Quicksilver questions

by John Quiggin on December 19, 2004

I just finished “Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, and I have to admit bafflement.

It’s great fun, with a great evocation of the period and plenty of sly digs at the modern reader (I liked the Duke of Monmouth as the Dan Quayle of the 1685 campaign). At the same time, I can’t help feeling I’ve completely missed the point here.

The style is that of fantasy, but the novel seems to be entirely historically accurate[1] apart from the fact that the members of the Cabal have been replaced by new characters with the same acronym, some of whom play a minor role in the story, and that one of the key characters comes from the island of Qwghlm[2], apparently a British possession.

I don’t know exactly what gives here: maybe a reader can point me in the right direction. A lot of readers had much the same reaction to “Jonathan Strange which I loved, so I’m open to the idea that there’s more here than I’ve seen so far.

There’s a whole Metaweb (a type of wiki apparently) about all this, which may be worth exploring.

fn1. I don’t claim to be an expert on 17th century history. There may be some other things I’ve missed.

fn2. Given my Manx heritage, the idea that Qwghlm is the Isle of Man seems appealing. Certainly the name has a certain resonance, though its disemvowellment makes it hard to interpret.

{ 34 comments }

1

ionfish 12.19.04 at 12:16 pm

I think Quicksilver makes more sense if you’ve read Cryptonomicon and have something of a handle on Stephenson’s “warping” of the real world into his own personal universe; at least, it did for me.

2

John Casey 12.19.04 at 2:31 pm

You have read only one third of the novel; two more volumes to go .

I will say that once I had read _Confusion_ (the second volume of the trilogy, Quicksilver made a lot more sens upon a second reading.

3

Cheryl Morgan 12.19.04 at 2:54 pm

Well, you are by no means the only person to be completely con-fused by the whole Baroque Cycle project. But what I think Stephenson is trying to do is talk about the origins of the modern world. In particular he is looking at how natural philosophy changed from an alchemical approach (typified by Newton) to a more scientific one (typified by Liebnitz and Waterhouse). He also talks a lot about the origins of economics and commodity trading. And there are some interesting sidelines into the similarity between debates over the existence of true intelligence in AIs and 17th Century debates about free will v predestination.

On the other hand, the interesting speculation and large numbers of fabulous pieces of prose are all but drowned out by a regrettable tendency to include just about everything that Stephenson knows about the period in the books. Some serious pruning would make them a lot better read.

Looking back over my reviews, I see I quite enjoyed Quicksilver, probably because it majored on the Monmouth Rebellion which I know a lot about having been born in Somerset. By the end of The Confusion I was losing patience fast, and The System of the World just about redeemed the series. John Clute was far less forgiving.

4

Alex Halavais 12.19.04 at 3:41 pm

Despite being a great fan of Stephenson’s other books, I found this tedious enough to avoid reading the second and third installations. Unlike Cryptonomicon, which despite its size was a fairly quick read, I felt like I was dragging myself through Quicksilver.

Maybe what it needs is a collective phantom edit.

5

Carlos 12.19.04 at 4:16 pm

“The style is that of fantasy, but the novel seems to be entirely historically accurate,”

It’s a secret history. There are several concurrent levels of seemingly occult things going on behind the scenes. One of them is the global movement of bullion.

Reading all three books leads to a radically different idea of what sections should have been edited out.

6

bob mcmanus 12.19.04 at 5:25 pm

I shouldn’t comment, having not read any Stephenson. But I read the Clute review, and many comments about the books, and a a Joyce/Mann fan, it all sounds familar. I have been asked many times how to read Finnegan’s Wake, and why bother. I usually answer “Don’t.”

Form can be function, and boredom can be resistance. If an author’s purpose is to change the conciousness of his reader, he can do it with an opaque brevity, as in a Zen Koan or Wittgenstein; or a prolix complexity. Looks like Stephenson is trying the second. Both demand thousands of hours of work inside and outside the books. The question as to whether such dedication is worthwhile is hard to answer, especially since someone who has made the committment has an investment to defend.

All I know is that FW expanded my conciousness to three times its previous size, and that my ka now shines like a fresh-waxed canary-yellow Corvette.

7

Paul Gowder 12.19.04 at 10:47 pm

I’m not sure there is or needs to be a theme in the book. It’s the only Baroque Cycle book I’ve read thus far (primarily because I don’t seem to be able to get my hands on a copy of the second one), but I’ve read all or almost all his other books. Quicksilver seems like straightforward Stephenson: a shift in time (his earlier books went a few years into the future, vaguely cyberpunk — his recent stuff starting with cryptonomicon into the past), an occult bent, and extremely richly detailed characters.

