Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Back to the Future

A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.)

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 ...

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