Saturday, 9 December 2006

Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson, 2003

QUICKSILVER, Neal Stephenson, Heinemann UK [Random House NZ] 2003, 927 pages, paperback, NZ$49.95. ISBN 0-434-00893-1.

It is not convention to promote one novel while reviewing another but Neal Stephenson is hardly a conventional writer. I was lucky enough to read his best-seller Cryptonimicon (1999) after reading Quicksilver. Both are novels about code-breaking (in the sense that Moby Dick is about the whaling industry) but their real connection is that the main fictional characters in Cryptonimicon have 17th Century ancestors in Quicksilver.

For Quicksilver is a historical novel, volume 1 of the 3000 page Baroque Cycle trilogy, a wide-screen, word-crazed epic of renaissance science and spying, so vast that it’s arriving in three massive chunks over the next year.

Who would dare invent a 17th cryptographer, who was also a member of the Royal Society, a science fiction writer, and the Bishop of Epsom? Stephenson, who borrowed Wilkins’ Cryptonimicon as the title of his own novel brings Richard Wilkins back to life to acknowledge his debt. (If you think this review is discursive, wait till you dive into a Neal Stephenson novel.) Basically, after writing Cryptonimicon, a story based on Allied code-breaking in World War 2, Stephenson had no choice but to write Quicksilver, which is about how people began breaking the code of the universe.

As Alan Turing, the greatest code-breaker of all, wrote “There is a remarkably close parallel between the problems of the physicist and those of the cryptographer. The system on which a message is enciphered corresponds to the laws of the universe…”. Isaac Newton, the secretive genius who worked hard to portray himself as the world’s greatest scientist, is at the heart of Quicksilver, but around him a constellation of amazing characters travel in elliptical orbits. Hooke, Boyle and Leibniz are only three of the Royal Society members who play unexpected roles in Quicksilver as they decode the laws of the universe.

Newton’s room-mate at Cambridge is Daniel Waterhouse, a minor member of the Royal Society, whose role keeps changing, like mercury. Daniel’s father has endowed him with the full puritan theology required to witness the second coming of Christ in 1666. Instead Daniel sees the apocalyptic apotheosis of his father when Charles II blows up the Waterhouse home to halt the Great Fire of London.

Stephenson has a passion for unusual language and arcane terminology. Here, for example he displays not just his grasp of anatomy and sailing, but his ability to bring them together for Daniel’s flicker of thought as he faces a pirate attack (by Blackbeard, no less): “He dissected more than his share of dead men’s heads during those early Royal Society days and knows that the hull of the skull is all wrapped about with squishy rigging: haul-yards of tendon and braces of ligament cleated to pinrails on the jawbone and the temple, tugging at the corners of spreading canvases of muscle that curve over the forehead and wrap the old Jolly Roger in as many overlapping layers as there are sails on a ship of the line.”

The level of wit is high: “Roger was not so much wearing his wig as embedded in its lower reaches…”. There are many japes in Quicksilver, including a brief appearance by the “daft but harmless Mrs Goose” who amuses the Waterhouse children with “incoherent narratives about cutlery leaping over celestial bodies and sluttish hags living in discarded footwear”.

But this is only the first of three books within Volume 1 of this three-decker saga. In part two Bobbie Shaftoe’s vagabond brother Jack goes looting in the chaos of war-stricken Europe, and forms a partnership with Eliza, a Qwghlmian slave he rescues from the Turkish siege of Vienna. (Qwghlm is another brilliant Stephenson invention – a bleak pre-Celtic Hebridean island group with its own enigmatic history, language and culture.) Eliza’s entertaining tales of life in and out of the harem are matched by Jack’s picaresque memoirs, which include a mounted invasion of a French aristocrat’s costume ball.
In Part 3 Eliza, now Duchess of Qwghlm, mounts a spying mission that takes her through most of the royal courts of Western Europe. Her coded accounts of her adventures, and the finely spun series of intrigues within intrigues, add several layers of ambiguity to almost every historical event of the 1680s.

Science, politics religion, intrigue and counter-intrigue are so skilfully interwoven, and with such plausible and convincing detail that disbelief is suspended, even when Stephenson gets gold-panning techniques wrong or has Charles I executed with a sword rather than an axe. No matter, Stephenson’s scope includes the problem of minting and maintaining a reliable coinage, gunpowder mills, diplomacy, silver mines, theology, physics, symbolic logic, calculus, and the first computing machinery.

Grumpy reviewers might complain that they need lists of monarchs, family trees and maps to follow the plot but Stephenson has supplied all these and several other scientific surprises. In fact I don’t know when I’ve read a novel that was so continuously surprising.

Time and the New York Post call Neal Stephenson a genius He is not, but he is a brilliant story-teller with a fine sense of history, a superb command of language and an ability to keep a story rolling along. These talents are much rarer and more valuable than genius.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, new Zealand on November 29th 2003.

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