Some of you might remember a review I posted months ago of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, in which I mentioned a decade-long struggle to get my wife to read history books. It's a legendary confrontation, a sophisticated chess match, along the lines of Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe in Levels of the Game, Jacob and The Man in Black on LOST, or Carl Spackler and the gopher in Caddyshack.
My wife keeps winning. In that column, I mentioned hitting on the idea of picking fun history books-on-tape, for long drives, to sucker her into historical texts. On a recent holiday, I tried the same thing again, only I think I was the one who experienced the more significant conversion. I picked Neal Stephenson's historical fiction
What's interesting is that I'd read it before, including the second and third books in the trilogy he wrote ("The Baroque Cycle"), and was absolutely certain it was the weakest of the three. Now I suspect it may be the best.
The book follows three key protagonists. The story opens in colonial Boston, as a natural philosopher (essentially "scientist," but in science's infancy it intersected more commonly with philosophy than today) named Daniel Waterhouse prepares to return to England. Daniel reminisces, taking us through the Restoration of the Stuart dynasty, Newton's invention of calculus, the Great Fire of London, etc.
Then the book changes focus to the siege of Vienna, where a vagabond named Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe (so dubbed because he suffers the tertiary stages of syphilis and was also demi-unmanned by a crude attempt to cure it) rescues an odalisque named Eliza. Both travel to Germany, where they meet Gottfried Leibniz, another inventor of calculus. From there, their paths diverge as Jack travels to Louis XIV Paris and attempts to rescue a persecuted Huguenot. Eliza, meanwhile, becomes a spy for William of Orange and a stock trader. These disparate elements — early finance, Louis and William's ambitions, the Stuart dynasty — come to a head at the book's conclusion, which involves a younger Daniel Waterhouse, James II's ouster and the Glorious Revolution. It sounds like a lot because it is.
When I read the book the first time, I think my mind might have been burdened by the knowledge that I was reading nearly 1,000 pages and had nearly 2,000 more pages of books to follow me. Disquisitions about the nature of calculus, natural-philosophy experiments, debates over monadism, musings about the fundamental units of knowledge and stock exchange behavior seemed like showing off. Stephenson has always been prone to info-dumps — mid-book displays of the vast research he's done — and the tone of Quicksilver seemed a bit like puffery.
Get to the action, already.
Because I was eager to move on at the time, I think I didn't stop to appreciate the tremendous depth of the world Stephenson recreates. A curious but untrained layperson can walk away from this book with an understanding of markets, currency exchange, alchemy, 17th century warfare/diplomacy/trade, philosophy about the nature of creation and the ideas underpinning early concepts about computing. The two subsequent novels explore these topics further, providing an entertaining array of free education, like a semester of liberal arts college in three volumes.
Most strikingly, Stephenson avoids the two biggest pitfalls of historical fiction: that it's neither good history nor good fiction. Granted, he invents composite characters and gives a few historical ones some more entertaining strokes, but this is all easily checked with Wikipedia. As a rule, his book presents accurate depictions of current issues, science and citizens, all in service to a genuinely fascinating story. This book might be the most persuasive document for the cultural rediscovery of Robert Hooke, sometimes called England's Leonardo, a man whose record was allegedly trammeled by a jealous Newton (who's presented in all his priggish, alchemical imperiousness).
There are problems, though. The book is a little too long. I remember thinking when I read it the first time that pages could have been cut without sacrificing anything, and the audiobook cuts almost all the parts that made me think that. Louis XIV gets softened; James II comes off as a little too stupid; William of Orange's questionable homosexuality is treated as fact, while his personality seems strangely suave.
The only significant problem with Quicksilver (or the following books) lies with Stephenson's treatment of Eliza. She's implausibly liberated, a quick study at everything, sexually confident, unhesitatingly focused, completely assured, quick with a ribald joke, deftly polyglot, stunningly beautiful, etc. She's an ideal of 20th century womanhood thrown back to the 17th, and it just doesn't work. It's also familiar territory for Stephenson who, along with strange obsessions about texture and volume of sexual fluids, tends to write these kung-fu data-ninja women. It's cliché in Stephenson's primary genre of science fiction, but it stands out clumsily in the genre of, you know, facts.
That said, it's easy to get past. The book is just too rich and too fun to get bogged down with that problem, especially when there are dozens of other characters who are better written and just as endearing. It's also a funny book.
The antiquated language and intimidating amount of history and philosophy can obscure it at times, but there's a great deal of very dry wit— some so arid that it's easy to skip over without notice. In that case, I can't recommend the audiobook enough. The voice-acting is first rate, especially as regards the comedy. If you catch yourself not having fun reading, consider giving it a try. There are numerous laugh-out-loud lines, exchanges bordering on the vaudevillian and devastating one-liners.
As historical fiction, it represents the best kind out there. It's a corking story with strong research, a thoughtful and searching book that provides answers and provokes questions while relating gripping accounts of fire, war, espionage and bedroom naughtiness. Better still, there are two more books following it (though, alas, not two more audiobooks). Plus, if I'm any indication, it's eminently re-readable. Now, I'd go ahead and review the second book next week, but my wife won't relinquish my copy.
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