Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not quick enough

With a heavy heart I must consign another book to the "Life's too short" category. And I so wanted to like it.

The last, and first, to suffer this fate was The Dice Man back in January. That one went with much rejoicing and lightness of heart because it was truly quite pants. The latest, tragically, is Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Neal Stephenson wrote two of the greatest SF novels of the nineties. Snow Crash made cyberpunk hip and enjoyable and compulsive reading - something William Gibson, who only invented the genre, could never quite manage - and The Diamond Age is the perfect primer for life in a future, post-national, post-scarcity society. And then the new century was ushered in with Cryptonomicon, which defies categorisation and tragically sows the seeds for The Baroque Cycle, of which Quicksilver is the first volume.

Y'see, each of the above books was getting longer. It wasn't hard to plot ahead of the curve and see that sooner or later Stephenson was bound to turn in a 380,000 word opus and that his editor would let him get away with it. Sadly said editor didn't bother editing.

Quicksilver, which is set around the dawn of the modern scientific age and the Restoration in the late seventeenth century, could have been such fun and is so boring. Pages and pages (and pages and pages) of people talking to one another for no reason than to convey all the research Stephenson has done. I knew the book consisted of three smaller (for a given value of "smaller") books and vowed I would at least get through the first one; then I'd see how the second was going. And it started well ... until two characters spend six (six!) pages riding across Europe to a destination they could have reached in a paragraph if they weren't so intent on telling each other what they already know, or didn't but have no reason to either, for no reason than to give us more of the author's Research.

Life is too short.

Stephenson has a lovely dry way of writing that makes the fun bits a real pleasure to read. Here is lapsed Puritan Daniel unable to shake off his upbringing as he finally has sexual intercourse for the first time with the crucial aid of a sheepgut condom:
"Does this mean it is not actually coitus?" Daniel asked hopefully. "Since I am not really touching you?" Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.

"It is very common for men of your religion to say so," Tess said. "Almost as common as this irksome habit of talking while you are doing it."

"And what do you say?"

"I say that we are not touching, and not having sex*, if it makes you feel better," Tess said. "Though, when it is all finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep."
(*an irritating and deliberate stylistic touch is to combine seventeenth century spellings and styles with slap bang modern idioms.)

Or this, about life on the Isle of Dogs in 1665:
"The Irish worked as porters and dockers and coal-haulers during the winter, and trudged off to the countryside in hay-making months. They went to their Papist churches every chance they got and frittered away their silver paying for the services of scribes, who would transform their sentiments into the magical code that could be sent across countries and seas to be read, by a priest, or another scrivener, to dear old Ma in Limerick.

In Mother Shaftoe's part of town, that kind of willingness to do a day's hard work for bread and money was taken as proof that the Irish race lacked dignity and shrewdness. And this did not even take into account their religious practices and all that flowed from them, e.g. the obstinate chastity of their women, and the willingness of the males to tolerate it."
More of that, and less drop-of-the-hat extemporising about the sociopolitical state of Europe and inter-relationships of the various royal families, and Quicksilver would really be quite readable. It is one of the few books where a Readers' Digest condensed version would actually be a good idea, and I don't often say that.


  1. Alas! One of my favourite books, Quicksilver, binned by one of my favourite authors...

    Your criticisms are all valid, but I was fortunate enough to not notice many of them, by virtue of knowing almost nothing about the period of history the Cycle covers. Newton was around then, an so Leibniz must have been, and... well, it was after the Fire and before the Industrial Revolution... um.

    So I almost never noticed the crazy idioms, appreciated the chunks of Wikipedia dialogue, and was fascinated by the details of silver mining, the birth of the stock market, or the original concept of science. I loved all three, uh, volumes (the second one is the best, featuring an all-star team of criminal misfits on a Flashman-esque pirate misadventure across the world) and wished more people wrote historical novels in the style of SF novels. You and him, that's about all I can find for the minute.

    The problem is foreknowledge; with SF you don't know about the technology of, oh, glassteel or nanofabrication or whatever the author read about in New Scientist and copy-pasted in, and a lot of people don't have the background to understand the current form of historical novels. So SF authors have got very good at explaining complex ideas in simple ways, but historical adventures are still trading on people who know rather too much about the Battle of Bosworth.

    Eeeek that was long. Sorry...

  2. I feel such a heel! But you make good, valid points. I just feel Stephenson could have done all of the above but better. He did it in Cryptowhatnot so why not here?

    May I draw the reader's attention to a review by Rich Horton, who also makes good & valid points and mostly liked the book, and a review by Adam Roberts (with which Rich agrees) who makes good & valid points and didn't like the book at all.

  3. I'm with Simon on this one. I really enjoyed it, so it's a shame you didn't. Mind you, have you seen the size of "Anathem" (or whatever it's called)?

  4. A ceaseless cascade of accurate description! Equally, I found that both reviews had valid criticisms, but disagreed with the second over the final judgement. The problem seems to be that we're all judging the book on some other criterion, then finding observations which fit our view, so the reviews can't be disagreed with but the opinions always are. Odd.

    Cryptonomicon also had the anachronistic dialogue and unnecessary celebrity appearances, but no-one seemed to mind there... maybe because reviewers aren't as knowledgable about van Eck phreaking and the basics of codebreaking as they are Newton and the Glorious Revolution? One reviewer said it was ridiculous to have a character tell the reader that William of Orange was Protestant. What kind of imbecile wouldn't know that? Hmmm.

    I saw Anathem in a bookshop, but the blurb put me right off. Oh well...


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