Monday, February 02, 2004

book review: quicksilver

quicksilver by neal stephenson is a thick tome that should not be approached lightly. the book offers many of the hallmarks of stephenson books: well drawn, quirky characters, with witty dialog and verbal riposting; some era undergoing some level of crazy changes; often beautiful descriptive writing that at its best can show you something in whole new light.

the best example of this latter hallmark is his description of the Minerva, a sailing ship trying to carry the novels chief character back to United Kingdom from America. Their are two passages in particular that talk about the ship as a living thing that is constantly being shaped and rebuilt by the in habiting sailors. I went back those passages several times.

there were plenty of other times though where I felt I should go back and reread things for lack of understanding, but I couldn't bear the thought of it.

the book is fascinating at times, exploring the intermingling of science and politics during the English Restoration of Charles II and the Glorious Revolution that replaced "the pretender" James II with William (of Orange) and Mary. Important characters include scientists like Robert Hooke, Huygens, Leibnez, and all sorts of British, French and European royalty.

the first third is a glorious romp through the trials present at the birth of the scientific merit in all its blood and glory. it is told as Daniel Waterhouse's memorys as he sails back to England to resolve a dispute between Netwon and Leibnez.

strangely and inexplicably, that narrative is dropped entirely. we never learn what happens when daniel gets back to england ( maybe it is not important or is to be told in the next book? ) nor do we learn why the pirate blackbeard was after him ( ditto ).

the 2nd third of the book is the story of jack shaftoe and eliza. A vagabond soldier and the Turkish slave he frees during the failed seige of Vienna. this is an amusing romp through another plane of existence entirely. Jack an unprincipled wretch whose exploits become reknowned among the downtrodden of the continent, Eliza a whip smart woman who at first chance begins to propel herself into being a Person of Quality.

the last third of the book is a culmination of many lines of politics and science and ends in the Glorious Revolution where William and Mary are crowned. But as with many of Mr Stephensons endings fails to move me... I couldn't help wondering why I should care, and whether or not I had missed something. Cryptonomicom his last novel, while as long and filled with nearly the same level of deep erudite knowledge, somehow ended, and I felt as though I had actually gone somewhere.

indeed, in one section, Eliza writes long intense letters that are long and intense because they are encyrpted and mask a simpler message hidden underneath. i couldn't help but wonder if Quicksilver was an encyrpted message as well, and I just lack the key.


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