Saturday, December 29, 2007
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
It’s been a please to pick this book up after reading so much pulp fiction recently. I think of that as something I had to get out of my system. After finishing Stormed Fortess, a book I felt I endured rather than read, it was good to read other shorter books that at least got things finished in quick order.
On to Quicksilver. If I were inclined to use the phrase tour de force, I would use it to describe Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle. It is an incredible series, and my mind recoils from how much research must have gone into this book, never mind the actual writing.
The first book of the series is set from 1635-1690, more or less, along with a couple of chapters from 1713 thrown in.
From the first page, describing the hanging of a witch in Boston, I was hooked. The almost immediate sense of place Stephenson creates is incredible. Whether it’s Boston, Versailles, Amsterdam, or the countryside of France and Germany, it is done expertly.
There are three characters that we see the story through. Daniel, the natural philosopher. Jack the vagabond adventurer, and Eliza, the financial genius.
Quicksilver tracks the beginnings of what we would call modern science. Various educated men perform experiments, and make observations, to test both their own hypotheses and to explore the world around them. To our twenty-first century eyes their results and methods are rudimentary yet fascinating.
In the seventeenth century alchemy is still widely practised and followed, and many of the new natural philosophers devote a lot of their time explaining why their methods are superior to those of the alchemists, who time is passing. Yet the natural philosophers themselves often speak in the language and preconceptions of alchemy themselves. Their struggle against the weight of centuries of ignorance is palpable.
It’s not all books, charts and a universal theory of gravitation though. Quicksilver also brings the adventures of the rogue vagabond Jack to life. Jack, ridden with syphilis, wanders the continent of Europe and generally being quick-witted, good natured, and occasionally stark mad.
Jack meets up with Eliza, a former harem girl with a sharp mind for money at the siege of Vienna. Through Eliza we see that just as the natural philosophers are setting up a scientific system, so is a financial system we would recognise also being established, mainly through Amsterdam.
At close to 1000 pages in my edition, this is a book you can wind through at a leisurely pace, a book to savour. There are two more to follow in the series. Naturally I’ve lent the second book out and won’t be seeing it again before February. I’ll get there. In the meantime, I could not give Quicksilver a higher recommendation.