July 15, 2006

A ramble through the late 17th century

3 out of 5 stars

So, more from our man Stephenson?

That's right, Quicksilver book one of his three volume Baroque Cycle. A trilogy that has picked up more than its fair share of ridiculously overblown rave reviews, I'll have you know.

This isn't a book; it's a place to more into and raise a family… You'd better start reading now.

(Daily Telegraph quote on the back cover)

What's it about, then?

Well, essentially, it's an almost–historical novel set in the late 17th century after the Restoration of Charles II, featuring the exploits of fictional characters against a historical backdrop. The main character is Daniel Waterhouse, who as a young man went to Cambridge with Newton, and later became secretary of the Royal Society. This (fictional) character moves in the sort of circles that allow him to comment on the (historical) personages of the day.

… I have met the Duke of Monmouth, I have roomed with the Duke of Monmouth, I have been vomited on by the Duke of Monmouth, and I am telling you that the Duke of Monmouth is no Charles II! To say nothing of Oliver Cromwell.

So, why the late 17th century?

A time of changes! A time of massive political upheavel, great scientific breakthroughs, a time that laid the foundations of the modern era. Or that's the impression I'm left with, anyway, thanks to Stephenson's descriptions. His detailing the experiments of the Royal Society are particularly effective…

Meanwhile, Hooke and Wilkins connected the head's wind–pope to a large set of fireplace–bellows, so theat they could blow air through his voice–box. Daniel was detailed to saw off the top of the skull and get rid of the brains so that he could reach in through the back and get hold of the soft palate, tonge and other meaty bits responsible for making sounds. With Daniel thus acting as sort of meat pupperteer, and Hooke manipulating the lips and nostrils, and Wilkins plying the bellows, they were able to make the head speak…

But is the history convincing?

Well, on the whole, yes. Newton is a particularly fascinating character, and Stephenson does a good job both of highlighting the truely fundamental nature of his research–

The notion that the Sun exerted some centripetal force on the planets was now becoming pretty well accepted, but by asking for data on the interactions of moon and sea, and of Jupiter and Saturn, Isaac was as much as saying that these were all of a piece, that everything attracted everything – that the influences on (say) Saturn of the Sun, or Jupiter, and of Tital (the moon of Saturn that Huygens had discovered) were different only insofar as they came from different directions and had different magnitudes. Like the diverse goods piled up in some Amsterdam merchant's warehouse, they might come from many places and have different values, but in the end all that mattered was how much gold they could fetch on the Damplatz.

– as well as painting a vivid picture of his personality, complete with idiosyncracies –

'The inner workins of gravity, you seem to be saying, are beyond the grasp, or even the reach, of Natural Philosophy. To what should we appeal, then? Metaphysicians? Theologians? Sorcerers?'
'They are all the same to me,' Isaac said, 'and I am one.'

At times, perhaps because Stephenson's books seem to be marketed in the SF section, rather than under historical fiction, he gets away with liberties that would bring more academic critics down on his head….

Finding himself alone on a boat–flecked mudflat, and happening on a tavern, he entered it. The only thing he sought in that place was a pint, and maybe a banger. In addition to which, he found James (by the Grace of God King of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the occasional odd bit of France) Stuart being beaten up by a couple of drunken English fishermen. It was just the sort of grave indignity absolute monarchs tried at all costs to avoid.

But it's a 900 page book, right? So what else is it about?

Well, another major character is Jack, a street urchin turned loveable rogue, wandering through Europe, allowing Stephenson to describe the sights.

Vienna was a small town dwarfed by its own defenses, in turn engulfed by a larger Turkish city only a few months old. The town itself was, then, the smallest part of what he saw, but it was to the rest as a chalice to a cathedral. Even from miles off he could see it was a miserable place – actualy streets were visible nowhere, just the red tile roofs of long skinny buildings heaped up six and seven stories, wending black crevices between them indicating streets, which he could tell would be sunless trenches, thick with hurtling shit and echoing voices. He could see the foaming stain of the city spreading across the adjacent canal and, further downstream, into the Danube itself, and from its color he could almost guess that there was a major flux epidemic underway – as indeed there was in the Turkish camp.

Tied into these descriptions is an undertone of political discontent. Jack is no political idealist, but embedded in his comentary is a savage critique of the feudalism that would shortly be coming to an end.

It probably had not even occurred to that Winged Hussar that Jack would know how to ride. In his part of the world, a serf could no more ride on horseback than he could speak Latin or dance a minuet. And disobeying the command of an armed lord was even less likely than riding around on a horse.
But Jack was not Polish scum of the earth, barefoot and chained to the land, or even French scum of the earth, in wooden clogs and in thrall to the priest and the tax farmer, but English scum of the earth in good boots, equipped with certain God–given rights that were (as rumor had it) written down in a Charter somewhere, and armed with a loaded gun.

But what's the actual book about? What happens?

Well, good question. What with these two characters, and the even more entertaining Liza and their intertied adventures, it's hard to tell whether there's no plot at all, or just so many intricate sub plots that will all be tied together in the subsequent books. In a 900 page book, digressions are inevitable, but at times Quicksilver read like 80% digression to 20% narrative. In addition, Stephenson inserts chronologically later episodes of Waterhouse's later adventures into the main narrative, for no good reason. Only the excellence of Stephenson's prose saves it from falling into a literary morass.

Final rating?

It's not easy. It'd have to be three stars.

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