Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Quicksilver, arrived on my doorstep (metaphorically speaking) some time last week. Initially I thought to myself, ‘I’m a busy guy, I don’t have time to read this 900 page book in one go, as I usually do. Instead, I think I shall read it in little chunks, perhaps a reasonable hundred pages a day.’
And thus did this pass, for about two days. After this, my reading time increased exponentially to the point that I spent perhaps five hours a day reading it in the past two days. In other words, it’s a compelling novel.
Quicksilver is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the time of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, the founding of the Royal Society and the Glorious Revolution, among other notable events. In typical Stephenson style, it is not actually possible to describe the plot of the book, which doesn’t even seem to exist for the greater part of the time. Instead, the main characters – Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan member of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds; and Eliza (who defies description) – are caught up in the whirlwind of that age and occasionally make their mark upon it.
Of course, there is a plot of sorts, but that is not important. What is important is that Quicksilver demonstrates that Stephenson can write a highly intelligent, complex and amusing novel no matter what age it is set in. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Quicksilver is essential Cryptonomicon set three hundred years ago. Firstly, the vast majority of people (myself included) really have no idea what happened back then; we don’t know the events, the people, the words and the places.
This places a rather heavy burden on Stephenson to explain all of this. To his credit, he manages to do this in a way that doesn’t smell of excessive data dumping and if you have read any of his previous books you’ll know that he has this magical way of imparting complicated and otherwise boring information in a very entertaining way.
Unfortunately his skill only goes so far and after a while it becomes a bit of slog to plough through explanations of the political machinations and family trees in Christendom in that time. Such are the dangers of the task Stephenson has set himself.
Secondly, despite the fact that Quicksilver features a Waterhouse, a Shaftoe and a Root, they are not carbon copies of the characters in Cryptonomicon; they do share some temperaments but they are essentially new characters – which is good.
Thirdly, Quicksilver is written in a very different style, which might be described as ‘baroque’ (ha!*). While Stephenson doesn’t go off on quite as many peculiar (and some might say superfluous) tangents as he did in Cryptonomicon, he employs such a range of writing styles that you begin to wonder whether there is a novel buried in all the plays and letters he has liberally scattered around. Again, I felt this was a good thing, although sometimes distracting.
Finally, Quicksilver being a ‘historical fiction’, it inhabits the world of the 17th and 18th centuries while taking some liberties with the events that actually happened. This is to be expected. However, it is frequently difficult to work out whether some fantastical event or scene shown in the book is true, or sprung from Stephenson’s mind. This is where his MetaWeb wiki comes in, which is basically a set of online annotations that, among other things, tells the readers what is true and what is not.
I enjoyed reading Quicksilver. It wasn’t quite what I expected (e.g., it had a really good ending) and it was significantly more difficult to read than any of his other books, but it was very entertaining and I felt like I learned a lot about the age it was set in. My complaints would be that none of the major characters were particularly well fleshed out with the possible exception of Daniel Waterhouse – and this is in a 900 page novel. In fact, I felt that he depicted some of the ‘real’ characters with more depth than his own – Newton and Hooke, for example (but perhaps this is not surprising).
Quicksilver is only the first of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait as long for the sequels as we did for Quicksilver – both books will be released within a year. It remains to be seen whether Stephenson can hold on to his readers’ attention for a further 1800 pages but I have a feeling that the novels will only improve.
On a side note, Quicksilver has made me feel like an utter ingrate for blithely living in Trinity College, Cambridge for three years and not being sufficiently impressed about the events that occurred there. In fact, as I was walking to college here in Oxford today, I saw a plaque on the High Street commemorating Robert Hooke, who had a starring role in Quicksilver. I felt uncharacteristically proud to be a student in Oxford at that point. To hell with history lessons, just give kids a copy of Quicksilver!