Winged Mercury

by Henry Farrell on December 1, 2003

I finished Neal Stephenson’s _Quicksilver_ the day before yesterday, and enjoyed it very much, despite the mixed reviews. In many ways, the book reminded me of another baggy-great faux-historical novel set in the same period, which similarly received scant critical acclaim; Thomas Pynchon’s _Mason and Dixon_. And _Quicksilver_ is very nearly as good.

Which isn’t to say that the criticisms of _Quicksilver_ are untrue, or unfair. But they still seem to to me to miss the mark. They treat _Quicksilver_ as a more or less conventional novel, and concentrate their fire on its lack of vivid characterization, and its lack of pacing. All true. But I don’t think _Quicksilver_ _is_ a conventional novel, nor does it aspire to be. It’s not really about relations between warm living human beings, although these are thrown in as a sort of garnish, to render the intellectual meat of the novel slightly more palatable. _Quicksilver_ is about the birth of modernity, and how this rather extraordinary scientific, religious, intellectual and political ferment spewed forth the world that we have today (or at least something very like that world). The metaphor of mercury runs through the novel, referring sometimes to money, sometimes to natural science, sometimes to alchemy, sometimes to the palpable explosion of ideas that preceded the Enlightenment, but always, always, to whatever is acting to change things. I reckon that the keystone of the novel is found on p.722-3, where Daniel Waterhouse describes how

bq. This morning, Roger, I sat in this empty courtyard, in the midst of a whirlwind. The whirlwind was invisible; how did I know ’twas here? Because of the motion it conferred on innumerable scraps of paper, which orbited round me. Had I thought to bring along my instruments I could have taken observations and measured the velocities and plotted the trajectories of those scraps, and if I were as brilliant as Isaac I could have drawn all of those data together into a single unifying picture of the whirlwind. But if I were Leibniz I’d have done none of those things. Instead I’d have asked, _Why is the whirlwind here?_

This is the question that the novel is structured around. The book depicts the whirlwind of modernity, which catches its various characters in its turbulence, and flings them willy-nilly across Europe and North America. And then enquires as to the nature of that whirlwind, not giving any very satisfactory answer (or, more precisely, giving a variety of unsatisfactory ones). Which is to say that the book is really about the forces shaping history rather than about history itself. It bears the same relationship to a traditional historical novel that Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II bears to a conventional piece of diplomatic history – while individuals turn up here and there in Braudel’s narration, and even serve to illustrate important points, they are in the grip of forces larger than themselves. Stephenson’s project is a very ambitious one; I’m not at all sure that he’s going to succeed. But I’m certainly intrigued enough to look forward eagerly to volumes II and III.

Update: “Mark Kleiman”: also likes _Quicksilver_ a lot. Key quote: “I have no idea why you’re wasting your time reading this weblog when you should be reading Stephenson instead.” He also reminds me that Stephenson himself recommends another of Braudel’s books as a companion read to _Quicksilver_.



Carlos 12.02.03 at 12:27 am

I suspect that if Quicksilver were originally written in Italian, people would be proclaiming it a literary masterpiece.

There seems to be an unwritten list [*] of genre conventions of psychological realism that, when violated, upsets some readers the way errors in SFnal continuity affect the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. “Worst Crisis of Faith Evar!”


[*] Unless someone has written it down?


Keith 12.02.03 at 2:42 am

I think Mr. Stephenson can at least make a good go at tackling this invisible monster of a premis, maybe not as well as some but far better than many. While The Diamond Age was not well recieved I thought it was brilliant and I have dreams about Snow Crash.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 12.02.03 at 6:13 am

You’re giving me heart to continue. I bogged down somewhere shortly after the Great Fire of London, but I have to admit, if I’d been simply regarding it as nonfiction, I’d have continued. So I’ll do so.

Of course, I am one of those witless Tolkien fans, so who knows what ghastly aesthetic enormities I might endorse.


Nabakov 12.02.03 at 11:38 am

Hank babe,
if I was the kind of person who wrote book reviews, that is exactly the kind of book review I’d write – and come to the same conclusion about the same book.


s.e 12.02.03 at 1:01 pm

Is there a difference between art and illustration?


Doug Turnbull 12.02.03 at 2:31 pm

The immediate question that jumps out at me, if you are right in your description of the book’s intellectual intention, is whether a novel is the right format to make that attempt. And, if it is, whether Stephenson has done a good job at it.

I don’t think high intellectual aspirations frees a novelist from the responsibility for writing an interesting book with realistic characters, etc. The trick, if you want to be a good novelist, is to design a situation such that the ideas you want to explore flow out naturally from the behavior of the characters you’ve created, and such that the story you’re telling is interesting enough to draw in the reader.

If you can’t manage that, then you’re just writing a bad novel with good ideas.


Josh 12.02.03 at 6:38 pm

The immediate question that jumps out at me, if you are right in your description of the book’s intellectual intention, is whether a novel is the right format to make that attempt.

Precisely. The core material Stephenson’s interested in doesn’t need the garnish the novel form gives it; it’s fascinating on its own. And it’s not like Stephenson has shown he can’t write interesting non-fiction.

Carlos: there are people who read Stephenson for psychological realism? Oy.


