Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Please Turn To The Next Book When You Hear This Chime
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
I've finished Quicksilver and gone straight into The Confusion. Boy, I'd appreciate that now-defunct Baroque Cycle wiki right about now. As an alternative I would also accept a decent tenth-grade World History course that, as promised, covered Europe up to the present day, instead of the version I got that ended substantive instruction around 1600.
Leonard is reading a biography of Samuel Pepys, so both of us had to seek out relevant primers. Were we really dedicated we'd use a more scrupulous source than Stephenson + Wikipedia to grok European history. "Yes, the moral decay of the kids these days, it's horrible." Leonard's historian sister Rachel is probably shaking her head in shame right now.
Anyway, the 900-page Quicksilver is not as imposing as I'd feared. The intellectual bits don't melt my brain; the science and math we now get in high school, and I've read enough philosophy to follow the arguments easily.
However, keeping track of the exposition gets formidable. The reader has to keep a lot of data readily accessible in her head, so I don't recommend that you read it as I did (read 100 pages, six-month hiatus, start again and read 250 pages, four-month hiatus, try to continue from bookmark and eventually backtrack 50 pages). For example, about 50 pages from the end, two characters allude to something that happened eleven years prior, and I couldn't figure out whether Stephenson had mentioned it (and I'd forgotten) or he was being coy. The surfeit of aristocrats leads to the same problem I had in reading Tolstoy: remembering that "Peter Shale" and "Count Vlogistaire" and "Rocko" are the same person. I didn't see the Dramatis Personae relational database till the end of the volume.
I realize that I sound whiny, but I liked Quicksilver; today I blarghed about it and Stephenson in general for about ten minutes at Michael. Stephenson knows how to make me laugh and ooh and turn the page. I'll quote my upcoming column on amateur anthropology:
On the level of plot and setting, it's about seventeenth-century Europe, political intrigues, scientific discoveries, banter in coffeehouses, and the movements of markets. But it's also about the false distinction between people of thought and people of action -- to paraphrase Einstein, thought without action is lame and action without thought is blind. And it's also a giant meditation on a theme that Stephenson can't stop thinking about: what it takes to "condense fact from the vapor of nuance", to quote his earlier book "Snow Crash."
For future reference, once I've finished the series: Andrew Leonard's Salon reviews of Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3. I think Andrew Leonard really gets Stephenson, so let's see if I'm (and he's) right.