Quicksilver: The Baroque
Cycle, Volume 1
By Neal Stephenson
953 pp.; $27.95
A lot of people don't like the Enlightenment but aren't sure what exactly it is. Some people claim not to like the modern age but can't get enough of modern technology. And there are plenty who think the French and Russian Revolutions were a Bad Thing but are certain that the American Revolution was a Good Thing—not to mention the Scientific Revolution, the one that led to microwaves, antibiotics, and the Universal Theory of Gravitation.
All these contrary (and at times self-contradictory) points of view have found their chronicler in Neal Stephenson. Previously he has written novels of dystopian futures, which got him tagged as a science-fiction novelist. There is nothing wrong with being a science-fiction novelist, but it was never entirely clear that that was what Stephenson really was. His "project" (he would probably faint if anyone called it that) seemed to be an exploration of what the modern age is and what it is leading to. Hence Stephenson has also written novels set in the "contemporary" world, like Zodiac, which dealt with pollution and environmentalism, and most recently Cryptonomicon, a sprawling two-level novel that followed plotlines set in World War II and in near-contemporary (or even contemporary) Southeast Asia.
Cryptonomicon was about communication—and about encrypting communication. It was about the creation of new businesses and the intermingled wheels of commerce and technology. It was about war and politics. And it was about money: about gold, about currency, about vaults secure enough to give those who placed their money in them complete peace of mind.
Quicksilver—the massive first volume of a projected trilogy— has all those themes and more. The very title Cryptonomicon was taken from a 17th-century treatise on cryptography written by John Wilkins, an English polymath who was head of Wadham College, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge; brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, dictator of England; first President of the Royal Society; and Bishop of Chester under the restored monarchy of Charles II.
The main protagonist of Quicksilver is Wilkins' (fictitious) best student, Samuel Waterhouse, a Puritan losing his faith to Natural Philosophy; a Natural Philosopher who hates the semi-magic of the "science" of Alchemy; a former believer in the supernatural who doesn't now know what to do with events that seem, despite everything, supernatural; and friend to both Isaac Newton and his German archrival, Gottfried Leibniz. You might think that Samuel is often dramatically conflicted, but in fact he's just very confused most of the time.
It's more than a little amusing that such a massive book has as its title the antique name for the element mercury, which was named after the Greek God known for being swift, nimble, and quick of comprehension. "Quicksilver" figures in various ways throughout the novel as a symbol for the modern age—characterized (Stephenson seems to be arguing) by speed and ceaseless change. Alchemists, who sought the secrets of creation through arcane chemical and magical analysis, used quicksilver as one of their habitual chemical tools. The general public was often sold quicksilver as a magic cure-all, a remedy that created a disease, since ingesting mercury causes madness.
The god Mercury was also the patron of merchants, and Stephenson is deeply interested not only in technology but also in commerce and finance: the world of exchange is as much a part of Quicksilver as the world of research.
Whatever Quicksilver is, it can't be classified as a historical novel. It is rather a sprawling, picaresque interpretation of the historical past. Stephenson is unapologetic about not reproducing speech patterns. But he also doesn't always reproduce beliefs. If you regard English Puritans and New England Dissenters as heroic figures, you won't like this book, for Stephenson has most of the old prejudices about both scattered throughout the book. You have no sense of how the characters' beliefs or actions are both uniquely of their time and, at one and the same moment, dramatically important. Stephenson is no Patrick O'Brian, using historical fiction to speak deeply into the human condition.
Instead, we have a semi-action-adventure novel of ideas. There are a lot of monologues in Quicksilver, set pieces in which Newton or Leibniz or Wilkins or Louis XIV explains the Facts of Nature and Realpolitik to one of the fictional characters. But if Stephenson isn't interested in the meticulous re-creation of a particular historical period, he's not at all indifferent to the "shock of the old." He makes you believe in the thrill and speed and wonder of the era. What now seems familiar—the calculus, barometers, silver mining, kidney stones, shorting the market—in Stephenson's hands becomes new and strange again, as if it was just invented.
This is a novel, in other words, about the modern world and how it got here. You can understand, with such an ambitious topic, why Quicksilver adds up to a whopping 953 pages—and why there are two more volumes to come. Still, it's all a little too much, and one can only hope that Stephenson will someday get an editor who is willing to take a hatchet to his manuscripts. After all, one of the recurring themes of modernity—in technology and commerce alike—is the relentless quest to do more with less.
Albert Louis Zambone, a D.Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
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