Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Climate-change disaster and Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver

I am going to confess to a common fault. If things are bad enough, I just don't want to think about them, certainly not in any detail. And, as someone remarked at my dinner table two nights ago, things are pretty yucky right now.

The worst thing happening right now, if not the closest, is that climate change seems to be destroying an entire country, and not in a matter of years or decades, but in a matter of weeks or months. One commentator said about the Pakistan situation, "Where are the rock stars?"  For that matter, where are the Saudi princes?

Instead of talking about that, at least the moment, let me reflect on the skill and eloquence of that amazing writer, Neal Stephenson. I am reading his novel Quicksilver, and it has led me to reflect that some people will do a certain amount of research and write a course on early modern Europe, while someone else will to about the same amount of research and write something approaching  a masterpiece of historical fiction.

Here is Stephenson portraying a former harem slave speaking to William of Orange on a beach in Holland in 1685:

"In a way, a slave is fortunate, because she has more head-room for her dreams and phant'sies, which can soar to dizzying heights without bumping up 'gainst the ceiling. The ones who live at Versailles are as high as humans can get, they practically have to about stooped over because their wigs and headdresses are scraping the vault of heaven -- which consequently seems low and mean to them. When they look up, they see, not a vast beckoning space above, rather --"

[William]"The gaudy painted ceiling."

"Just so. You see? There is no head-room. And so for one who has just come from Versailles, it is easy to look at these waves, accomplishing so little, and to think that no matter what efforts we put forth in our lives, all we're really doing is rearranging the sand-grains in a beach that in essence never changes."

Comments welcome!

Image:  Amsterdam.


  1. Anonymous11:45 am

    Hey Finnvarr. Thanks for pointing me to the Pakistan issue, I was unaware.

    Also, I am very glad to hear that you are reading Stephenson's baroque cycle, and that you too find him interesting. I thought that he had an amazing depth of research -- and in the areas where I have knowledge, like the engineering of Wm Orange's sand sailer, I can confirm his accuracy. It is nice to hear your appreciation of his historical research.

    --Rolf Eichmann

  2. Anonymous6:16 pm

    Great writing by Stephenson, but I often have trouble reading historical novels, even painstainkingly researched. They so often get right the technical details, but fail epically with the way of feeling and thinking of the period. (Here, for exemple, I wonder about the use of "head room" in the mouth of someone living in the 17th Century.)

  3. No doubt she was a very well educated former harem slave. Why else would William have walked with her along the (cold) Dutch beach?

  4. Anonymous11:13 am

    @ Judith: Sure, but would the phrase "head room", in that sense, have even been part of the vocabulary of an educated 17th Century person? The haphazard mixing of old spellings ("phant'sies", "up 'gainst") and modern concepts seems to me as dizzying as the lofty ceilings of Versailles.

  5. @irenedelse, agreed. Decidedly gaudy writing.

  6. Stephenson is certainly not striving for a literal accuracy, but something more ambitious and "Barock." There is one place where he riffs on "I knew Jack Kennedy...you are no Jack Kennedy," not in any obvious way, but a reader who was around in the 1990s could hardly miss it.
    One's tolerance or taste for such is an individual matter.
    I liked (most of the movie) Knight's Tale, and thought the dance sequence (Bowie's Golden Years) was brilliant.