Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is probably one of the dullest books I've read in some time. I can see that it might be interesting to someone with a deep interest in European history of the late 17th century, but perhaps not even then.

Quicksilver is the first book in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a trilogy of historical fiction novels covering European history of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, focusing specifically on the political maneuverings of the time and the development of science as we know it today. It involves such people as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, Robert Hooke, Charles II, Louis XIV, and William of Orange. The main characters are, however, completely fictional: Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza. (Readers of Cryptonomicon may notice the reuse of family names. Also reappearing are Enoch Root and Qwghlm.)

As I mentioned above, I found the pace of the book to be exceedingly dull, despite the fact that I actually have an interest in the history of science in that period. (And no such interest in that period's politics, so the science was merely dull, while the politics were excruciatingly dull.) That's really my biggest complaint. I do feel that the book could have been more interesting if it had been edited down a lot.

Still, I did gain some things from the book. For one, I have a lot clearer picture of the history of the area (and, as far as my research can tell, the history in Quicksilver is quite accurate). But I can't really bring myself to recommend it to anyone other than raving history fans. Almost everyone I know found the book very tedious, and most never managed to finish it.

Steganography and the ending below the spoiler line.


The steganographic cypher that Eliza used really bugged me for most of the book. At first, I thought that the plaintext that Stephenson shows was supposed to be derived from the other visible portions of the letter. Which didn't make much sense, because the proportions of the two texts did not match at all the stated 5:1 ratio for cyphertext and plaintext. Later things implied that we were not shown the cyphertext, which is a little more believable, but runs into the problem of boundaries--sometimes the hidden text forms its own paragraphs, but sometimes Eliza appears to insert bits into otherwise cleartext sentences. Said sentences appear to flow naturally with both the hidden text and without any text, but there must be some steganographic text that is there in the undecyphered letter. The only way I could deal with the cypher, given the various problems I perceived with it, was to regard it as an unexplained author's vehicle for plot and try not to think about how it worked. I don't like having to do that with a story.

And the ending. For Stephenson (with whose novel endings I've generally been displeased), it's quite good. It works very well for this particular book (as one that leads into another such) and, with minor tweaks, would do well as the closing to a standalone novel. Too bad I probably won't read the final two books in the Baroque Cycle to see how the whole thing turns out.


Phil! Gold