September 28, 2003

Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

I would like a great deal more philosophy, Natural or otherwise, and alchemy in this. The description of politics and cultural change is okay, the picaro adventures have trotted over a quantity of Europe and promise more continents still, but that's deep-mined territory. Technological history, and the maze of personal preferences sorted into perverse historical dependencies; that's what I look for in Stephenson.

I might have been wrongfooted by having been reading Dumas and Behn and Hakluyt in the last few weeks. The older the books are, the more my sense of the past as different from the present (not just a subset of our stuff and knowledge) is tied to its styles of rhetoric and composition. Quicksilver uses a few orthographical flourishes to seem Olde, "phant'sied", "Barock", etc.; but then the Sublime Porte is called Constantinople, not even Stamboul or Istanbul, which seems odd from a character who has lived in the Palace there. Possibly I'm wrong about when the, oh, power of naming moved West. Possibly this was an attempt to remain readable to some slightly other audience. More formal, arcane sentences, that's what I think it needed; the ones that sound as though the author is convinced he is or should be writing in a language with coherent but different grammar. Latin as an honor, Greek as a treat, physics as a weapon.

The main female character is more active (esp. in the sense of 'moves the plot') than the ones in Cryptonomicon, and she certainly gets more narrative time - I nearly said "screen time"; the constant harping on how wonderfully sexually appealing she is¹ is probably what exasperates more people into the "nerdboy masturbatory fantasy" description². Not that I think no-one should write or read or enjoy books with sexy female characters, but the continuing absence of non-sexy female characters - among so many interesting nonsexy male ones - is an anomaly in the distribution.

One notices that sort of thing, I hear, when looking for secret messages in a text.

I don't think any of the Natural Philosophers afflicted with stone in the urinary tract referred to it as 'calculus', although a reference to 'calculus'¹¹ on the teeth is made. Upcoming pun, or did I miss it?

Big old prop to Braudel in the intro, which is of course Just and Right; and I have a cookbook in my reading queue that is an even more thorough homage (in that it means to improve on the master).

ISBN: 0380977427

¹ Did the culture of the time make it impossible for a woman to do anything without using Feminine Wiles? Why, no. Consider Christina of Sweden and Caterina de Erauso. For that matter, there may have been a considerable history of armed women in Bohemia.

² Through Crooked Timber, indirectly. Possibly from someone else who thinks it started with Cryptonomicon; Y.T. in Snow Crash is not merely sexy but sexual, much more an actor, not an object; and the heroines of The Big U even more so.

Given that progression, maybe the real lesson is that the puppet female characters are what sell to the mainstream more than they do to math nerds. And, I should reiterate, there's a good argument that Eliza is a real character, not animated filler. (Am I looking for the term "NPC"? I fear so.)

¹¹ stone, cf. 'calcinate', or calculations with pebbles on an exchequer

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