What am I missing about Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver?
December 9, 2003 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Quicksilver. What am I missing? (more)
posted by heather to Media & Arts (16 answers total)
Response by poster: The first book had me gently snoozing, the end of the second book had me gnashing my teeth and by the third, I didn't much care. Is there much hope for Volume Two, The Confusion?

Oh, where for art thou Cryptonomicon?
posted by heather at 9:18 AM on December 9, 2003

With *all* Neal Stephenson books I've had this problem: The first few chapters are boring and confusing, and then about a quarter of the way into the book the story will suddenly grab me and I won't be able to put it down.

I had to put Quicksilver aside. It never grabbed me. I'm very interested in whether others ever got to the good part, or, since this is a three book trilogy, is the entire first book the preliminary boring part.
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2003

Yeah. I didn't even make it to page 300. Now it sits on my floor, a tiny, expensive ottoman. Sometimes I do put my feet on it, and I think, "I paid thirty dollars for this mother." Then I look over at my copy of Cryptonomicon, and shout at the ottoman, "Why can't you be more like your brother?!"
posted by Skot at 9:39 AM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

I don't have anything helpful to add here, but just needed to say that Skot had me laughing so much that my husband had to come over to see what was so funny...

I haven't been able to get my hands on Quicksilver yet (geographically challenged), but I've read Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and Diamond Age. Cryptonomicon is by far the best, but I also enjoyed Diamond Age for the nicely handled steampunk bits (especially the primer). I will read Quicksilver when I can, though, simply because after Cryptonomicon, I don't have a choice anymore; I have to read whatever Stephenson writes. Just in case.
posted by taz at 10:00 AM on December 9, 2003

I quite enjoyed Quicksilver. I'm not sure how to compare it to Cryptonomicon and Diamond Age, because they're completely different books, but I never felt particularly bored until I hit Eliza's long, long letters. That said, it was certainly a lot more harder-going to read than any of his previous novels.

Perhaps it's because I studied Natural Sciences at Trinity College, but I loved the feel and the description of the world and science in the 17th century. Makes me feel like I've learned something :)

posted by adrianhon at 10:22 AM on December 9, 2003

My review of Quicksilver (I put it in the last comment but buggered up the html).
posted by adrianhon at 10:23 AM on December 9, 2003

Well, as a bit of a Stephenson fan, I'll confess that Quicksilver was probably Stephenson's weakest book outside of Zodiac. However, knowing that Stephenson sometimes needs to get into the swing of writing before the story advances, I'll be picking up the second book in the Baroque Cycle. While Quicksilver did have its moments (the introduction of Jack Shaftoe and the ostrich came at the right time), fun cameos and wordplay ("canal rage"), the book definitely could have used an editor. At the end of the book (without revealing anything), Eliza, Jack and Co. are practically in the same spot they were in 300 pages before.

And that's the problem with Stephenson in a nutshell. He fluctuates between rambling dialogue on cryptography that does little to advance the plot (alternately, engrossing or nauseating) and sudden spurts that advance the story. (Of course, with the latter, he often heads into Tom Clancy-like resolutions, which are infuriating.)

For readers with little patience for this kind of approach, Stephenson's mega-tomes can be slow going. It's not unlike Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations (another rich book that demands patience), which also requires concentration and interest in the material. So it's not for everyone. But if you're interested in seeing how Stephenson, using his own mix of facts floating around in his head and fictional impetus, views the development of science and cryptography, then there are rewards amidst the narrative shrapnel.
posted by ed at 10:37 AM on December 9, 2003

ed! ed! how can you compare my favorite book in the world to the dirge that is quicksilver! sigh.
posted by judith at 1:16 PM on December 9, 2003

I loved Quicksilver, it was just entertaining as hell to me and made me think and laugh out loud and sent me off in different directions researching stuff that piqued my interest. Pretty much the ideal reading experience. Don't forget the Quicksilver Wiki!!!
posted by vito90 at 1:24 PM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: someone must promise me that jack isn't going to end up as jack ended up at the end of the second book.

it's not that i mind the length (though trying to read it in bed caused a few good thumps on the head when i nodded off)... it's all so... erm, grim. thank heaven it's not scratch and sniff!

then again, having just finished dark matter, i'm somewhat confused between that sane newton and quicksilver's less sane newton.
posted by heather at 2:25 PM on December 9, 2003

judith: Just comparing the efforts required of the reader, not necessarily the quality of the book. :) Gold Bug is light years ahead of Quicksilver, largely because where Gold Bug has introspection and pathos (and a more schooled sheen), Quicksilver has...well, insanity and overstrained efforts at quirkiness. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. Sir Isaac, despite Stephenson's liberties with his insanity, was a lot of fun. But this was not a book I could read without dipping into others simultaneously. For the last 200 pages, I finished Quicksilver only because I was determined to do it. Otherwise, I would have put it off. Which was not the case for Cryptonomicon. So somebody along the line screwed up: either Stephenson or me.

