Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 29, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

QUICKSILVER....I'm reading Quicksilver right now. I'm only a few hundred pages into it, but as a big Neal Stephenson fan I'm sorry to say that it's rapidly becoming to coin a phrase a long, hard slog.

Someone somewhere described it as less a novel than a "core dump," and that's about right. Stephenson obviously did a ton of historical research for the book, and he seems bound and determined to use every last bit of it which still wouldn't be that bad if it weren't for the fact that at least half of it is completely pointless and advances neither the plot, the characters, the theme, nor anything else. In fact, a discouraging percentage of it just gets in the way.

Stephenson is such a good writer that the book is still pretty readable in patches, but as the pages go by and it gets harder and harder to discern any purpose or ultimate goal to the writing, my concentration is flagging.

And here's what might be the worst part: the first third of the book takes place mostly in Britain in the late 17th century and is a fictional reconstruction of Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, the Royal Society, and the invention of calculus. There is no other period of history or cast of characters that entrances me more, but even at that I'm fading. If this period doesn't have such a special pull for you, the book is likely to be even less rewarding than it is for me.

There is this nice passage, though:

Sitting in the gaudy radiance of those windows hearing the organ play and the choir sing, his mind pleasantly intoxicated from exhaustion, Daniel experienced a faint echo of what it must be like, all the time, to be Isaac Newton: a permanent ongoing epiphany, an endless immersion in lurid radiance, a drowning in light, a ringing of cosmic harmonies in the ears.

That explains what I find so entrancing: the uniquely powerful mind of Isaac Newton and what he did with it. I just wish Stephenson captured more of it.

Kevin Drum 9:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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