Irritating or engrossing, an author with impact

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Irritating or engrossing, an author with impact

[Book review]

Neal Stephenson as a writer almost defies categorization. Indeed, one of the things that gives his works an almost hypnotic power despite their many flaws is the broad range of his interests and his dizzying tendency to swoop down on one small aspect of a plot line like a camera’s zoom lens abruptly wrenched from wide-angle to telephoto, and then just as abruptly pan back to resume writing about a pseudo-historical sweep of a past era.

“Quicksilver” is the first of eight books that make up his “Baroque Cycle,” and is the only one of the set that I have found so far on bookshelves in Seoul. Just to make things even more complicated, the eight-book set has been published in at least two different formats; in hardcover, there are three volumes, entitled “Quicksilver,” “The Confusion” and “The System of the World.” But the paperback version of “Quicksilver” I found at Kyobo in central Seoul is only the first of three books of the original “Quicksilver,” although it has the same name.
Confused? Hah! You ain’t seen nothing yet.
The plot of “Quicksilver” (I’ll use the term to describe only Book 1, which alone is 427 pages of the first volume of the full work) can be described in the same way you might describe a television set as something you plug in, turn on and use to watch Oprah. Enoch Root, an enigmatic emissary, arrives in Boston in 1713 seeking out Daniel Waterhouse, an old friend and fellow student at Cambridge with Isaac Newton, is needed in Europe to mediate a fight between Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over primacy in the invention of the calculus, a feud that threatens to plunge the emerging evolution of the modern mind back into chaos. The narrative then flashes back to those days in England and retraces Waterhouse’s friendship with the intellects that are beginning to reshape Western conceptions of reality and the relationship between man and God. At the end of the book, Waterhouse is returning to England, his ship being shadowed by Blackbeard the pirate.
The reader has a decision to make at this point. We are talking about seven more books here; is it worth the investment of time to follow this saga to the end, or at least to pursue it further?
The question is important because just as a TV screen hides a wealth of technical and even philosophical detail behind its facade, Stephenson injects into his plots a wealth of intellectual detail about the times he is writing about, and is not shy about trotting out the results of his research. You may be fascinated, indifferent or somewhat put off, for example, by a digression to explain the origin of the terms “pieces of eight” and “four bits.” You may be even more fascinated by longer digressions to delve microscopically into some bit of science that fascinates Stephenson. Taken as a whole, the book is a sort of intellectual history, but with blood, gore and bodice-ripping to go along with it.
This book makes it clear in its choice of characters (and previews of the next book, which introduces more characters) that it is a prequel to Stephenson’s 1999 novel “Cryptonomicon.” That book is equally difficult to categorize, but was one that I found fascinating and infuriating because of its intricate weaving of history, fiction and cryptography on the one hand and its windy digressions on the other. But many of the characters in this 8-book cycle are ancestors of those in the 1999 work.
As I was looking over my bookshelf a few days ago, I noticed a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” that a friend had given me nearly a decade ago. There, perhaps, is an equivalent to Stephenson’s works. It is more than a bit pretentious, written entirely in 18th-century prose, and it includes talking dogs as well as science. The theme is tradition giving way to the Enlightenment, it seems to me, and Stephenson appears to be writing of something similar in this work. But to know for certain, you and I will have to read more of the cycle, and I’m not sure if I have the patience for that.


(Book 1 of The Baroque Cycle)
Neal Stephenson
Genre: Whatever you think it is
HarperTorch, 2003 (paperback)

by John Hoog
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