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Quicksilver (Feb 2011) > BotM: "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson

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message 1: by Richard (last edited Feb 01, 2011 04:50PM) (new)

Richard (mrredwood) | 123 comments From climate climate change to steampunk!

From Wikipedia—
Quicksilver is a historical novel by Neal Stephenson, published in 2003. It is the first volume of The Baroque Cycle, his late Baroque historical fiction series, succeeded by The Confusion and The System of the World (both published in 2004). Quicksilver won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for the Locus Award in 2004. Stephenson organized the structure of Quicksilver such that chapters have been incorporated into three internal books titled “Quicksilver”, “King of the Vagabonds”, and “Odalisque”. In 2006, each internal book was released in separate paperback editions, to make the 900 pages more approachable for readers. These internal books were originally independent novels within the greater cycle during composition.

There’s a bit of ambiguity here, since Quicksilver could refer to the first of three volumes, or the first of eight volumes. Unless someone comes up with a good reason not to dive in deep, I suggest we go with the big book.


message 2: by Richard (last edited Feb 01, 2011 05:07PM) (new)

Richard (mrredwood) | 123 comments Very strange. I think I've barely read one previous steampunk book, and suddenly I'm supposed to read three in one month. This one for the Hard SF group, plus Cold Magic , which is shelved as steampunk/historical by some folks, plus The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack for the reading group of the Borderlands bookstore.

message 3: by Tomislav (new)

Tomislav | 51 comments Well, I read the 1150 pages of Connie Willis's Blackout and All Clear last month, so I guess 900 pages for the bigger version of Quicksilver isn't too scary. Whatever happened to those good old 250 page stand-alones?

message 4: by Richard (new)

Richard (mrredwood) | 123 comments Page count really isn't a good indicator of much, is it? I just finished Stephen Baxter's Flood and Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of al-Rassan , which are about the same size and page count. The former took ten days, the latter less than ten hours, since I couldn't put it down until my eyes were no longer able to focus.

message 5: by Angela (new)

Angela (himawari) | 5 comments Wow! Look at that - US science fiction published in Russian! Am I showing my age by saying we never could have imagined that 30 years ago! I wonder who the translator is - wouldn't that take some skill with the language to convey the nuances of Neal Stephenson...

message 6: by Bryan (new)

Bryan (blyoung) | 2 comments I really wouldn't classify Quicksilver as steampunk, nor would I recommend anybody begin reading it expecting to find steampunk.

This is actually a pure historical novel, and the "science fiction" qualities you'll associate with this book are subtle.

Some SF aspects exist. There is a lot of cryptography in one of the sections, and you do get to see a lot of the historical period through the eyes and descriptions of several notable and brilliant early scientists.

But there's as much politics in this book as science (as well as adventure during the Jack Shaftoe sections), and thus the book really never fits conveniently into any one genre.

And there's humor too... when you get to an extended scene that just seems like it will not end, here's some advice. Instead of bemoaning Stephenson's wicked delight in spending far too much time describing the most minute details, look for the humor. Stephenson inevitably uses such passages to accentuate some absurdity, and when I stopped allowing myself to be bored by them, I realized that a wry analysis of the ways and means of the times was the intent, and that the humor was developed by the extremes to which the analyses were taken.

A great book - a masterpiece! But please don't expect steampunk, or you will be disappointed and miss out on what the book was really intended to be.

message 7: by Tomislav (new)

Tomislav | 51 comments First Impression:

My copy of the three-novels-in-one version of Quicksilver arrived from paperbackswap.com, and I'm about 100 pages into it. I'm enjoying Stephenson's writing style and sense of humor (as in Anathem), and the portrayal of historical figures as real human beings. I'm reminded of Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo in that regard. However, I am a little intimidated by the knowledge that there is a total of maybe 3000 pages to this cycle of historical novels.

message 8: by Maire (new)

Maire | 8 comments I have read about 30 pages. Honestly I think this book is too bulky for me to press on with. I am under serious time constraints and if I read this 1 book, it means I can't read 5 others - and thus far I'm far from being gripped.

Is there any compelling reason for me to press on? (ie, is it about to become incredibly astonishing, etc).

message 9: by Tomislav (last edited Mar 03, 2011 11:01AM) (new)

Tomislav | 51 comments I did not vote for Quicksilver, but being a good sport, I'm giving it a shot.

