"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Panorama of history, science and comedy

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


By Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 926 pp, 27.95 dollars

Reading Neal Stephenson's latest tome, the 926-page Quicksilver, is like lugging a heavy cooler of beer to the beach on a scorching hot day. The container is heavy and awkward to carry, and getting through the entire contents is a daunting task, but in the end it is delightfully frothy, refreshingly cool and leaves us thirsty for more when it's finished.

Quicksilver is billed as volume one of The Baroque Cycle and will be followed in April by The Confusion and in October by The System of the World. Because of Stephenson's earlier success as a science fiction writer (through the excellent novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Zodiac), this book is viewed by some as belonging to that genre. In truth, it is historical fiction about science.

Quicksilver is a sprawling story about the germination of the seeds of the modern world in the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing on the beginnings of modern science, economics, politics and even language. But in Stephenson's mansion there are many rooms: Quicksilver is also a rip-roaring adventure yarn, a biting satire, a biography of several notable historic figures, a political and military history of the latter part of the baroque period in Europe, the story of the founding and early years of the Royal Society of London--and if you whack a potato hard enough with it, it probably even makes julienne French fries. It is smart, funny, erudite and an addictive page turner. The book's length, however initially daunting, is meaningless. Certainly it is the only 900-page novel that leaves the reader impatient for a pair of sequels.

Obviously, this single volume is several books packed into one. The author breaks it into thirds, each focusing on a key character.

The first opens with a mysterious traveling salesman of alchemical supplies arriving in Boston in 1713 to seek out the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal (sic) Arts, Daniel Waterhouse. A small boy named Ben Franklin guides him to the door of the Puritan scientist, whose father had been a close associate of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Dr. Waterhouse is needed back in London to settle a dispute between his Cambridge University roommate Sir Isaac Newton and his longtime friend, the noted German polymath Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz, over which one of them was the first to invent calculus. On his voyage back to London, Waterhouse's ship is pursued by the pirate fleet of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach. Flashbacks from Waterhouse's younger days feature the great plague year of 1665, the great fire of London and the founding of the Royal Society--and that is just in the first 150 pages.

The second section, "King of the Vagabonds," concerns the adventures of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, who goes from a childhood in which he and brother earn their keep by swinging from the legs of men on the gallows in the London suburb of Tyburn to hasten their demise, to stealing an ostrich and a harem girl from the Turkish camp at the breaking of the siege of Vienna. Nicknamed for the results of an unfortunate accident with a cauterizing iron suffered while being treated for syphilis, Shaftoe is slowing going mad. One of the weirdest and most entertaining scenes in the book--which has a pretty high overall standard for entertaining weirdness--is his hallucination of dancing nuns, singing galley slaves and lascivious fishwives performing a movie-musical production number in the streets of Paris that would turn Busby Berkeley green with shock and envy.

The third section is largely devoted to the adventures of the aforementioned harem girl, Eliza, who wanders Europe with Jack, settling in Amsterdam for a time and becoming moderately well-to-do as an early stock trader before becoming William of Orange's spy at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. Much of this part is told through coded letters between Eliza and Liebniz, which are intercepted and read by agents of both kings.

As packed with plot threads as the book is, Quicksilver is also a learned discourse on the evolution of alchemy and astrology into modern science and mathematics, and the birth of banking, stock markets and modern capitalism.

One of the most entertaining devices Stephenson uses is his scattering of anachronisms throughout the story. At one point Eliza writes from Venice about the phenomenon of "canal rage" among gondoliers and Waterhouse is warned not to get on Isaac Newton's "s--- list."

Hindsight makes for a certain amount of amusement as well, with a minor character sampling the first tea brought back to England by a traveling scholar and pronouncing it "inoffensive enough, but I don't think Englishmen will ever take to anything so outlandish."

Trimmed of its numerous frills, which include a handful of short plays, digressions into scientific and historical in-jokes and some astonishingly detailed descriptions, Quicksilver could have been half as long and still been a great swashbuckling historical adventure. But such economy is not always desirable; Hamlet is four hours long, and trimmed of its frills it becomes a soap opera about a mopey, rich Danish mama's boy. The devil may be in the details, but so are the delights of Quicksilver

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