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Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson
Submitted by Geoffrey Dow on Tue, 2011-05-17 21:26
Spread the word!
The following was originally posted to my Livejournal on September 24, 2005.
Slow Slogging: Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver - Self-Indulgence At Its Best
One of the many knocks against science fiction is that it tends towards the "heroic"; that is, SF follows the formulaic tropes of adventure stories, in which an exceptional hero, through courage, brains and sheer grit, triumphs over evil forces of (apparently) vastly superior powers.
Like most slanders, there is some truth to the claim and, in the early days of SF, there was a great deal of truth to it. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, written SF was sold to the pulp magazine market at (if the writer was lucky) a penny a word, and hacks cranked the stuff out so long as there was a market. Polished prose was a luxury the few writers capable of it did not have time for, and so its (mostly young) readers were treated to westerns in space, as it were. Unidimensional heroes that made Star Trek's Captain Kirk seem as conflicted as Hamlet were forever saving babes, worlds and the universe itself, apparently undergoing no psychological growth whatsoever while doing so.
But those were the early days and the field has matured, both commercially over the past 30 years and artistically, over an even longer period of time.
Yet the slander remains, and "serious" literary people won't deign to even read the stuff unless it is written by Margaret Atwood or some other literary author who has chosen to slum. (That they almost always do a piss-poor job of it - Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale being an excellent case-in-point. The novel said little, politically or psychologically, that had not been said by Robert A. Heinlein in his novella, If This Goes On, published in 1941. But I digress.)
As things now stand, written science fiction, in terms of the quality of its prose, is probably no better and no worse than other fields of fiction (SF is not a genre, though there are genres within the field of science fiction - space-opera, for example; it is a field of literature with certain conventions, yes, but not the strict formulae of Harlequin Romance novels or superhero comic books). Where SF differs from so-called "mundane fiction" is that it is not restricted to what is commonly considered the "real world", nor is it restricted to dealing with human psychology as it is now.
Science fiction can be set in the past, the present or the future, just as an SF novel's narrative can be followed on Earth, in space or on a world located thousands of light-years away. It requires author and reader, both, to make use of their imaginations in a manner that mundane fiction seldom does. Done well, it provides the double-pleasure of showing the reader something utterly new, while at the same time providing a distorting - and so, creative - reflection of that reader's own time and place. In other words, SF can do all that mundane fiction can, with a whole lot of extras thrown in at no extra charge.
Which brings me to Neal Stephenson's very long novel, Quicksilver. At nearly 1,000 pages of small, close-set type it is only the first volume of his three volume trilogy, System of the World. It is at once an literary tour-de-force in its loose, comfortable style, and a traditional exercise in plot-driven, heroic adventure in its guts - though I was deep into the second volume, The Confusion, before I realized it.
Stephenson broke into the science fiction world in the early 1990s with such novels as Snowcrash and The Diamond Age, both compelling and original works that nevertheless fell within the traditional bounds of SF. In 1999, his 1,000 page epic, Cryptonomicom, gave notice that Stephenson's interests lay less in futurism and technology than it does in the nature of science itself. With one story-line set in Britain during the Second World War, focussing on Alan Turing's work on the Enigma Project, and the other set in the very late 20th or early 21st century, when a small group of heros. Sunken Nazi gold drove the plot, while a group of libertarian-oriented technologists steered it.
With Quicksilver, he has gone even further.
Quicksilver features four storylines, two closely related in time, but featuring characters torn apart geographically; two featuring the same character, but separated by decades.
The novel opens when an aged Daniel Waterhouse - son of a prominent Puritan martyr, founding member of the Royal Society and self-exiled Massachusetts inventor - is blackmailed and bribed onto a ship bound for England, the native land he left 20 years before, in the very early 1700s.
Why Waterhouse is wanted in the Old World, let alone how or why the notorious pirate, Blackbeard, knows where he is and is willing to give up a ship for a single passenger remains a mystery by the end of the first volume, though an astute reader may venture some (most likely wrong) guesses.
The second thread other narrative concerns the young Daniel Waterhouse, born of a famous Puritan martyr, literrally blown up during the Great Fire of London, when Daniel was still a boy.
