Free at last! Free at last! Those, attentive readers, were my thoughts at having finally, finally read though the 916th page of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. I will not be reading The Confusion, the second book in his trilogy, as you can tell from the Updating What I'm Reading section. I loathed this book, for so many reasons that I shall relate.
The first reason is that I wasted money on this book. Christmas money. I came across it at a bookstore, remembered the big deal reviewers made of it, and was attracted to its width, attributing said length to a wealth of content akin to the magnificient storylines in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. My Mum warned me off the book - she said she'd already bought it, tried to read it, couldn't, and subsequently gave it away/sold it/threw it out/burned it - I don't really remember, except that she got rid of it. I should have listened to her -but noooo...I had to have it for myself, I couldn't just get it out for a free at a library.
The second reason is that it took so much time to finish this novel, time I could have spent reading better books, like the concluding volumes of Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series, which are infinitely more entertaining.
Now, I'm not saying Neal Stephenson is a bad writer. Quite the opposite, in fact - he's a very good writer. I loved Snow Crash, and his style in Quicksilver was enough for me to buck up, and read it all the way through in respect for the fact that he knows what he is doing. If he'd been a bad, or worse, a repetitive writer, I would have put this volume down on page 200 (when 2 out of the 3 main characters still hadn't shown up yet!). I did as such to Robert Jordan, who dragged me though five and a half of his books in the Wheel of Time series before I came to my senses, realized that due to the prophesy in the first book I already knew what was going to happen, and goshdarnit, that I didn't need twelve novels of 600 pages or more to tell me as much.
The writing isn't what bothered me about the story, it was the way the story was told, and what happened in the story. The story itself hinges on the concepts of math, physics, and philosophy round the 17th century. I hate math, I failed physics, and the only philosophy class I've ever taken was Symbolic Logic, which was basically Math But With Words, but helped me get out of taking actual Math or Stats courses in University.
Most of the action concerned the discoveries and experiments performed by the members of the Royal Society, a club of eccentric British chaps who dissect dogs while they're alive and set off cannons to find out how they work. Nothing, to me, could be more boring. All of the action that occurs in this novel (and, on paper, it certain seems exciting - the London Fire, children out of wedlock, rebellions, espionage, mathematical discoveries, political hugger-mugger) is told to us third hand. The reader is never there to experience the majority of these things as they happen, we are told what has happened during dialogue. A great deal of the novel went something like this:
Royal Society Member (RSM) #1: By the way old chap, have you heard? The king is dead! *sips coffee*
RSM #2: Yes, I heard about that - it happened outside my window, in fact. Quite loud, actually. *adjusts his wig*
RSM #1: Awful luck, that.
RSM #2: Indeed. By the way, Isaac Newton's discovered this quaint thing about gravity.
RSM #1: Really? Extraordinary. *both take a shot of snuff* By the way, don't you just despise the French?
RSM #2: I do! Along with the Dutch, the Catholics, and James Duke of York!
RSM #1: I know - something's bound to happen. I can't wait until it does, because then we can talk about everything that happened, casually, over coffee!
RSM #2: I'm looking forward to it - it ought to be most pleasant. Unless, of course, I'm killed.
RSM #1: Well, in that case, I'll just have something to tell RSM #3.
RSM #2: Jolly good!
So, not only was the plot itself something that was the complete opposite of something that would interest me, but it was told in such a fashion that felt like nothing interesting happened - I only heard about the interesting things that happened. It distanced me from the story, made me feel like an interloper, someone without the authority to see things as they happened. I personally think the whole point of reading fantasy novels is to be put into fantastical events and experience them directly along with the characters - not to hear about it afterwards in a well-furnished parlour.
Also, if you're expecting this to have magic or fantasy in it, or anything out of the historically ordinary, expect to be disappointed. It might be speculative, although my knowledge of 17th century history is just this close to nonexistant so I can't tell if this is all invented by Neal Stephenson or not. Certainly some historical characters are mentioned (Isaac Newton is quite prominent, there are cameos by King Charles II and James II, and a boyish Benjamin Franklin gets a shout-out), but I was too confused to put a great deal of it together. Certainly the discussions of math and physics are entirely beyond me - but Stephenson is too good of a writer to let me get too mired in that - but the book is of such a disastrous length that I'd often forget about important people who'd turn up later in the novel without so much as a hint of their previous backstory.
There are a few humorous bits, normally pieces of ironic humour regarding linguistic differences between then and now (the origin of sabotage and dollars are thrown out), but when it came right down to it I was not engaged at all throughout this book's gargantuan length. Boring, tedious, long. Who knows - if you have a hankering for mathematics, physics, the Dutch stock market, and 17th century history, you might really enjoy this novel. But as a 20-year-old English Major who remembers Isaac Newton mainly as the villain from Vision of Escaflowne, this book was a colossal waste of time.