I don't think it was the grimness. Perdido Street Station, early Atwood and Random Acts of Senseless Violence (immediate examples that come to mind) are all dystopic as heck, but that didn't stop me from wolfing down all of these. The weaknesses extant in Quicksilver comes down to one ineluctable conclusion: Neal Stephenson needs an editor.
posted by ed at 2:50 PM on December 9, 2003

ok, now we're in agreement, ed. mostly about the need for an editor, but also about the general affection for dystopian visions (yay, womack!) and the last 200 pages of quicksilver...
posted by judith at 3:00 PM on December 9, 2003

I'm almost done reading it. Will sit down tonight and finish it off.

I tend to dig on references between different books, and so the whole premise of Quicksilver (and the next two) had me excited, and I've been pretty satisfied so far with the analogies that have shown up between Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver. But then, I'm also stoked by the way Stephen King has been wrapping his other stories into Dark Tower, so that's just me.

But I haven't found the book boring at all. Slow in spots, but entertaining even then -- I rather liked the letters from Eliza.

Also, I'd like to suggest Snow Crash as an excellent rebuttal to the (otherwise pretty goddam accurate) assertion that Neal starts his books slow.
posted by cortex at 4:25 PM on December 9, 2003

My whole issue with Quicksilver [I am on page 400 or so and trying to decide if I should even finish it, I've got David Fuckin' Wallace's book on infinity in the chute....] is that too much of it seems like sort of precious inside jokery and I don't know enough history to get the jokes until they're stale. So I spend a lot of time reading the book and then thinking "Would I understand this if I knew what was going on in England/Vienna/Massachusetts at the time?" "Is this character acting strangely because he's a Real Person that Stephenson has appropriated to make some point?" [I found the character index yesterday] and most importantly "Who cares?"

It's not that it's not a well-written book full of neat stuff, it's that it's not delightful in the way all of Stephenson's other books were [and I'm even including the Big U here]. It's heavy and plodding and diverges often into what always seem to be these shaggy dog stories that take 10-15 pages to bring one plot point home. I find myself skimming and I rarely skim. It just seems to be many facts, little plot, whereas I felt that Cryptonomicon, as an example, was all plot with characters added as an afterthough. It seems to offer the promise of great reward for those who understand all the political and social and character-bound implications the text presents, and I don't feel like I'm up to it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 PM on December 9, 2003

I am on page 400 or so and trying to decide if I should even finish it, I've got David Fuckin' Wallace's book on infinity in the chute....

Man. At first, I thought you meant Infinite Jest, and so I was going to remark on the irony of not finishing a book so that you could read IJ, and, hoo boy. But that's not the book you mean. But I had to share.
posted by cortex at 6:58 PM on December 9, 2003

The big thing: Cryptonomicon had glorious things like the Captain Crunch chapter or Randy's enthusiastic memo to make up for the occasional lulls. Quicksilver doesn't have anything remotely like that. It is, as mentioned above, shamelessly edited. We're reminded of character details that have already been established (friend of mine's borrowing my copy, but, from memory, I'm referring to Jack's brother's death, which is mentioned something like three times -- look, Neal, we already KNOW he's dead, so stop reminding us with this Publishing 101 gaffe). Stephenson can't seem to decide whether he wants to give the reader everything she wants or be deliberately obtuse. (I speak of the footnotes and the constant general explanations of history and scientific principles, which we could look up, just like we did Turing and the cryptographers in Cryptonomicon. A bit contrarian in light of the Wiki. Isn't part of the fun of reading a novel being invited to find out more about the contextual tidbits?) Eliza's letters remark on the same things. Over and over and over.

Plus, Stephenson, this time around, doesn't offer us a geek protagonist that cuts the mustard. Instead, the Royal Society is presented as a bunch of fringe oddballs who seem to have every scientific maxim at their fingertips. This may have been partly the case. But Stephenson's strength has always been to tap into the personalities behind the grand ideas, the uber-geek passion that generates concepts (because minds are wired a whit differently) and influences humankind. But this time around, all we really got was a bunch of ass references, a few quirky moments, and a plot about as thin as a circus highwire.

I'm not saying I hated it. I'll be reading the second book. I want to know more about the associations that percolate in Stephenson's noggin. But I was decidedly underwhelmed by it.

If, however, you're looking for an entertaining read that does deliver the goods, despite King's flaws, I recommend picking up the first of the last three Dark Tower books (Wolves of the Calla, which came out in November). Strangely enough, the Dark Tower books are coming out in similarly timed increments. Unlike Stephenson, we can overlook King's novel-related gaffes because he is in touch with the human spirit. He tells a good yarn. Like him or hate him, he delivers the goods. And he also understands that good writing is crafted. For all of his success, he understands the importance of editors.

And DFW's infinity book, hopefully with a bit of jest in it, is in my bookpile too. :)
posted by ed at 8:20 PM on December 9, 2003

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