Friday, March 22, 2013

Neal Stephenson - Quicksilver

The question that bugged me through the whole time I read Neal Stephenson's enormous Quicksilver, was how to review it. In part the problem is one of scope. How can a reviewer condense a 900 page novel? More importantly, when the author enjoys playing with the written form (some of the chapters here are written in the form of letters, others in the style of scripts and poetry is sprinkled throughout) it seems like the task is impossible. How to make this book sound worth reading, rather than making it look like a sprawling mammoth of a novel that is the result of a writer who didn't know when to stop?

The truth is that Neal Stephenson's novel is a work of brilliance. Despite being 900 pages in length, the writing is tight and entertaining. Suffused with humour and the occasional bit of erotica, there are moments that made me laugh loudly on the train and others that made me cringe at the pain and suffering. Stephenson has painted a brilliant picture of a world going through an enormous transformation. It is one of the best accounts I have read of the changes that took place following the English Revolution and the Rise of Capitalism and in my opinion can only be understood as an attempt to draw out the different ideas and forces in society that were being shaped and reshaped during that later half of the 17th century.

Quicksilver is written in three parts. The first deals with the beginnings of the scientific revolution. It centres on Daniel Waterhouse, a university roommate of Isaac Newton, contemporary of Robert Hooke and eventual friend of many of the most important scientists and Royal Society members of the 17th and early 18th century. The tale skips back and forth in time, but we begin to see the biography of Daniel as he helps Newton with his early experiments, encourages the savant to remember to eat and helps encourage and shape his work. Much like another of Daniels contemporaries, Samuel Pepys, we see the wider changes to society taking place, alongside the Plague and the Great Fire of London. We also encounter the wider debates and constraints in society, in particular the religious debates and disagreements, now somewhat in decline following the end of the Civil War and Cromwell's death. Much of these arguments are still important and the positions that different families took in the Civil War continue to shape the lives of those individuals.

The first third of the book then is a retelling of the story of the birth of the Scientific Method. This is summed up by Newton himself a man that Daniel helps insert knitting needles into his eye socket to observe the effects on his vision, but then seems to turn his back on "science" and retreat into alchemy. Stephenson brilliantly captures the debates and arguments taking place at this time, in the dark rooms of bars and gentleman's smoke filled rooms as ideas of religion, nature and science are all in flux, fulled by the enormously shifting world outside.

The second volume at first seems to take off in a completely tangential direction. During the siege of Vienna, Jack, a mercenary rescues Eliza a Turkish slave. Escaping the battle field, they travel across Europe in a westerly direction having adventures and learning much about the world and themselves. Gradually though, we realise that what they are also witnessing is the flip side of the scientific revolution we've followed in part one. This is the economic revolution, a world being turned upside down as new ways of commerce, trade and manufacture are taking place. We see the new stock exchanges as Eliza teaches Jack how money can be made by betting pieces of paper on potential economic outcomes. The pair spend some time with Leibniz, Newton's anti-particle, and learn about new methods for extracted silver in larger quantities that apply the lessons of both the scientific and economic revolutions. Throughout all of this Stephenson's wonderful language and humour make this the most readable of history lessons.

Here's Jack exploring the area around the Parisian docks. The early days of capitalism and the beginnings of the labour theory of value have rarely been more eloquently summed up:

"Some boats carried blocks of stone that had been cut to shape by freemasons working out in the open, somewhere upstream; these boats pulled up along special quays equipped with cranes powered by pairs of large steeped wheels in which men climbed forever without ascending, turning a gear-train that reeled in a cable that passed over a pulley at the end of a tree-sized arm....Elsewhere the same amount of labor might've made a keg of butter or a week's worth of firewood; here it was spent on raising a block several inches so that it could be carted into the city and raised by other workers, higher and height, so that Parisians could have rooms higher than they were wide..."

Stephenson's style is fairly unique. I pointed out that he enjoys playing with different forms of the written word. He also enjoys his jokes, and occasionally he likes to insert a more contemporary reference. Here's Leibniz writing from Venice:

"As I write these words.... two gondoliers who nearly collided a minute ago are screaming murderous threats at each other. This sort of thing happens all the time here. The Venetians have even given it a name: 'Canal Rage.' Some say that it is a new phenomenon... a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world."

The universe of Quicksilver is not quite our own. Stephenson has inserted some fictional characters into his history, but also some fictional places. This is not really fantasy though, it is more a trick to allow him to play with people and tales in a way that a strict work of historical fiction wouldn't. That said, he doesn't shy from the realities of history.

Capitalism, Karl Marx once wrote was born, "dripping in blood" and there's plenty of that in Quicksilver. Much of the third volume deals with the machinations of various courts as they try to gain their own power in the wake of the English Restoration and the run up to the Glorious Revolution. Enormous armies march back and force, torture, violence as well as poverty and hunger stalk the land.

The myriad of characters and story lines come together in the final section of this book as England appears, at least superficially, to be gaining a level of calm following the chaos of the years of rule by Charles II and James Stuart. We know from the earliest chapters however, that Daniel returns from his exile in the New World where he has gone to escape the Old. The story is only beginning and I look forward to continuing to read it in the second and third volumes of the trilogy.

Related Reviews

Stephenson - The Confusion
Stephenson - The System of the World


Anonymous said...

You will not be disappointed by the other two volumes. A Grand Opus indeed.

Anonymous said...

It is very impressive, I've left it too long to start the next volume and now fear having to reread this which would be a bit daunting. Good as it was it took a while first time round.

I didn't find Qwghlm nearly as funny as he did though.

Have you read Moorcock's Colonel Pyat novels incidentally? Those might also interest you.

Anyway, press on! Don't make my mistake and leave so long between volumes you forget the rather dazzling story.