Stephenson takes his time with both tales, to an extent that, in fact, I don't think I've encountered before. As a fer'instance, there is a scene relatively early on, in which Daniel and Isaac Newton attend a trade fair - Newton being in search of more precise instruments from the continent, than are available in England. Over eight or nine pages, Stephenson takes us through the muck and mud of (barely) post-midieval London, through a multi-page haggle over a few tools with an un-named Jewish merchant, only to end with the collapse of one man, the harbinger of the Great Plague.
In short, the first half of the book is about Daniel Waterhouse's gradual loss of apocalyptic faith. Horrible things happen but the world itself does not end on the day he has believed it would. He finds himself mixing with the men behind the emergence of England as a force to be reckoned with, in Europe and the World - Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hook, and many other historical figures play parts in the narrative.
And during this time, little happens of a traditional dramatic nature. People talk, argue and gossip; mostly, the drama occurs off-stage while men of ideas experiment, debate and engage in all manner of petty disputes that ought to be above them.
Stephenson takes his time introducing us to this world - one less than 400 years old! - that is in some ways almost as strange as any story set on another planet. Self-indulgence at its best, indeed; for here the trusting reader is led a meandering path that - so slowly! - sets the story going.
The second half of Quicksilver switches gears and does so almost so abruptly as to strip them. In place of the (relatively) rarefied world of London's political, religious and economic elite, we are dropped into the muck that was the lot of the common man.
Bob and Jack Shaftoe are poverty-stricken brothers, whose idea of the good life is to steal an anchor from a ship berthed on the river Thames and sell it to another the next morning. Illiterate, but not unintelligent, the Shaftoes lose a third brother to an accident during one of those thefts, spend time in prison and finally find a trade for themselves - for a fee, they will leap and cling to the legs of a hanged man, so that he will die that much sooner.
Stephenson does an amazing job of introducing us to the decidedly less-than-romantic aspects of life in 17th century England. The casual death, the filth, disease and ignorance of the era are drawn with rich (though not melodramatic) prose. And, despite my irritation at the interruption of the first narrative, I found myself drawn into the second.
Through many an unlikely (but always entirely plausible) series of decisions, accidents and coincidences, the two remaining Shaftoe brothers find themselves in the English army, which takes them to the Continent. From there, "half-cocked" Jack Shaftoe finds himself on the outskirts of Vienna, just in time for the breaking of the siege by the Turks, which came close to seeing Islam ruling over most - if not all - of Europe.
Always a man with an eye to the prize, Shaftoe steels a horse - a magnificent Arab - and chases after an exotic bird, knowing its feathers will fetch a high price indeed if only he can catch it.
He does, but not before he also rescues a beautiful European slave, owned by a now-deceased emir of the beaten Turkish army.
But Eliza is no ordinary woman, no more than Jack is an ordinary man.
The two strike up an unusual partnership and set out to make their fortune. Along the way, Eliza begins to learn the ways of commerce, becoming the bourgeois to Jack's adventurer. They also become lovers, of a sort, as they make their way from ruined Vienna to safer parts of Europe. They meet - and Eliza befriends a certain doctor Leibnitz, who seems at first a charletan but who proves to be a lot more than that.
Needless to say, more plot complications ensue and the former lovers are parted at book's end. Eliza has harpooned Jack, who has decided that sailing is the life for him; only Eliza realizes that his ship is bound for the slave-coast of Africa. But Jack himself will not find his fortune in the slave trade, as he himself will soon be captured and sold - if his syphilis doesn't end his life first.
Through all this, Stephenson writes with a casual confidence that is a delight to read. Mostly using the author-omniscient third-person narrative method (when not using the first-person epistolary), he throws in the occasional archaic word to remind the reader that we are not in the here-and-now, as well as happily including parenthetical asides and footnotes when necessary, often tongue-in-cheek.
Though it takes time to get moving, Quicksilver is a magnificent delight, an almost Shakespearean reminder that art, both high and low, when combined in an alchemical me´lange, are stronger than either the one or the other alone.