City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Quicksilver, Confusion, and London

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Cory Doctorow notes that Neal Stephenson’s sequel to Quicksilver, Confusion, is out already, and there’s an interview and review over at Salon.

I finally ‘saw off’ Quicksilver a couple of months ago, having taken a few months to slay the beast. I enjoyed it hugely.

Not sure this actually matters – and I guess it’s easy for me to say – but Stephenson can’t seem to write an ending. You get the feeling he’d just happily keep writing forever, extending these histories, these characters. In fact, with the Quicksilver wiki, Stevenson has his extensible version of the novel (XNF? Extensible Novel Format?!) Maybe he’d be more suited to the neverending Victorian serial?

There are simply brilliant evocations of London, Paris, Amsterdam – oh, and muddy patches of land in a fledgling USA. Stephenson has great fun setting up the latter space, with a skit on a proto MIT – the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts – a similar conceit to his later mention of Venetian "canal rage".

I loved his rendition of Europe as "chessboard". The quotidian machinations of court life in the great European cities of the time are utterly bewildering – one sort of sinks into a delighted daze at the insane levels of ever-shifting information flows. In fact, the chessboard motif soon falls over – as a slightly later description of London makes clear, nothing here is that regular and ordered.

It reminded me how much I love Europe, and much of the European way of life (though I can include those American cities with a strong European flavour: arguably New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston etc. Then again, Mike Davis – in his majestic Magical Urbanism – would argue that many US cities are in effect becoming more Hispanic, and to some extent therefore, more Old European. Anyway. Ahem.)

Also reading Quicksilver alongside my daily dose of Pepys’ Diary was particularly fun, as Pepys the fictional character got entwined with Pepys the diarist (and legendary naughty boy), just as ‘real London’ and Quicksilver London become entangled.

The idea that Confusion is sitting waiting for me already is slightly daunting.

I particularly love this quotation from Quicksilver. It’s out of context, but still:

"Daniel led his horse on a slow traverse around the top of the hill. Below, along the riverbank, the brick ruins of Placentia, the Tudor palace, swung gradually into view.  Then the new stone buildings that Charles II had begun to put up there. Then the Thames: first the Greenwich bend, then a view straight upriver all the way into the east end. Then all of London was suddenly unrolled before him. Its light shone from the wizened surface of the river, interrupted only by the silhouettes of the anchored ships. If he had not long ago seen the Fire of London with his own eyes, he might have supposed that the whole city was ablaze …"

"… London had never been so bright since it had burned to the ground twenty-two years ago. And it had never sounded thus in all its ages. As Daniel’s ears adjusted themselves to this quiet hill-top he could hear a clamor rising up from the city, not of guns or of cart-wheels but of human voices. Sometimes they were just babbling, each to his own, nut many times they came together in dim choruses that swelled, clashed, merged, and collapsed, like waves of a tide probing and seeking its way through the mazy back-waters of an estuary."

This talk of London leads to a pointer to Cory Doctorow’s second recent literary link, concerning Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography. Bizarrely, it’s a book I’ve never managed to read all the way through, in yer traditional linear fashion. I’ve interrogated it numerous times over the years, diving in both at random and with particular purpose, quite possibly reading most of it. Or very little of it. Who knows? This seems appropriate.

Cory sketches a brilliant review of this ‘biography’, and then expands out to the nature of books in general – as "practice not as product". But I love his grasp of London – not bad for a new boy 😉

"London is continuous. It’s not a place — its borders have shifted and shifted again over thousands of years. It’s not a race of people — its inhabitants have changed in individual identity and culture so many times that the culture and ethnicity of London 2004 is nearly completely different from London 0000. It’s not a collection of architecture, or a map of roads, or a political system, for all of these have changed and changed and changed. London isn’t even its name: London’s had many names over the years. London is a practice: London is what Londoners are doing right now, which is informed by, midwifed by, descended from what Londoners were doing yesterday. London is what Londoners do."

Confusion [Amazon UK|US]
Quicksilver [Amazon UK|US]
London: A Biography [UK|US].


One response to “Quicksilver, Confusion, and London

  1. Will W Avatar

    Gosh, I love London. I think the only other major cities in Europe that have a similar sense of continuous history are Rome, Athens and Istanbul. And that puts us in pretty good company.


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