25 October 2003
by Neal Stephenson (Random House)
The term “cyberculture” may be relatively new, but one might also regard it as just a new name for a very old sphere of human activity. What were Renaissance alchemists but hackers, rooting around in and trying to reprogram systems of matter? Modern cryptanalysts and programmers have their intellectual roots, too, in work done by wigged mathematicians of centuries past. The idea of a modern computer was arguably invented by Leibniz.
Such is the implicit argument of Neal Stephenson’s enormous new novel. In his previous work, Cryptonomicon, he welded together two plots – one of codebreaking during the second world war; one of the building of a contemporary “data haven” – to make an extraordinarily gripping and intellectually voracious whole. Quicksilver continues this historicisation of cyberculture’s roots by tracing them to the 17th century.
The novel is subdivided into three books. In the first, mysterious alchemist Enoch Root travels to Massachusetts in 1713 to see an Englishman named Dr Daniel Waterhouse, who has founded “The Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts” (or, as it is known today, MIT). Root tells Waterhouse that he is needed back in England to mediate the dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over who invented the calculus. As Waterhouse boards his ship for the transatlantic voyage the scene dissolves, we are transported back to 1661, and the narration of his time at Trinity College, Cambridge sharing a room with Newton begins.
Far from being the usual plump, periwigged figure with a tendency to sit under falling fruit, Newton is characterised bewitchingly in this novel as a kind of savant ghost: a rake-thin near-albino who forgets to eat. Daniel aids him in his odd researches, discovering Isaac with a knitting needle wedged into his eye socket so as to determine better the properties of human vision, going to market with him to buy prisms, or intruding upon his odd researches involving gunpowder. We also see the birth of the Royal Society, and are introduced the fascinating Robert Hooke, who performs live dissections of dogs, discovers biological cells by peering through a microscope, and builds clocks. Interspersed with this narration, which by the way also includes lengthy descriptions of bubonic plague and the Great Fire of London, is an excellent, swashbuckling action tale at sea, as Daniel’s ship (back in the narrative’s contemporary timeline of 1713) is attacked by Blackbeard’s pirate fleet.
Thus much is thrillingly accomplished in a scant 350 pages, before we temporarily abandon these characters to join “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe, a legendary freelance adventurer and “Vagabond”, as he witnesses the Turkish siege of Vienna, whence he rescues a beautiful, blonde and intelligent harem-slave named Eliza. Despite the debility which gives Half-Cocked Jack his nickname, Eliza is able to provide him with carnal satisfaction by means of her fist, and so he falls in love. Many adventures ensue; they travel to Paris and Amsterdam, and Eliza gets involved in trading shares in a silver mine. Everywhere, too, there is war, and a dizzying network of conspiracies over who will succeed to the English throne after the death of James II.
Book three of the novel sees Eliza practising espionage at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, from where she writes encoded letters to her ostensible spymaster, the Comte d’Avaux, in Paris; but really she is a double agent and communicating in a different cypher altogether to William III of Orange, who is plotting to invade England. Meanwhile, in London, Daniel Waterhouse is marvelling over Isaac’s recent publication of Principia Mathematica and enduring spells of imprisonment in the Tower of London on the orders of evil nobles.
Even such an extended summary of plotlines only skates the suface of the staggering wealth of material in this novel, during which walk-on roles are also given to historical characters such as Samuel Pepys (forever taking his surgically removed bladder stone out of his pocket and waving it in people’s faces), Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, the Duke of Monmouth, Benjamin Franklin, and Louis XIV himself.
The question is, as one might ask when confronted with a giant, dazzling array of clockwork cogs, gears and levers that one is told imitates human thought, is: yes, it’s all very impressive, but does it work? The answer to that question will depend to some extent on the reader’s taste in historical fiction. Those who prefer it straight, sober and hermetically free of anachronism will balk at Stephenson’s ludic attitude. Characters and the narrator often knowingly use modern slang (at one point Charles II is called “a foreign-policy slut”), and there are numerous little contemporary jokes such as a reference to “Canal rage” in Venice – gondoliers are increasingly involved in violent altercations, which some take to be “a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world” – or when Enoch Root offers a Grantham apothecary a cup of tea, which the latter considers “inoffensive enough, but I don’t think Englishmen will ever take to anything so outlandish”.
On the other hand Stephenson, without seeking to produce a seamless pastiche, has captured a lot of the vigour of 17th-century English prose in his narrations and conversations, which if not always note-perfect are usually rhythmically strong. He does not place as many orthographical impediments in the way of a modern reader as, say, Thomas Pynchon did in Mason & Dixon, but uses italicisation and capitalisation sporadically, often for the purposes of comedy: “Mrs Churchill, for her part, was up to something mordant involving a Hat.” There are also successful and refreshing excursions into other prose forms, such as the minutes of a Royal Society meeting and an allegorical play set in the London Stock Exchange.
However, one sometimes gets the feeling that Stephenson has been determined to stuff as much of his research of possible into the fabric of the novel. For every lovely little image such as a black coat “with lace handkerchiefs trailing from various openings like wisps of steam”, one must wade through paragraphs of close description of cloths and buttons; there are also numerous passages, particularly towards the end of the novel, of fairly undigested historico-political exposition.
Perhaps the most original and interesting strand of the novel is a particular genre of intellectual anachronism that Stephenson deliberately practises, in which the learned discourse of Waterhouse, Newton, Leibniz, Hooke et al contains the germs, and sometimes the clear outlines, of future scientific discoveries. Daniel refers to “a kind of net-work of information”, a long time before the OED‘s first record of such a figurative use of “net-work” (by Coleridge in 1816, talking about property). One letter from Leibniz more or less invents Einsteinian special relativity and implies the celebrated equation e=mc²; elsewhere someone proposes gravitation as the distortion of spacetime avant la lettre; and there is a buried joke about the improbability of anyone ever believing in the idea of particles which we now know as neutrinos.
At one point Leibniz is made to say, amusingly: “I love novels… You can understand them without thinking too much.” This certainly does not apply to Stephenson’s own novel, which is both stuffed with thought and thought-provoking. A great fantastical boiling pot of theories about science, money, war and much else, by turns broadly picaresque and microscopically technical, sometimes over-dense and sometimes too sketchy, flawed but unarguably magnificent, Quicksilver is something like a Restoration-era Gravity’s Rainbow. Only, it is far longer than Pynchon’s book: its 927 pages comprise only the first volume of a projected trilogy, “The Baroque Cycle”. Strange to relate, one finishes it already eager to begin the sequel.