Henry 12.02.03 at 8:06 pm

Patrick – glad that it’s given you the heart to continue (for the record I’m a witless Tolkien fan too). Mind you, I’m fascinated by the history of science, so I was an easy sell for a book like this.

Doug – I think that you’re right for the most part – but there’s an interesting genre of fiction that doesn’t have much in the way of characterization, but that succeeds on its own terms. Borges and Calvino are obvious candidates; in SF there’s Olaf Stapledon’s chillier stuff, which seems to me almost to constitute a genre of its own.


s.e. 12.02.03 at 8:35 pm

The question is not about whether novels are about characterization or not, but whether literary works- prose or poetry- are or ‘should be’ given the strengths and limitations of the medim about ideas divorced from the means of communication. Most novelists, whatever their subject, will tell you they’re interested primarily in language. The issue is one of form and content. Illustration is the presentation of information. Art is the creation of a unified whole according to the logic of the maker. ‘Artists’ -and scare quotes are needed here- whatever they may or may not say in public, in the end choose the creation of unity over the presentation of assumptions. Critics and historians supply meanings after the fact. The intentional phallacy rules supreme whether we like it or not.
I’m no fan of Tolkien, or at least I don’t take him very seriously, any more than I take speculative fiction seriously. it’s all illustration of one sort or another.
And Pynchon, by the way, although he is a big fan of illustration, is not an illustrator.

I think analytical philosophers,and those in the sciences prefer creation to observation. It leads to their interest in art forms that are thought of as marginal within their field. Historians and writers prefer observation.

I think think this is also a limitation of analytic philosophy itself.


s.e. 12.02.03 at 8:37 pm


I’m thinking too much.
I’m sure this one will haunt me for a while


CJ 12.02.03 at 10:08 pm

Analytic phlilosophers prefer creation to observation? What does that mean?

Also, what is a “witless Tolkien fan”?


linsee 12.03.03 at 12:26 am

Try “An Instance of the Fingerpost” by Iain Pears for a philosophical mystery novel set in this intellectual period


s.e. 12.03.03 at 1:46 am

I think there are very real differences between invented systems and observed ones, as between rational systems and practical ones. I assume the world is more complex than any image we can make of it, so I’m interested in plotting the past before predicting the future. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think the assumption is that we’re not able to predict beyond a small number the the future impacts of a ball moving at a constant rate across the surface of a pool table. Makers of logical systems always seem to end up leaving things out of their equations. Rational actor theory; vulgar Marxism; Positivism; Objectivism; Modernist -as opposed to merely modern- architecture; science and speculative fiction; are all simplifications to be reapplied over complexity. The usual, historical, function of art is the opposite of this, to get bogged down in the details of observation and of what is being observed. Art and in a sense the study of history is predicated on a sort of Zeno’s paradox: From a detail, to a detail of a detail, to a detail of a detail of a detail, to a detail that is relevant to us but which may not have been important to… and on and on.
That’s certainly Jane Austen’s relationship to her time. That’s the relationship of Shakespeare to his. Pick a name out of the past. The patterns are the same.
I don’t think any Science Fiction novel, defined by the specifics of what is considered distinct in Sci Fi, will ever be as subtle -as intellectually subtle- or as historically important as Hamlet. Why is this so? What’s the difference? It’s that Shakespeare did not plan or ‘create’ or ‘design’ systems, he observed and twisted and played with the ones he knew.
Religious and conservative critics of science understand this, but for reasons of dogma are unable to make their arguments in secular terms.


Carlos 12.03.03 at 6:51 am

Josh: I don’t think many people read Stephenson for psychological realism (though a few suspects come to mind), but I do think much of the disappointment many people have had with Quicksilver comes from unfulfilled expectations along those lines.

Which is odd. The English language novel has been both historically and recently an overstuffed grab-bag freak show of weirdness. “Yeah, let’s put in a long digression on the semiotics of whiteness! Then a chapter done in the style of teenage girls’ magazine articles! Then a dream sequence about a harmonica falling down a toilet! Then some stuff about bears. White bears. A lot of stuff. If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then? Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? Is the white bear worth seeing? Is it better than a BLACK ONE?”

Pass the Cap’n Crunch.


Mike Kozlowski 12.03.03 at 3:23 pm

From where comes this bizarre notion that Stephenson can’t write realistic characters? Randy Waterhouse was one of the most spot-on, nuanced, and insightful portraits of a maturing adult geek that I’ve seen in fiction.

Waterhouse in Quicksilver was a well-developed and realistic character, too; hell, most of the Royal Society members were drawn with superb deftness.

I’m just not getting this complaint at all.

(I do understand people who bitch that Quicksilver doesn’t have a plot, because… well, it doesn’t. It very much reads like fictionalized history, in which things happen at narratively inconvenient times, promising plot leads peter out, major characters die before their plot arc is done, and the storyline is just all over the damn place.)


Tom Runnacles 12.03.03 at 8:55 pm

Strangely enough, Stephenson was recommended to me just last week, and I’m now tearing through ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘Cryptonomicon’ in parallel – he’s absolutely amazing, and I look forward to ‘Quicksilver’.

(I can’t help but admire a guy who puts Perl scripts into his novels. It’s clearly the right place for them.)

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