[Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. New York: William Morrow, 2003. ISBN 0380977427.]
In the many years since he began his career as a writer, the one thing that Neal Stephenson has not improved is the quality of his ideas. From the beginning, his ideas have been exemplary, combining interesting theoretical possibilities with at least a partial grounding in actual science. In every other detail (characters, plot arcs, and technical writing skills), Stephenson has improved, year upon year, book upon book. And now, with the three-part Baroque Series, he has created what is sure to be known as his masterwork.
The backdrop of the series is Enlightenment-era England, a period for which Stephenson’s love is well known. Intermingling historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell with fictive ones drawn from Stephenson’s own mind and his knowledge of the time period, the Baroque Series endeavors to examine the conflict between two of the greatest scientists of the age: Wilhelm Gottfried Liebnitz and Isaac Newton. However, with that as the main plot arc, the Baroque Series actually tells us much more, presenting the slow rise of logical thinking out of the morass of Medieval mysticism. Stephenson’s real genius, seeds of which can be seen in his earlier novel, Cryptonomicon, is the realism with which he portrays the historical period. He is not writing a history textbook, nor a book of inevitable progress which glosses over the “flaws” and “mistakes” that made these great thinkers the men they were. Instead, science is shown in its greatness and its brutality, in its brilliance and its stupidity. Images of Newton working out his theories on optics exist side by side with a lengthy description of the vivisection of a dog—all in the name of increasing the wealth of human knowledge. One of the most telling scenes in this vein is the description of a meeting of the Royal Society of London, one of the first gatherings of Natural Philosophers (a.k.a. scientists). In the excerpt below, the reader can truly begin to understand the enormous difficulty of working in a time when “science” as we know it was merely a few steps from alchemy.
Mr. POVEY presented a skeleton to the society.
Mr. BOYLR reported that swallows live under frozen water in the Baltic.
Dr. GODDARD mentioned that wainscotted rooms make cracking noises in mornings and evenings.
Mr. WALLER mentioned that toads come out in moist cool weather.
Mr. HOOKE related, that he had found the stars in Orion’s belt, which Mons. Huygens made but three, to be five.
Speculation, observation, fanciful notions, and breathtaking discoveries are all given equal weight, because at the time, there was no way of knowing which was which. Some of the greatest minds of the 1600s come alive in the pages of the Baroque Series, and we get a glimpse of them not just as the inventors of telescopes and calculus, but as real people, who fought, told dirty jokes, and played politics when necessary. Here lies one of the dangers of the books: for those whose grasp on Enlightenment history is not the best, it rapidly becomes difficult to tell which characters were real, and which are the creations of Stephenson’s nimble mind.
The first book of the series, Quicksilver, is primarily a book of explication, introducing the primary characters, the setting, and the style—at least for the first few hundred pages. We watch as Isaac Newton goes to school, as science gains greater acclaim in Britain, and as the geopolitical world of Europe is thrown into upheaval time and time again. Through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse, a young man who, had he not been surrounded by geniuses, would have seemed almost impossibly intelligent, we learn the world of the Baroque Series as would any other initiate into the mysteries of science. This allows us both to understand what we are shown, and to experience the true feeling of wonder that accompanies discoveries that we could never have made ourselves. In later parts of the book, where we learn about politics, warfare, and poverty, we are again and again given the perspective of someone either growing up in a particular place, or learning a new field of knowledge. Through his brilliant choice of narrators, Stephenson is able to show his world in great detail without resorting to endless and seemingly forced explanation. We learn as the characters do, firsthand.
At one point in Quicksilver, Daniel, a young natural philosopher, the (fictional) son of a (fictional) leader of the Protestant reformation, gives this definition for quicksilver: “[It] is the elementary form of all things fusible, for all things fusible, when melted, are changed into it, and it mingles with them because it is of the same substance with them.” It is a concept borrowed from alchemy, which was loved by Newton but detested by both Waterhouse and Liebnitz. Later in the book, the concept of fusible materials is expanded upon during a discussion between Waterhouse and Liebnitz.
