Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is, as you might guess from the long interval between entries here, a very long book. This isn’t a bad thing; back when I was reading that Elizabeth Moon series, I promised to explain why vast length can be a virtue for a particular kind of book, but got side-tracked when those books took a left turn into D&D-land. But with Quicksilver, I’ve got a book that perfectly demonstrates the benefits of length.
Fundamentally, Quicksilver is about change — change in the characters, change in technology, and change in the world. It spans a historical period from the Restoration to the Glorious Revolution (which, sure, is only about 25 years, but it’s a very busy 25 years), and follows characters from early youth to late middle age. By the end of the book, the world and characters are vastly different than they were at the beginning.
In a short book, that could be jarring. Either you’d have to just skip over a huge block of time, or you’d have to do some kind of musical montage showing all the changes that were occurring. In either case, though, you couldn’t get the same effect that Quicksilver provides — that of change so gradual, that you don’t even notice it until you think back to what things used to be like back at the beginning. To get that subtle and powerful effect, you need length.
You also need a period where lots of things change, and Quicksilver certainly has that, as it’s set in the late-middle of England’s most turbulent period of history. It was initially surprising that a “sequel” to Cryptonomicon, which is set in the day after next Tuesday, would take place in the early-modern past; but after reading the book, it makes perfect sense. There are greater parallels than you’d expect between Quicksilver and Cryptonomicon, and the existence and connection of the former book adds a certain perspective to the latter.
Consider the Waterhouse plots. In Cryptonomicon, we see Randy Waterhouse taking place in the center-periphery of the Internet revolution; in Quicksilver, we see Daniel Waterhouse in the center-periphery of the scientific revolution. In both cases, the world is changing, drastically and permanently, and nobody quite understands how it’s changing, or what things will look like when it’s done. The mad chaos and wild experimentation of the early Royal Society as it creates the gold of Natural Philosophy from the lead of Alchemy retrospectively plays up the chaotic uncertainty that accompanied the Internet revolution, and shows it to be the normal way of things in times of frantic discovery and change. (Similarly, the Shaftoe plots are both picaresque wanderings over war-torn Europe.)
So while Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver are quite different (which, based on some of the inexplicably-negative reviews I’ve seen, seems to have scared off some significant fraction of the Slashdot-geek crowd; if it doesn’t have computers in it, they’re just not interested, apparently), they’re more alike than you might think, too — particularly stylistically.
Even though he’s dealing with a different time period, Stephenson is still post-modernishly cheeky. In Quicksilver, he plays around with form — part of the story is told in diary form, part of it is epistolary, there’s a play or two, and there’s even a stunning and surreal song-and-dance musical number. Also, there are his odd deliberate word choices, like “phant’sy” instead of “fancy”, and “rooves” as a plural of roof.
Also present are the occasional entertaining infodumps of Cryptonomicon; Stephenson’s exposition is classically science-fictional: Unlike writers of straight historicals, Stephenson treats past societies as alien and foreign, and inclues the reader exactly as if they were reading about politics on Rigel IV and the development of the hyper-warp engine, instead of politics in London and the development of the calculus.
If it isn’t clear already, I think Quicksilver is brilliant, and that you should go out and read it immediately if it sounds at all appealing. The best compliment I can give it is to say that it took me most of a month to read it, but when I’d finally finished it, I wished there were more. (Which there will be — two more presumptively-brick-like books will complete The Baroque Cycle.)