So far, I've finished Quicksilver (the novel within the book) and King of the Vagabonds, and have just started Odalisque. It's hard to believe, but at 600 pages, I am now hoping that Stephenson has finished establishing the characters and settings, and will get on with the story. Quicksilver (the novel) is science historical rather than science fictional, and somewhat dry, involving Newton, Leibnitz, and others. King of the Vagabonds is definitely more character-driven and humorous, but neither science fictional nor science historical. The whole cycle seems to be sandwiched into the years between the young Daniel Waterhouse in college, and elderly Daniel Waterhouse returning from Boston, which are introduced at the beginning. Hopefully, from here, Stephenson will draw out some intersections between the story arcs of the first two novels. But the pace of the writing has not picked up. At this point, I am committed to finishing Volume One, but will wait to finish Odalisque before deciding about the rest of it.

message 10: by Richard (new)

Richard (mrredwood) | 123 comments Maire wrote: “Is there any compelling reason for me to press on? (ie, is it about to become incredibly astonishing, etc).”

I’m tempted to give it up, also, but I’ll postpone that decision for a while. I’m currently a little less than 200 pages in, and while trying to decide whether to continue I spent a little time looking over other reviews and reading some of the wikipedia page on this. BTW&FWIW, reading the Wikipedia page for a book is almost always a bad idea until one has finished; the articles are certain to contain spoilers, and aren’t going to post warnings beforehand.

What I found:

First, no: this isn’t a really big traditional novel with a really long lead-in portion. It seems that “chronicle” would be a more apt description than “story”, since it is a meandering journal of many historical events with a huge cast and scope.

Second, it is considered clever for astonishingly combining that vast scope with an incredible amount of detail, much of it quite complex, involving the science of that day. Some folks also consider Stephenson’s post-modern style a big bonus, others find it a negative.

My tentative conclusion is that there is a little bit of Emperor’s Clothing thing going on here.

Imagine someone building a scale model of Paris out of used chewing gum. It would certainly get a lot of attention, and people would marvel at the care and attention and scope and detail and all that, but then they’d shake their heads and move on. But if an artiste were to craft something similar, it’d probably get a long show in some museum of modern art, and a lot more attention and study.

I think that’s a little of what has been granted Stephenson here. His Snow Crash grabbed a lot of well-deserved respect, but what he writes in a pretty esoteric sub-genre of a seldom critically reviewed genre. Meaning, science fiction seldom gets much attention from the mainstream lit folks, so when someone comes along that writes “important” novels deep within a strange niche of SF, those lit folks are hindered a bit. Since they usually don’t know the SF context, it would be very easy for them to make fools of themselves by not realizing when an author is being really innovative, or perhaps making sly allusions to other SF they’d never read. So they’re going to tread carefully, and in the face of uncertainty they’ll often fail on the side of generosity — after all, Stephenson has already proved himself, right?

(Side note: I think this is one reason Cormac McCarthy’s The Road got so much underserved plaudits: the mainstream media had no idea how deeply that story had been explored here in the SF slums, and how banal his telling was. But then, I hated that book.)

So I don’t expect this book we’re reading to get five stars, and I’ll be somewhat surprised if I pick up the 2000 pages or so of sequel. But I do respect his ability, and the specific historic scope here is a fascinating period, so I expect I’ll continue. The big problem, for me, isn’t boredom: I’ve enjoyed pretty much every page I’ve read so far, and some have been pure delights. It’s the opportunity cost: as Maire points out, in terms of time spent this book is probably replacing at least five other books. Well, fiction. The non-fiction I’m concurrently reading is also very slow going.

Maybe when I get to the end of Book One in here, I’ll set it aside to read Boneshaker, and then do King of the Vagabonds, assuming Cherie Priest hasn’t convinced me Stephenson isn’t worth it.

message 11: by Roberto (new)

Roberto (ralsina) | 1 comments @richard I am not really sure I understand the concept of a book where you enjoy every page, some have been pure delights and yet preferring to read something else because it's shorter.