[Waterhouse] ‘If each snowflake is unique, then why are the six arms of a given snowflake the same?’
[Liebnitz] ‘If we assume that the arms grow outward from the center, then there must be something in that center that imbues each of the six arms with the same organizing principle—just as all oak trees, and all lindens, share a common nature, and grow into the same general shape. . . .’
[Waterhouse] Newton would argue…that if you could catch a snowflake, melt it, and distill its water, you could extract some essence that would be the embodiment of its nature in the physical world, and account for its shape.’
With these two descriptions of the element quicksilver, it is easy for a reader to pick out the “quicksilver” of the book—Eliza. It is she who transforms the work from an interesting but not enthralling account of history into a gripping, page-turning novel. She is also the one who connects all the disparate characters of the book, weaving what had been adjacent, but for the most part unconnected elements into a rich tapestry of plots and counter plots. It is she who acts as a bridge between plots set in various countries (from the Middle East to Holland to England), and in so doing brings together disparate characters. She is the most interesting and engaging individual in the book, and, sadly, the book’s greatest flaw. Like the quicksilver the Alchemists sought, she is powerful but also impossible. In a book grounded almost completely in the history, politics, and science of its time, Stephenson, in his attempt to write a heroic female character, creates a completely anachronistic and modern woman. In the things she achieves, and the attitudes she displays toward sex, politics, and relationships, she is impossible to believe as a woman of the 1600s. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Eliza is so engaging—she is the character we most resemble. This is not to say that there were not, or could not be, extremely powerful and intelligent women in that time (indeed, there are many books written on just this topic), merely that Eliza is not credible as one of them.
Stephenson has never been known for three-dimensional female characters. In general they are either idealized super-beings, or small afterthoughts. In his fictions of the future, it has been possible to write a world in which a woman can be the perfect character he envisions them as. However, in writing the fiction of the past, he seems unable to create a strong female character who is also believable for the epoch. At least in Quicksilver, Eliza is conspicuously lacking in the flaws that both humble and humanize Stephenson’s other characters.
To close this review, there is one other aspect of Quicksilver that must be commented upon: the tightness and clarity of Stephenson’s prose. It is in this, perhaps, that Stephenson has improved the most over the course of his writing career. Quicksilver abounds with long, winding sentences on subjects about which the average layperson is not likely to be particularly well educated, and yet Stephenson renders them not just readable, but highly enjoyable. One passage in particular demonstrates his high degree of skill:
Mayflower Ham, née Waterhouse—tubby, fair, almost fifty, looking more like thirty—gave him a hug that pulled him up on tiptoe. Menopause had finally terminated her fantastically involved and complex relationship with her womb: a legendary saga of irregular bleeding, eleven-month pregnancies straight out of the Royal Society proceedings, terrifying primal omens, miscarriages, heartbreaking epochs of barrenness punctuated by phases of such explosive fertility that Uncle Thomas had been afraid to come near her—disturbing asymmetries, prolapses, relapses, and just plain lapses, hellish cramping fits, mysterious interactions with the Moon and other celestial phenomena, shocking imbalances of all four of the humours known to Medicine plus a few known only to Mayflower, seismic rumblings audible from adjoining rooms—cancers reabsorbed—(incredibly) three successful pregnancies culminating in four-day labors that snapped stout bedframes like kindling, vibrated pictures off walls, and sent queues of vicars, midwives, physicians, and family members down into their own beds, ruined with exhaustion. Mayflower had (fortunately for her!) been born with that ability, peculiar to certain women, of being able to talk about her womb in any company without it seeming inappropriate, and not only that but you never knew when in a conversation, or a letter, she would launch into it, plunging everyone into a clammy sweat as her descriptions and revelations forced them to consider topics so primal that they were beyond eschatology—even Drake had had to shut up about the Apocalypse when Mayflower had gotten rolling.
Despite its length, the whole paragraph above is composed of only three sentences. In his intelligent prose and diction, Stephenson makes no attempt to dumb down his subject or belittle his readers, and it is this, combined with the strength of his plot(s), that keeps readers engaged right up until the end of Quicksilver.