the people he does), and the idiom less inconsistent.

    It’s a bit like Tolkien, in a way. You can see, in Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien evolving his writing style from the novel he started out on, a sequel to The Hobbit, to the novel he eventually came to write. And I think that’s the case with Stephenson – Book One of Quicksilver represents Stephenson still finding his way a bit.

    If you’re doing this a book at a time, how are you going to handle Books Four and Five?

  25. Niall Says:

    There’s a particularly annoying example in Quicksilver, where, about twenty pages after I thought to myself, “If this turns out to be Isaac Newton I shall get very annoyed”, that’s who it turned out to be.

    I found precocious child-Ben-Franklin more annoying, I have to say, if only because his appearance seemed more gratuitous; at least with Newton I’d been waiting for him to turn up.

    If you’re doing this a book at a time, how are you going to handle Books Four and Five?

    Is that going to present a particular challenge?

    *looks at The Confusion*

    Ah.

    *checks Nic’s paperback copy, just in case that helps*

    Balls. Uh, don’t know. I think the answer to your question is “cross that bridge when I come to it.”

  26. Andrew Ducker Says:

    I can very much see Niall’s point that if Stephenson’s going to play games then it would help a lot to be able to tell when he is and when he isn’t playing games with history. Otherwise I can’t tell that X is a game, while Y is the truth, leaving me merely with a somewhat off-kilter idea of history.

    Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the books immensely – just that I’m sure a large chunk of the game-playing went over my head, whenever it was being any less subtle than a large gold brick.

  27. Tony Keen Says:

    Oh yes, I’d forgotten gratuitous Ben Franklin, which as I did a joke about it in my second Novacon play, I shouldn’t have …

  28. James Says:

    Tony makes a good point about Confusion. You’ll have to read them together. On the upside, for me it was the best book(s).

  29. Nick Hubble Says:

    Hmmm – you posted this before I’d even managed to start but I’ve caught up now …

    I have to say I disagree with most of Niall’s post because I thought it was absolutely fantastic – all of it – especially the theactrickal interludes and the gratutious famous people (fame is, afterall, gratuitous). Thanks for doing this though or else I’d never have made time to start despite having had copy sitting around for several years.

    You can see parallels with Pynchon and it also reminded of John barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor and Lawrence Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary – but it is better than those (so far). The other historical writer that seems to me to have some relevance would be George Macdonald Fraser (although obviously there one can tell the fictional bits from the history) because the rules are similar: the fiction has to fit in with the history but the net effect is to completely change the meaning of the history. What happens is you end up with a sort of historical psychology and a dreamlike narrative. Whereas historians, like analysts, used to examine the narrative dream and try and get back to the latent causes; Stephenson eschews all that and writes a ‘history’ which privileges its manifest content over all else – i.e. the point is supposed to be that you can’t separate out the History form the Fiction.

    There is an argument that the novel is inherently science fictional in that it allowed the imaging of the future as a kind of resource for the bourgeois society that emerged in the 17C – Stephenson is acting in keeping with this idea. the logical endpoint of that development would be classless society, freedom of thought and will etc etc: again Stephenson is writing accordingly (so there is an agenda but as it is my agenda too that doesn’t cause me problems as a reader).

    I actually found Daniel to be the strong point – he accorded with my experience of life; hence I had no problem identifying. He is like the hero of a dream narrative – someone to whom things happens rather than a fixed character and the point is to learn how to live like that without falling into the trap of assuming a fixed character. therefore, the passage Niall quotes about how he realises ‘playing himself’ is going to be difficult IS the KEY point of self-realisation in the book.

    And the best thing is – there’s still more than 2000 pages to go …

  30. Nick Hubble Says:

    Re The Confusion – the two books may well have to be read together but you could post on both separately and simultaneously – ideally have different people post on each without collaboration and then you might get an interesting con-fusion of perspectives.

  31. Goodbye, Sir Arthur « Torque Control Says:

    [...] first three installments of the Baroque Cycle Reading Group, as plugged in my editorial. Next installment [...]

  32. In Great Waters « Torque Control Says:

    [...] artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is [...]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 85 other followers

%d bloggers like this: