A work of play

This Neal Stephenson dude likes to go large. Enormous books, with vast casts of characters, containing epic and sprawling storylines that tackle thorny and fundamental philosophical problems—all done in an irreverent and humorous way. Of all his fiction that I’ve read so far, Quicksilver seems the apotheosis of these tendencies, especially given that its lumbering 900+ pages constitute only the first third of a trilogy—and it’s clear from the plotting that said trilogy is a single continuous narrative, rather than an episodic sequence. I’m quite accustomed to long books, and I enjoy the opportunities for total immersion that they afford, but I have to say that this one felt like quite a slog. I should add that there were no passages or sections that I found tedious or lacking in interest, but I did find it quite hard to keep track of all its overlapping fabulae and all of its characters, some of whom popped up only occasionally to play crucial roles which presupposed the reader’s awareness of their precise position within the complex politics of Stephenson’s version of seventeenth-century Europe. It’s a book of parts, in several senses, one of which is that it is literally in three parts, which were originally conceived as, and have since been published as separate novels (although I have to say none of them would really stand alone, in my view). The upshot of all of this is that while I’ve really enjoyed the experience of reading Quicksilver, and anticipate its sequels with some glee, I don’t find I’m really able to encompass the whole work monadically in my mind, in the way I’m used to thinking about novels after I’ve read them, and the way I’m used to writing about them here in my journal. It doesn’t feel like one thing, so much as a huge collection of bits of many things.

This isn’t to say that it’s narratively or intellectually incoherent. It is in fact quite carefully designed and precisely crafted throughout—it’s just that my brain was overflowing by the time I’d finished reading, leaving me without the headroom to process the experience in my accustomed manner. So I’ll outline the major elements of its structure: it’s an account of the role of the Royal Society in seventeenth-century British society, starting during the Restored monarchy of Charles II and ending with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It’s highly fictionalised, touching on Stephenson’s interest in cryptography, and featuring a few creative anachronisms and speculations, such as a semantic computing machine, and a character first introduced in Cryptonomicon during the Second World War, who appears to be effectively immortal. Under the heading of ‘anachronism’ can also be included much of the language from which it is made, which is all to the good as far as I’m concerned. Stephenson takes an almost punk approach to historical fiction: while he does write in Bygonese quite a lot of the time (capitalising and re-spelling Significkant Nounes, for example), he also makes free use of modern idioms and Americanisms. I gather he managed to piss-off some prominent members of the historical fiction community with his approach, which is wonderful news. For me, he earned the right to write it however he wanted by means of his meticulous research, which is deployed throughout in juxtaposition to material invented (often hilariously) off the top of his head, such as the northern British island community of Qwghlm.

I guess that after the success of Cryptonomicon Stephenson knew he had an audience for this sort of thing, and that it was an audience that liked long books. Doubling down on that part of his readership results in a novel that is probably not a good way in to his work for most readers—in a strange sort of way, there’s a lot of fan-service in Quicksilver. That small but significant sector of the reading public which enjoys an extremely close focus on epistemology and mathematics, among which I can be numbered, is indulgently served, although I should make it clear that the other aspects of a novelist’s duties have not been neglected. His characters are complex and unpredictable beings, and he pays a great deal of attention to world-building. His narratives and his characters seem to emerge from their contexts, rather than being decorated with a scattering of period detail, and the complex web of social and economic obligations that determine the broad strokes of an individual’s behaviour are thoroughly imagined. The characters inhabit all strata of society, and the exchanges of knowledge, power, or people between those layers are convincingly represented (I can’t vouch for their historical veracity, but they feel entirely plausible). The plotting here is a bit different from the other Stephenson I’ve read, much less tidy, and more driven by the appearance of happenstance. Few characters’ arcs are uninterrupted trajectories of the sort found in, say, REAMDE, and this is very much to my liking—I do enjoy the complex, fully-resolved geometries of his plotting elsewhere, but in general I’m far more partial to a good dose of accident. However, it may just be that the frayed threads of his storytelling here will all be woven into the weft of a finished fabric over the course of the next two books—there is certainly the promise of some resolution in the way that the framing narrative is left hanging.

The marathon of reading demanded by Quicksilver didn’t diminish its fun factor for me, but it did partially obstruct my appreciation of the book, parts of which had faded in memory by the time I reached its final scene of compassionately involuntary surgery. At any given point in the text you can tell that Stephenson was having a whale of a time writing this book, and that sense of play is the abiding impression it’s left me with. There’s probably too much of it, but none of it is extraneous, or at least none of it is obviously more deserving of being cut than any other part. If this is the kind of thing that Stephenson can churn out by the yard, then I’m very happy to gorge myself on it.

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