I’d advise thinking of it as pure historical novel, vaguely in the vein of Margaret George’s stuff, with a touch of Umberto Eco occultism thrown in. Brain candy.

8

Mill 12.20.04 at 1:30 am

I actually liked Quicksilver the best of the three, but I think that’s just because it covered the topics I’m most interested in: Early scientists wresting truths from nature with their bare hands! Early financiers wresting primitive economies from trade with their bare pens! Vagabonds rambling across Europe!

The second book was half great, half boring, and the third book I kind of had to force myself through. But those were mainly reactions to the contents: I just don’t care -that- much about the history of European governance and how it ties in to the history of finance. (I liked the parts set elsewhere, though.)

But since you’re an economist, maybe the more abstract making-finance-a-reliable-system stuff will fascinate you.

9

Cranky Observer 12.20.04 at 2:13 am

> Given my Manx heritage, the idea
> that Qwghlm is the Isle of Man
> seems appealing.

Based on Cryptonomican I had assumed it was Wales, but perhaps I should look for other candidates!

Cranky

10

cw 12.20.04 at 3:09 am

I see Stephenson as sort of a popularization of Pynchon.

11

Bruce from Missouri 12.20.04 at 5:10 am

My sister was also pretty sure that Qwghlm was Wales based on the mockery of spelling and pronunciation of the language, and the general description of the area.
Myself, I haven’t the slightest clue.

You will get more out of Quicksilver if you have read Cryptonomicon first.

12

Nick Fagerlund 12.20.04 at 6:44 am

And I posit that you’ll get more out of both if you’ve read his other stuff as well. As gonzo as Snow Crash was, it still exists somewhere on the same continuum Stephenson built Cryptonomicon and Baroque Cycle on, and likewise with Diamond Age. (One could argue either way for Zodiac, because it ultimately doesn’t matter for either the book’s own story or the larger universe. And The Big U is basically Snow Crash Goes to College, Except Even Less Cohesive On Account Of It Being His Freshman Effort.)

At any rate, the universe-building and self-referenciality have been proceeding apace from pretty early on (although these last few are the most full-blown and interesting cases). Did anyone notice YT’s cameo appearance in The Diamond Age?

13

John Quiggin 12.20.04 at 7:16 am

I don’t suppose that there’s any way to resolve the Qwghlm question, but Man is an island, unlike Wales, and an appropriate insertion of vowels makes Qwigholme, which appeals to me.

Judging by the comments, I think I’ll make Cryptonomicon my next attempt, before deciding whether to persevere.

14

bad Jim 12.20.04 at 7:32 am

The main point of the novel was to be great fun, I think. I know I gobbled it up. Same with The Confusion.

Stephenson was interviewed about the series in Salon. A brief excerpt:

Pretty soon I was thinking this was an exceptionally apt time in which to set a novel. There were so many wild and improbable things going on then that made for good material. The siege of Vienna where the Turks penetrated into Europe is a thing that’s almost inconceivable to us today. That was the deepest into Europe that they got. That’s a pretty dramatic little happening. Things like the Barbary pirates and 800 other different flavors of pirates, Spanish treasure galleons, the wars of Louis XIV, the scientific revolution, the plague, the Great Fire of London. All that falls into the period of time when Newton and Leibniz were alive.

Perhaps it provides a back story for Cryptonomicon, perhaps it just lets him recycle his characters. It also lets him animate some remarkable people who ought to be better known, like Robert Hooke.

Count me among those who associated Qwghlm with Wales (and note that “w” is a vowel in Welsh). For what it’s worth, Candide also has a syphilitic Dr. Pangloss chained to an oar in a galley.

15

bad Jim 12.20.04 at 9:22 am

By all means go straight on to The Confusion while you’ve still got the characters and the story line in mind. It’s another cracking good story.

Cryptonomicon‘s a big, fun book, and it treats some of the same themes, uses the same artifices (substituting Alan Turing for Isaac Newton as the grey eminence, perhaps) but it isn’t really the key to the Baroque series, as far as I can tell, though I haven’t gotten to The System of the World yet.

16

Simstim 12.20.04 at 9:54 am

>Unlike Cryptonomicon, which
>despite its size was a fairly
>quick read, I felt like I was
>dragging myself through
>Quicksilver.

Given that Cryptonomicon was where Stephenson’s tendency to include mini-lectures on pet topics (linguistics/mythology in Snow Crash, AI in Diamond Age and cryptanalysis in Cryptonomicon) made me give up the will to live, I won’t be giving Quicksilver a go soon.

