Not quick enough

With a heavy heart I must consign another book to the “Life’s too short” category. And I so wanted to like it.

The last, and first, to suffer this fate was The Dice Man back in January. That one went with much rejoicing and lightness of heart because it was truly quite pants. The latest, tragically, is Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver.

Neal Stephenson wrote two of the greatest SF novels of the nineties. Snow Crash made cyberpunk hip and enjoyable and compulsive reading – something William Gibson, who only invented the genre, could never quite manage – and The Diamond Age is the perfect primer for life in a future, post-national, post-scarcity society. And then the new century was ushered in with Cryptonomicon, which defies categorisation and tragically sows the seeds for The Baroque Cycle, of which Quicksilver is the first volume.

Y’see, each of the above books was getting longer. It wasn’t hard to plot ahead of the curve and see that sooner or later Stephenson was bound to turn in a 380,000 word opus and that his editor would let him get away with it. Sadly said editor didn’t bother editing.

Quicksilver, which is set around the dawn of the modern scientific age and the Restoration in the late seventeenth century, could have been such fun and is so boring. Pages and pages (and pages and pages) of people talking to one another for no reason than to convey all the research Stephenson has done. I knew the book consisted of three smaller (for a given value of “smaller”) books and vowed I would at least get through the first one; then I’d see how the second was going. And it started well … until two characters spend six (six!) pages riding across Europe to a destination they could have reached in a paragraph if they weren’t so intent on telling each other what they already know, or didn’t but have no reason to either, for no reason than to give us more of the author’s Research.

Life is too short.

Stephenson has a lovely dry way of writing that makes the fun bits a real pleasure to read. Here is lapsed Puritan Daniel unable to shake off his upbringing as he finally has sexual intercourse for the first time with the crucial aid of a sheepgut condom:

“Does this mean it is not actually coitus?” Daniel asked hopefully. “Since I am not really touching you?” Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.

“It is very common for men of your religion to say so,” Tess said. “Almost as common as this irksome habit of talking while you are doing it.”

“And what do you say?”

“I say that we are not touching, and not having sex*, if it makes you feel better,” Tess said. “Though, when it is all finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep.”

(*an irritating and deliberate stylistic touch is to combine seventeenth century spellings and styles with slap bang modern idioms.)

Or this, about life on the Isle of Dogs in 1665:

“The Irish worked as porters and dockers and coal-haulers during the winter, and trudged off to the countryside in hay-making months. They went to their Papist churches every chance they got and frittered away their silver paying for the services of scribes, who would transform their sentiments into the magical code that could be sent across countries and seas to be read, by a priest, or another scrivener, to dear old Ma in Limerick.

In Mother Shaftoe’s part of town, that kind of willingness to do a day’s hard work for bread and money was taken as proof that the Irish race lacked dignity and shrewdness. And this did not even take into account their religious practices and all that flowed from them, e.g. the obstinate chastity of their women, and the willingness of the males to tolerate it.”

More of that, and less drop-of-the-hat extemporising about the sociopolitical state of Europe and inter-relationships of the various royal families, and Quicksilver would really be quite readable. It is one of the few books where a Readers’ Digest condensed version would actually be a good idea, and I don’t often say that.