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The Un-Harry Potter [Jul. 17th, 2005|08:26 pm]
Okrzyki, przyjaciel!
As a lot of people are buying their copy of Harry Potter and swallowing it whole, I have been chewing through "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson. It's part of the his gigantic "Baroque Cycle" -- 2700 pages in total. Yet it's mostly pretty breezy reading, compared with similarly weighty volumes like "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Infinite Jest."

What distinguishes it from most popular entertainments is that it's about big ideas and big events in history, presented in a way that really gives you a sense of those events and ideas. "Quicksilver" covers the last half of the 17th Century in Europe, with particular attention paid to the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Samuel Pepys, Charles the II, Oliver Cromwell, Louis the 14th, Huygenes and many other historical figures mix into the story, and after a while it can seem to be a bit like literary starfucking -- "say, isn't that young Ben Franklin I see over there?"

But it's really remarkable the way Stephenson ties religion, politics, science, and commerce together -- in essence they're all interactive parts of the same chaotic whole. Since I'm a middlebrow I didn't really know much about this part of European history, and now I feel painlessly slightly better informed. And it is remarkable that banks, Calculus, the scientific method, and the modern concept of personal freedom were all invented more or less at the same time.

And the book is full of humor, both high and low. Sometimes Stephenson reaches a bit too far -- an aside about "Canal Rage" in Venice maybe puts too fine a point on. But I'd be pleased as effing punch to have written a book half this expansively good.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: pipecock
2005-07-18 03:56 am (UTC)
the most amazing thing about calculus to me is that it was essentially simultaneously discovered by newton and that other cat, each from a different direction (i think newton was down with differentiation and the other cat was down with the integration, but dont quote me on that). i wish i could be a brilliant mathematician but in reality i just dont care that much. theres not enough funky beats in math ;)

have you read the illuminatus trilogy?
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[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2005-07-18 04:56 am (UTC)
Yeah I read the Illuminati stuff when it came out. I think on the whole Stephenson is a little more right on than Wilson. Wilson's stuff is entertaining but somehow it's a bit too over the top for me.
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[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2005-07-18 05:25 am (UTC)
The whole Newton and Leibniz thing is huge in the Baroque Series. What I think happened is that Descartes dropped a huge bomb on Europe with his work, and calculus was the next logical step forward from Descartes, and there just happened to be two once-in-a-milleneum geniuses who took up where Descartes left off. Plus Descartes was just plain wrong in some of what he did, and Newton and Leibniz both found and tried to resolve Descartes errors.

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[User Picture]From: voicesfromhead
2005-07-18 04:19 am (UTC)

Someday

I'm going to finish the Infinite Jest. I got bogged down right in the middle where Mario, the physically challenged unofficial tennis academy mascot, is showing his film made with puppets depicting the history of the government and country of the fictional David Foster Wallace America. It got super detailed and boring, and I got tired of flipping back and forth to the liner notes. Also, you should add me as a livejournal user friend, cus I am your friend. Also, I'll talk to you tomorrow, but if you read my most recent post you will see that I probably won't be able to do any real work for you until mid-August. But gimme a call, buddy. Love
Z
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[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2005-07-18 05:21 am (UTC)

Re: Someday

To read the Infinite Jest, you need to ignore the footnotes the first time through. And realize that stuff like the puppet history are set pieces -- you can skip forward over them without missing anything. It's also good to know that the book doesn't really ever resolve in the end conventionally -- you don't ever get the full picture of what the fuck is going on. Wallace is toying with your expectations as a reader. It's not really a novel the way a Grisham novel is a novel, it's a book that's one giant allusion to a whole set of events that are never spelled out explicitly.

Just plow on through, and then think about going back through the footnotes. Oh and the first and easiest mystery is this: how does the dude get dosed with the psychedelic?
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From: elkay
2005-07-18 05:02 pm (UTC)
i really liked quicksilver. haven't read the other baroque cycle books yet though.

and it's way better than gravity's rainbow. hehe
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