Book Notes 23: Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson
So I finally start The Baroque Cycle; or you might say, I finally finish the first volume. I started reading this at a campsite in France while on holiday: that was back at the end of August. I finished it on the 9th of November. As I said not so long ago, I don't read that quickly these days (compared, say, to back when I was a student); but this has taken me ages. Which is not surprising, since it's 900 pages long.
While I’ve been reading it I’ve also read 19, 20, 21 and 22, but they are all graphic novels, and quite short. As well as that I generally read parts of the Saturday Guardian; a few magazines (London Cyclist, Matrix and Vector, occasionally The New Statesman, or one of the Linux magazines); and of course, a rake of blogs. But apart from those, it’s just been this one steadily for about two and a half months. And there are two more volumes to go: each, I believe, of a similar length.
None of which tells us anything about the content of the book, of course. It is an interesting exercise, apart from anything else: Stephenson cleverly educates us science geeks about history, by linking the doings of kings and lords with those of Isaac Newton and other luminaries of the Royal Society. Or so I first thought. But then I realised that simultaneously, or alternatively, it does the opposite: it teaches humanities geeks (who presumably can be expected to know about the history) something about the science of the time.
More importantly, though, it’s a damn good story. The first third tells the first part of the story of Daniel Waterhouse, who is the son of a Puritan family that is expecting the apocalypse to come in 1666. Of course, with the Plague and the Great Fire, it seems like it is.
Waterhouse is a Natural Philosopher, though (or scientist, as we would say). He goes to Cambridge, where he becomes the room-mate and friend of a hick from the country, one Isaac Newton.
I was reading it at a roaring pace all through the first part, but for me it lagged suddenly when the second part started, and we are introduced to a new set of characters, principally a vagabond called Jack Shaftoe (he has a brother called Bob, but I don’t know whether he is meant to be anything to do with the song) and a young woman called Eliza who was a harem slave to the Turks, and whom Jack frees.
The pace picks up again as we get to know these characters, and their peregrinations round the courts and battlefields of Europe mean that their paths eventually cross with Daniel and the other Royal Society members from part one. Which takes us to part three.
Far too much happens to give even a summary here. There are the births of princes and the deaths of kings, war, conquest and betrayal. Almost most importantly of all, the early scientists are probing and extending their understanding of the workings of the universe (of ‘creation’ as they would term it).
Most importantly of all, there are the lives of ordinary people going on against this backdrop
It’s a fantastic work, and as the first part of a trilogy, it isn’t marred by Stephenson’s noted difficulty with endings. I look forward eagerly to reading the second and third volumes.
I don’t know why it won SF awards, though: just being written by an SF author really isn’t enough to make a book SF.