January 04, 2005

Meat Puppetry

For those of you who don't follow Neal Stephenson or SF, The Baroque Cycle is an ambitious trilogy of 900-plus page novels, all set during the height of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I have just finished reading Quicksilver, the first volume, which Stephenson painstakingly wrote in longhand on cotton parchment with a fountain pen (to get into the historical mindframe).

There are no significant spoilers here, but if you haven't read any of it yet and are sensitive to learning any details ahead of time, don't read any further. The rest of this is below the fold:

Stephenson's tremendous amount of research is reflected in his obsessive attention to detail and frequent excursions from the main storyline to share some explanation of the workings of the Royal Society, the Amsterdam and London Stock Exchanges, the etymology of the word "bank" as it pertains to a place that deals in money, etc. For readers unfamiliar with Stephenson's style, these discursions will make you love him or hate him. I liked them in Cryptonomicon, and they continued to delight me here.

Throughout the first book, Stephenson acquaints us with some of the original and early members of the Royal Society and walks us through details of some of their experiments. On the 139th page of the paperback version of Quicksilver, we learn of an experiment conducted by John Wilkins and Robert Hooke to learn how the human mouth forms phonemes:

...Charles Comstock was rousted from bed and ordered to dissect the corpse, as a lesson in anatomy (and as a way of getting rid of it). Meanwhile, Hooke and Wilkins connected the head's windpipe to a large set of fireplace-bellows, so that they could blow air through his voice-box. Daniel was detailed to saw off the top of the skull and get rid of the brains so that he could reach in through the back and get hold of the soft palate, tongue, and other meaty bits responsible for making sounds. With Daniel thus acting as a sort of meat puppeteer, and Hooke manipulating the lips and nostrils, and Wilkins plying the bellows, they were able to make the head speak...."

Though I wasn't much of a fan of theirs, the old eighties alterna-punk band "The Meat Puppets" came immediately to mind as I read that, and I wondered whether this was a hidden tribute to them. After exhaustive Googling, I couldn't find a plausible direct link between Stephenson and that band, but I did learn of the etymology of the phrase "meat puppet," which seems to have been invented by William Gibson in his groundbreaking Neuromancer (in reference to Molly's original profession as a sense-blocked prostitute).

Now, Neuromancer came out about the same time as The Meat Puppets debuted in 1980 -- could there be a link? Hmmm.

In any case, based on interviews, Stephenson is clearly aware of Gibson, and I can't help thinking this may have been a deeply embedded tribute by him to the father of cyberpunk. Although this book will provide many rewarding nuggets like this for obsessive geeks to research, it should also appeal even to those with just a casual interest in history, as it makes this exciting time of intellectual ferment come to life.

Highly recommended.

Posted by JohnL at January 4, 2005 09:33 PM

After reading Cryptonomicon, I couldn't wait to hit Quicksilver. I was disappointed. The storyline about Daniel Waterhouse I found very interesting, but I couldn't get into the Jack Shaftoe parts. I started it over again, but just can't seem to finish it.

Posted by: Howard at January 7, 2005 02:13 PM

I finished the Baroque Cycle a few months ago and I loved it. While it took me forever and a day to get through Quicksilver, I sped (in relative terms, of course) through The Confusion and The System of the World. Great books and a very satisfying read...when you finally make it to the end. I'm currently reading Cryptonomicon and I'm loving it. Fascinating stuff. I completely agree that Stephenson was making an allusion to Gibson, and he's too smart that I cannot believe it was unintended. He seems the sort who would throw that in there, wondering who would pick up on it. Good for you that you got it. It completely slipped past my husband, who is a Gibson nutjob.

Howard: stick with it. Jack is so confusing in Quicksilver, but he's also ill. I found that once I accepted I was delving into the mind of one who was insane, and let reality drop, it was much more enjoyable. *SPOILER* Plus, he does disappear for the final two-thirds of the book, if that helps you to make your decision.

Posted by: Kathy at January 7, 2005 05:59 PM
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