Seventeenth Century Sci Fi

When you read an exceptionally long novel, the nuances of prose and character become almost ingrained, so remembrance of a time they were not known is difficult to recall. Such is the case with Quicksilver, the first of Neal Stephenson’s massive Baroque Cycle. It seems as though I’ve been reading the book for a year, though in reality it’s closer to two months. In essence, its three novels printed as one, and the tale of three characters: Daniel Waterhouse, “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza, Countess de la Zuer.

The tome opens with a hanging in 1713 Boston, a mysterious outsider, Enoch the Red, coming to round up Daniel Waterhouse, a Natural Philosopher at the Institute of Tecknologikal Arts (MIT). Waterhouse is required in England to sort out a grand debate: who is the inventor of Calculus, Newton or Leibniz? As Waterhouse boards a ship bound for the Old World, pursued by Edward Teach (Blackbeard) out of Boston Harbor, we are transported back to 1661, at Cambridge. Isaac Newton is Waterhouse’s roommate. Newton’s an eccentric fellow, neglecting food for mathematical proofs, sticking needles in his eye to determine the oracular geometry. But this establishes a fascination with science that runs throughout the novel.

This first book stays primarily in England, as Newton and Waterhouse conduct research in the Royal Society, along with the likes of Robert Hooke and Roger Wilkins. London is a city of change – first the Great Plague in 1665, then the Great Fire in 1666. Monarchs die and power switches hands. Wars are fought, allegiances constantly changing between the Netherlands, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a volatile time, and through it all are the Natural Philosophers, observing the world, gradually progressing from the medieval to the modern.

The fascination of this time period is precisely that collision – there are hangings and plagues and massacres, castles and swords and Kings; but also telescopes, calculus, engineering, the first inklings of medicine (though still quite horrific). It’s due to this incredibly rich trove of detail that the book grows so large. I think a number of reviewers have used the term verisimilitude – this is fiction that is almost hyper-realistic.

Book Two (King of Vagabonds) follows Jack Shaftoe on his miraculous adventures across Europe. I couldn’t help but see Jonny Depp as Shaftoe (in full Jack Sparrow garb), because he’s essentially a “land pirate”. Before there were bums, there were Vagabonds, stateless wanderers who acted as mercenaries, handymen, and petty thieves. It completes the picture when Jack rescues Eliza (Kiera Knightly anyone?) from a Turkish Harem, a beautiful and clever British girl kidnapped into slavery by Barbary Pirates. Thus follows numerous adventures as Jack and Eliza escape the Turkish war camp (burrowing through the floor of a Vienna Church), fleeing angry pagan worshippers (in a German silver mine), even one-upping the Sun King (Louis XIV) himself. Eliza befriends Gottfried Leibniz, one of the only German Natural Philosophers, and together they engage in numerous business endeavors, and even a little espionage.

Book Three tracks Eliza (now made a Countess at Versailles) and Daniel as war once again comes to Europe. France (which is Catholic), pushes East and North against the Dutch and Germans, both Protestant states. England, on the other hand, experiences a Glorious Revolution, in which the Francophile King James II is overthrown by William of Orange (of the Netherlands). Both Daniel and Eliza narrowly skirt death in these volatile times, despite both their lofty statures. Much of this book is comprised of letters, sent between Eliza and Liebniz and other players in the game. Eliza encrypts her communications using a cipher based on the I Ching – what is read in plaintext as vapid descriptions of fashion and style at Versailles becomes backstabbing gossip, the questionable proclivities of courtiers, even the military dealings of France.

Aside from the depth of knowledge Stephenson exhibits, his prose is a joy to read. There’s a black humor underlying the threat of death and destruction, especially in the Jack Shaftoe chapters. Waterhouse is also quiet humorous, a stiff-upperlip Protestant who approaches life more through mathematics than emotions. And Eliza’s sheer cunning precipitates a magnificent rise from slavery to nobility.

Perhaps its Stephenson’s engineering background, but he also has the ability to create “Recursive Literature”. It’s a common technique in writing, to abstract a pattern and apply it to the meta-element, but Stephenson is a master of it. One example lies in the proofs of the natural philosophers – gravity and force is utilized as an extended metaphor, applied to both states and statesmen. As Danial walks a long parabola around a fairground, he contemplates the eccentric Newton who is equally drawn to science and alchemy. And in an allusion to Shakespeare, Daniel paraphrases “all the world’s a stage,” and in the next chapter, his dialogue is formatted as a theatrical script. It’s these genius touches that truly set the book apart.

I’ve yet to purchase the next book in the cycle, The Confusion. These books take quite a lot out of me – as do most pursuits of exceptional quality. Nevertheless, Stephenson has secured the post he established with Snowcrash, Zodiac, Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon as my favorite writer.

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