My view on Qwghlm is that it’s a mixture of the major Celtic nations (particularly Scotland and Wales) and those islands of the British Isles, some also Celtic, that have a weird legal status or longstanding autonomy (e.g. Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Orkneys, Shetland, Rockall, etc.)

17

Charlie Stross 12.20.04 at 12:47 pm

Halfway through “The confusion” and loving it … just taking it slowly and periodically breaking off to read something else.

I think Simstim is right about Qwghlm; going from the description in “Cryptonomicon” I placed it somewhere in the north-west, out around Orkney, but I suspect an inhabited and slightly bigger version of Rockall where the natives speak a dialect of Scots Gaelic fits better with “Quicksilver”.

And the whole lot reads beautifully on multiple levels — adventure yarn with discursive infodumps exploring aspects of the 17th and 18th centuries on the one hand, treatise on the origins of the scientific method on the other, and on the gripping hand it’s about the way our concept of currency went virtual, shifting from coin struck from noble metal to pieces of paper and then options on pieces of paper.

It will be most interesting to see what comes next.

18

Fi Gigi 12.20.04 at 12:54 pm

Maybe the whole purpose of the Baroque Cycle is just the sheer pleasure of a sprawling, crazy story and many nights of reading, snuggly fit in a sofa or one’s bed.

That’s how I’m approaching it and it worked pretty well for Quicksilver. One hour now, one hour then. Onwards to The Confusion

19

Cranky Observer 12.20.04 at 2:36 pm

> Judging by the comments, I think
> I’ll make Cryptonomicon my next
> attempt, before deciding whether to
> persevere.

_Cryptonomicon_ is one of the best novels of the last 20 years. Well, the first 97% of it is. The lack of any kind of ending, be it traditional, modern, post-modern, or post-post-modern is a bit frustrating to most readers ;-). But please do go ahead and read it.

Cranky

20

Charles Dodgson 12.20.04 at 2:40 pm

For what it’s worth, the Baroque Cycle does have elements of the fantastic, which show up in a minor way in Quicksilver, and become increasingly important in each of the two sequels. (Or at least I take them to be fantastic elements, unless Stephenson knows things about the unusual properties of certain kinds of gold that I do not).

Which actually bugs me. There is actually a small genre of novels that use their characters and settings as a vehicle for exploring the origins of the modern world — among others, Gain by Richard Powers, on the origin of corporations as institutions distinct from their proprietors, and Iain Pears’s superb An Instance of the Fingerpost, on the emergence of modern science from the religious frame of mind of seventeenth-century Oxford. The Baroque Cycle starts off seeming like one of those, and I’d rather it stayed that way; the genre-jumping feels like it’s not quite playing fair with the reader.

But then again, I loved Mary Gentle’s Ash — another secret history with, well let’s say, fantastic elements — perhaps because the reader learns more quickly that there’s something strange going on, even if it isn’t obvious for hundreds of pages exactly what.

Getting back to the Baroque Cycle, I think the original question here was something like, “what’s the point”? And part of the point is clearly just to be a ripping good yarn. But — and I’m on thin ice here, as I haven’t read through the whole thing yet — I think Clute may be right to suggest that part of what’s going on here, beyond just explorations of the origin of some aspects of modernity, is a kind of pitch for the Great Man view of history. (Some of Stephenson’s straight history has much the same view — I remember particularly his take on Lord Kelvin in his Wired story on the history and practice of undersea communications cables). But I’ll know more about that when I’m all the way through the thing…

21

Cranky Observer 12.20.04 at 2:58 pm

[Spoiler Warning]

(Or at least I take them to be fantastic elements, unless Stephenson knows things about the unusual properties of certain kinds of gold that I do not)

Shows me what one gets for making assumptions. Until I read this comment I had assumed that there were two stable (or meta-stable) isotopes of gold, but there is only one. However, I think one of the themes that Stephenson is exploring here is that Newton came very close to inventing quantum physics; with a clue such as two isotopes of gold he might have gone over that edge and figured it out. In which case the world would have been very different.

And in terms of fantastical elements, I think the Lazarus character might qualify ;-).

Cranky

22

Brad 12.21.04 at 8:07 am

Having read all three parts of the trilogy, I think part of the problem is the sheer size of the endeavor. Stephenson tries to pack a lot of different things into 2,000 plus pages, some of which (the detail on the layout and infrastructure of London) may not have been necessary.

I read Cryptonomicon twice, and in many ways enjoyed it more on the second reading than I did the first, and am starting to do the same with the trilogy. I think that, as with Cryptonomicon, the second reading may add a greater appreciation of what Stephenson was trying to do. My humble opinion.