Yes, Quicksilver is not for everyone. I think of it as looking at a book 200 pages in and saying "hey, this is such a pleasure" without also thinking "oh, and there's only 50 pages left". That doesn't happen with Quicksilver (since it's really a 4000 page novel split on 3 books in the first place)

message 12: by Richard (new)

Richard (mrredwood) | 123 comments Roberto wrote: "@richard I am not really sure I understand the concept of a book where you enjoy every page, some have been pure delights and yet preferring to read something else because it's shorter."

Hmm, reminded me of a specific kind a LSAT question I used to train students on: spot the assumption. The assumption here is: If every page is enjoyable, then the entire book will be enjoyable. Or, since the LSAT sometimes really likes abstract rules as answers, it might be Assumes that what is true of the individual elements of a collection must be true of the collection as a whole.

In this real-world application, the assumption isn’t particularly weak: if I continued to enjoy each and every darn page, then the book as a whole would be at least somewhat enjoyable. But that “somewhat” is actually a huge gotcha. Because a book has to have a thematic purpose that ties all those pages together, and that’s really what I am going to judge a book on.

Because Stephenson has chosen to write a chronicle instead of a story, he has gambled in presenting a form that doesn’t as naturally capture one’s attention and emotions for the long haul. A story arc, with crisis and resolution, is a pretty safe bet. In fact, there’s a very good book that explores the classic types of these stories, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories . There’s a reason why Booker found seven paradigmatic story types: because they work well. Stephenson has to deliver despite handicapping himself with a structure that doesn’t help him, and that’s a good deal of the tension I’m feeling.

To switch metaphors, what Stephenson has provided so far is a series of very nice nibbles, but what I want from a book is a full meal. Actually, from something that requires this level of investment, I want a grand feast. Is it possible to construct a great meal out of a series of snacks? Well, yeah, that’s the idea behind tapas, right? In the right environment, that can work. For example, in the San Francisco restaurant Cha Cha Cha, I’ve had many meals, awash in sangria and conversations with friends, that consisted of nothing but one small dish followed by another, with none of the “story arc” of a traditional meal. But that’s rare.

So Stephenson has one thing going for him —a sequence of clever and amusing pages; and two going against him — the extraordinary length, and the risky structure. So far, I’m still not sure he’s going to be able to give me a good read over the course of that length.

message 13: by Tomislav (new)

Tomislav | 51 comments I continued from King of the Vagabonds immediately and read Odalisque. As I had hoped, some of the major characters of the first two novels do meet there, and there is a little more action. Near the end, Stephenson brings in one or two cliffhangers, so as to lure me into reading the next volume - but I think I'm going to resist it for a while.

Writing like this leads one to a lot of reflection. I noticed that a lot of really extreme political changes can take place during one man's lifetime, and as bad as the Republican/Democrat stuff is getting here in Wisconsin right now, that at least the cities are not burning, and no heads are on spikes. I was interested to hear an explanation for Newton's search for divinity within mathematics, although I suspect what I read is more Stephenson's than Newton's ideas.

Last note is that I have traveled repeatedly on business to the vicinity of The Hague, and especially enjoyed the settings there. I've also been to Paris and Vienna as a tourist, so some of the more famous landmarks from those places were also familiar. The one major place in this book I haven't been is London - and I am very grateful to Stephenson for including the map. This is my fourth book of the year with a setting in London, and finally I can see where, for example, St. Paul's is.

message 14: by Larry (new)

Larry (hal9000i) | 108 comments Hmmm is steampunk really Hard SF?

message 15: by Richard (new)

Richard (mrredwood) | 123 comments Well, some definitely is NOT, such as The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack or Boneshaker , both of which are egregiously soft SF.

I don't think there's anything intrinsic to steampunk that prevents it from being Hard SF, but I suspect it strongly tends that way. It's just too easy to quietly ignore some physics here and there to make a story plausible. For example, steam-powered airships appear to be fairly frequent in steampunk, but that is pretty implausible. Steam engines required a lot of fuel and quite a bit of water, so the amount of weight an airship would have to carry could quickly climb to impractical levels.

But I have to agree that Quicksilver — or at least the first book therein, which is as far as I made it so far — isn't steampunk. "Fictional Alternate History of Science" comes closest, I think.

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