Tuesday, September 13, 2005

My Very First Linkdump...

I try not to look at reviews of a book that I'm planning to write about, partly to avoid confusing my own thoughts with those of other people but mainly because whatever I have to say, odds are someone else has said it already, and said it better. Having gotten what I had to say about The Baroque Cycle out of my system, however, I was free to roam the 'net and see what others thought. Here's a bit of what I found:

  • In The Washington Post, Gregory Feeley makes an excellent point about Stephenson's anachronistic politics:
    And the anachronisms go further than turns of phrase. Stephenson's characters are invariably presented as good or bad according to whether they espouse beliefs that hold up today, and 18th-century London seems to interest him only insofar as it presages the modern era. For all its fearsome book-learning, the Baroque Cycle offers only a past that reminds us of ourselves.

    This refusal to engage with the unique particularity of his setting is most evident in Stephenson's presentation of women. Those he portrays favorably are invariably geniuses who can hold their own in male spheres of activity: the cryptanalyst financial whiz Eliza, Newton's brilliant niece Miss Barton, Princess Caroline of Brandenberg-Ansbach (who is more than equal to mediating a debate between Newton and Leibniz). Stephenson tells us about the horrors that women routinely suffered at the end of the 17th century, but I'm not sure he really believes it. His apprehension of women -- the good ones are smart, sassy and free to act like the guys -- comes across as that of a computer nerd trying to be a feminist.
  • Blogger Charles Dodgson on a possible interpretation of Stephenson's political philosophy:
    So here's another idea. In a story that's absolutely shot through with cryptograms, hidden messages, and secret identities of multiple kinds, I don't think it's going too far to suggest that the treatment of alchemy in the narrative may be deliberately intended as a metaphor for something else. Which brings me back to the other grand social transformation in the Cycle -- from a society regulated by the nobility and the church (represented, to my way of thinking, not so much by Louis XIV, important as he is to the plot, as the fictional and far more reactionary de Gex), to one regulated by currency and markets. In which case, it could all be taken as an indirect and roundabout way of hinting to the reader that this other old System of the World -- based on personal ties among titled elites -- has been encapsulated within the new, market-driven System of the World, and become a familar and even comforting presence there, though its name may have changed and its practitioners speak no more about noble titles; that it is gone from view but continues to run along beneath, as the lost river... well, you get the idea. In which context, the deliberate hiding of the old System makes a little more sense; the new System just functions better with the old one out of view.

    What makes this an interesting notion is that, whether Stephenson intended to hit the reader over the head with it or not, it's demonstrably true. Even in America, as Kevin Philips is at pains to demonstrate in the first section of Wealth and Democracy, there actually is a self-perpetuating elite, with dozens of families at least (Mellons, Rockefellers et al.) who made their money first in the nineteenth or even eighteenth century, and still have it. And for every such family whose name is at least commonly recognizable, there are quite a few more who are happier to stay in the shadows. They have their clubs, their social groups (the Bilderbergers, the Bohemian Grove) quietly still running along. Which isn't to say that it's all that's going on. The new System of the World isn't simply the old, presented through shadow-play; it has vitality of its own. Rather, it's to say that the old System is still operating, and you can't completely understand the operation of the new System without it. But there are others on the net who might, perhaps, be inclined to take this line of argument further than I would.
  • Infinity Plus' Adam Roberts gave Quicksilver and The System of the World definitive thumbs-down in his reviews of the Arthur C. Clarke nominees in 2004 and 2005. Both reviews are great fun--as negative reviews can quite often be.
    The in-jokes, the desperate over-padding, the look-ma-no-hands shifts from prose to drama, epistle, verse, diagram, journal, are ultimately more exhausting than anything else. The book is wearisome, from the sonnet on its first page to the wince-inducing author bio on the back flap ('Neal Stephenson issueth from a Clan of yeomen, itinerant Parsons, ingeniers and Natural Philosophers that hath long dwelt in the bucolick marches ... at a young age, finding himself in a pretty Humour for the writing of Romances, and discourses of Natural Philosophy and the Technologick Arts, he took up the pen ... ' Dear God No Please JUST STOP).
    But Roberts also makes a good point about Stephenson's compulsive name-checking:
    It is also the nature of this sort of historical pot-boiler that it cannot be bothered with non-famous people. If our hero bumps into lens grinder at a market, said lens grinder cannot under any circumstances be just an ordinary lens grinder. He must be Spinoza. Jack, wandering about what will later become a battlefield, sees a soldier planting his broadsword in the turf and praying before the cross of blade and handle. This can't be any old soldier, no of course not. 'As Jack was leaving he recognized the man with the broadsword as King John Sobieski'. Of course he did. The tenor of Stephenson's history is that famous people mingle with famous people; the surface density of detail, of glory and misery, of finery and squalor, masks a miserably attenuated sense of history into which no non-famous people intrude. This is an absolute sine qua non of the Forever Amber School of historical fiction, for why would the Reader be interested in nobodies?
  • And the inimitable John Clute takes Stephenson to school in his review of The System of the World (he also correctly points out that Stephenson has a lot of nerve to chart Jack and Eliza's journey back to each other over some 2,000 pages and then neglect to show us their reunion):
    To get at the monumental blockhead obdurate wrongness of the book, we need to begin at smart. Almost every single sentence Stephenson writes is exactly that: vividly and visibly intelligent, sprightly, witty, learned, sly, often camp; every sentence, taken in isolation, conveys a storytelling urgency, a sense that a contract of trust between teller and hearer, between smart novelist and smart reader, has been honored. It is only when we begin to understand that the contract has been honored in the detail but not the whole that we begin to see how System has gone so badly wrong: because the larger units of the novel, some of them hundreds of sentences long, have been bolted together with no regard at all to the pace of the whole. There are thousands of good turns of phrase in the 900 pages of System, and almost every one of them strangles in the stony abomination of Unsort.

    It is not just hugeness, it is a frozen paroxysm of hugeness, an immovable and unstoryable stone face of data incantation, a deafening dead shout in which nuance or elision or pace or shape seem literally to be unthinkable. A single chapter of this frozen unstory might read as a tour de force, an impertinence of overkill—because of the astonishing energy and grasp of Stephenson's portrayal of the inner grammars connecting 18th-century architecture, city planning, philosophy, politics, economics, into a series of great intersecting arguments about the nature of consequences. But two chapters, laid end to end, alarm the reader; and a hundred chapters drive the reader into self-protective hypnagogy, into a Darwinian dream state in which bits of story slide through the battered mind like straws to grasp, though not for more than an instant can the fact be avoided that never in this vast desert superba, never in this overweening pridefulness of infodump, does the author blink, never does he relent into telling his tale at a pace human beings can breathe to. We were not designed for this. We were not designed to sprint marathons. The Baroque Cycle is too big for folk. It is too deeply frozen into size to be told. There can be no doubt that Stephenson wrote The Baroque Cycle; but one might, I think, fairly ask: Did he ever read it?

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