23

Bradley Mossman 12.21.04 at 8:09 am

Having read all three parts of the trilogy, I think part of the problem is the sheer size of the endeavor. Stephenson tries to pack a lot of different things into 2,000 plus pages, some of which (the detail on the layout and infrastructure of London) may not have been necessary.

I read Cryptonomicon twice, and in many ways enjoyed it more on the second reading than I did the first, and am starting to do the same with the trilogy. I think that, as with Cryptonomicon, the second reading may add a greater appreciation of what Stephenson was trying to do. My humble opinion.

24

Bradley Mossman 12.21.04 at 8:09 am

Having read all three parts of the trilogy, I think part of the problem is the sheer size of the endeavor. Stephenson tries to pack a lot of different things into 2,000 plus pages, some of which (the detail on the layout and infrastructure of London) may not have been necessary.

I read Cryptonomicon twice, and in many ways enjoyed it more on the second reading than I did the first, and am starting to do the same with the trilogy. I think that, as with Cryptonomicon, the second reading may add a greater appreciation of what Stephenson was trying to do. My humble opinion.

25

Brad 12.21.04 at 8:10 am

Having read all three parts of the trilogy, I think part of the problem is the sheer size of the endeavor. Stephenson tries to pack a lot of different things into 2,000 plus pages, some of which (the detail on the layout and infrastructure of London) may not have been necessary.

I read Cryptonomicon twice, and in many ways enjoyed it more on the second reading than I did the first, and am starting to do the same with the trilogy. I think that, as with Cryptonomicon, the second reading may add a greater appreciation of what Stephenson was trying to do. My humble opinion.

26

Brad 12.21.04 at 8:10 am

Having read all three parts of the trilogy, I think part of the problem is the sheer size of the endeavor. Stephenson tries to pack a lot of different things into 2,000 plus pages, some of which (the detail on the layout and infrastructure of London) may not have been necessary.

I read Cryptonomicon twice, and in many ways enjoyed it more on the second reading than I did the first, and am starting to do the same with the trilogy. I think that, as with Cryptonomicon, the second reading may add a greater appreciation of what Stephenson was trying to do. My humble opinion.

27

Brad 12.21.04 at 8:11 am

Having read all three parts of the trilogy, I think part of the problem is the sheer size of the endeavor. Stephenson tries to pack a lot of different things into 2,000 plus pages, some of which (the detail on the layout and infrastructure of London) may not have been necessary.

I read Cryptonomicon twice, and in many ways enjoyed it more on the second reading than I did the first, and am starting to do the same with the trilogy. I think that, as with Cryptonomicon, the second reading may add a greater appreciation of what Stephenson was trying to do. My humble opinion.

28

John Quiggin 12.21.04 at 9:05 am

Another crack at the record!

29

Darren 12.21.04 at 9:26 am

Quicksilver Comments

The idea of quicksilver (that is, the element mercury) as a metaphor for information was interesting.

The example of steganography was quite good. This is difficult to comment upon without spoilers but … it is difficult to look at examples of the medium upon which the steganograph was placed without wondering… (Apologies for the convoluted prose; just avoiding spoilers).

I add these two comments since no other (most probably better) reviewers mentioned them.

30

Cranky Observer 12.21.04 at 7:11 pm

> Another crack at the record!

When I saw the “29 comments” this morning I was hoping the discussion was continuing ;-(

Cranky

31

Mike 12.21.04 at 7:58 pm

As I kept breaking into a grin and reading bits to my wife against her will, I’m probably the worst person to offer insight to someone who’s lukewarm on the series.

So I’ll just second those of you who’ve said that the point is the same as any good story well told. And I’d go on to Confusion, which intersperses fascinating economic history with a kickass pirate novel.

32

Pedro Jorge Romero 12.22.04 at 4:26 pm

I have translated several Stephenson’s books into Spanish, and I must say he is a fascinating author. I have never been bored translating one of his novels. On the contrary, I find that reading him word by word enhances my enjoyment of his books. Right now, I am finishing The Confusion, and the book is just plain fun: a wonderfully imaginative pirate novel and an enthralling look to the economy of the period; so full of interesting details. Quicksilver too was fascinating as a portrait of science at the time. The rewarding aspect of reading Stephenson is the reading process in itself, not the goal of reaching the end; reading Stephenson is a very zen-like activity.

33

Direct TV 12.23.04 at 10:33 am

34

Investment Fraud 12.25.04 at 11:16 pm

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