September 10, 2003

I'm nervous ...

I'm very nervous. Neal Stephenson is coming out with a new novel, Quicksilver. The happy thought in my mind is that we enjoyed Cryptonomicon immensely and we've been hungry for more. The foreboding I feel is because it's historical, and my standards for historical fiction are extremely high, and most historical novels I've read have disappointed me.

What I can't bear in typical historical fiction is the re-writing of the past to make it fit our view of what's important and pleasing. For example, every historical novel set in Elizabethan England just has to drag Shakespeare in somehow, all too often putting him at the center of the story. That's forcing the past into our priorities, and it grates on me horribly. No one in his own time thought Shakespeare was a giant. He had a certain literary reputation, but only because of two poems he wrote, not for writing Hamlet..

People in the past were different. They are NOT people like us in funny costumes. A good historical novel should give you some rude shocks, as you encounter a very different culture. You get some good ones in Patrick O'Brian's books. At one point it's mentioned that Stephen Maturin's anatomical studies are aided by hard winters, which make lots of bodies of orphans available for dissection! Also, like any 18th Century physician, Stephen believes in bleeding and purging. At one point he bleeds the entire ship's crew, and it seems to do everybody a world of good. A lesser writer would adjust his character's remedies to be more pleasing to modern readers.

This is from the Amazon.com review of Quicksilver:

...Stephenson's very long historical novel, the first volume of a projected trilogy, finds Enoch Root, the Wandering Jew/alchemist from 1999's Cryptonomicon, arriving in 1713 Boston to collect Daniel Waterhouse and take him back to Europe. Waterhouse, an experimenter in early computational systems and an old pal of Isaac Newton, is needed to mediate the fight for precedence between Newton and scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, both of whom independently invented the calculus. Their escalating feud threatens to revert science to pre-empirical times...
Hmmm. If this is handled with a light touch, it could be a lot of fun. But I fear that Stephenson's early 18th Century will be skewed to fit what we know now. For instance, Isaac Newton applied his almost unbelievable brain-power in roughly equal proportions to what we now call science, to Alchemy, and to Biblical studies and Theology. Those all seemed like equally important and promising realms to Newton and his contemporaries. When we look at Newton as just a "scientist," we are substituting our own interests for the actual world he lived in. I hope that won't be the flavor of this book...

(By the way, I was puzzled because, in Cryptonomicon, the character Enoch Root doesn't age or change. Now I know why.)

* ODDITY. I'm sure I heard about the book on InstaPundit this morning. But Glenn's post seems to have been removed...

Posted by John Weidner at September 10, 2003 11:54 AM
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