The Magazine

The Calculus of History

Neal Stephenson's science fiction of the past.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By S.T. KARNICK
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Volume 1 of the Baroque Cycle

by Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 944 pp., $27.95

THE QUICKEST ROAD to bestsellerdom for a novelist today is to raise Very Big Questions--and then not answer them. The trick is to dance around important moral and philosophical issues so as to seem profound, while refusing to come down firmly on any side, to ensure that one offends as few readers as possible.

Neal Stephenson has been a master of this type of writing since his sci-fi book "Snow Crash" arrived with fanfare in 1992. Each of his first few novels combined a huge variety of disparate story elements, typically centered on cyberpunk speculation about what it would be like to live at a time when technological advances increasingly divorce human beings from the limitations of the natural world.

The relevance to our present situation is obvious, but what Stephenson adds to this mix is a decidedly old-fashioned respect for the idea of human nature, a core of characteristics that divide people from the rest of creation. In short, Stephenson's books suggest a belief in the soul, with all of its mysteries and perplexities. In Stephenson's case, the reluctance to answer the Very Big Questions may not be the matter of cowardice or guile that it is for far too many of his contemporaries. It may be instead an acknowledgment that in the novel, as in life, we see truth through experience, not through abstract reasoning or the acceptance of others' assertions.

This is a central theme of Stephenson's current novel, "Quicksilver," his most ambitious book--which is saying a lot. Unlike his previous work, "Quicksilver" is entirely a historical novel, set in the Baroque era of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Though more than nine-hundred-pages long, it is only the first installment of a trilogy, called "The Baroque Cycle," the subsequent volumes of which will be released in six months and a year.

The present volume has three main characters, two of whom we know to be ancestors of characters in Stephenson's previous book, "Cryptonomicon." The protagonist is Daniel Waterhouse, a college roommate of Isaac Newton and son of a successful Puritan tradesman and political agitator, who is a talented scientist but no match for giants such as Newton, Robert Hooke, and Gottfried Leibniz. Daniel becomes the secretary of the Royal Society, the English organization devoted to the advancement of science (by which most of its members mean alchemy).

After more than three-hundred pages, the story shifts abruptly to follow the adventures of "Half-Cocked Jack" Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, a former London street urchin at loose ends in continental Europe. In the course of his bizarre adventures, Jack meets Eliza, a blonde harem girl from the imaginary island of Qwghlm, who is on a quest to wreak revenge on the man who kidnapped her and her mother years before and caused them to be sold into slavery. Later, Eliza meets Daniel, and the characters' stories intertwine thoroughly.

Vividly drawn characters based on real people abound, notably Samuel Pepys, Robert Hooke, Charles II, Louis XIV, William of Orange, Newton, and Leibniz. Stephenson has described his book quite accurately as a "historical, swashbuckler, potboiler epic." We witness a sea battle on a ship beset by numerous pirate craft in Cape Cod Bay, the depredations of the bubonic plague in England, the Great Fire of London, street riots, public hangings, the breaking of the Siege of Vienna, the Glorious Revolution, a gathering of witches on a German Walpurgisnacht, court intrigue in Versailles, numerous sword and gun battles, and much more.

As may be surmised, "Quicksilver" is something of a grab bag. Stephenson breaks things up with ample slapstick humor, discussions of philosophy and natural science, bawdy farce, letters, playlets dramatizing significant ideas and events, disquisitions on cryptography and economics, detailed descriptions of bodily functions, lots of sodomy, delusions of a syphilis sufferer, poems, quotations, lists, extensive biographical material on characters both fictional and historical, and much else. In fact, although the story is quite complex, the book's length is really more a product of all the details, explanations, and digressions the author provides to impress upon the reader the mental and physical realities of the time.