Thursday, January 29, 2009

Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, Volume 1

Neal Stephenson has become one of my favorite author's over the past two years. I picked up a copy of his The Diamond Age or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer while I was in Rome. Not sure how a copy of that ended up in some used paperback news stand in Italy, but it caught my eye and hooked me as a solid fan of Stephenson. 

Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a trilogy (though Stephenson has tried persistently to avoid the term) that takes place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Baroque Cycle is available in the three volumes in which it was originally published, with each volume containing 2 to 3 smaller novels. Indeed, Quicksilver is actually three novels: Quicksilver, The King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, and it is these three novels that make up just the first volume in the three volume series. You can purchase the Volume I novels as three separate paperbacks, but I recommend just getting the whole thing. It's a hefty 1000 pager, but come on, what else are you spending time doing? 

Quicksilver begins in colonial Massachusetts, with the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root arriving to fetch an aged Doctor Daniel Waterhouse back to his native England to resolve an intellectual dispute between the two greatest natural philosophers of the day: Isaac Newton and Gottfried Whilhem Leibniz. The first novel follows Daniel's treacherous voyage across the atlantic to return home as the ship transporting him evades a fleet of pirates. The novel then jumps back in time to Daniel's intellectual rearing at Cambridge with Isaac Newton. In this plot line, Daniel quickly realizes he must settle for the occupation of political savant while leaving the cataclysmic philosophical discoveries to the unmatched mind of Newton. Daniel also must come to terms with his Puritan upbringing as it both informs and collides with the fraught political atmosphere of post-civil-war England. Accusations of Catholic popery and Protestant extremism abound, and Daniel must navigate and eventually shape this powder keg of national, religious, political, and intellectual tensions. 

In King of the Vagabonds, we meet half-cocked Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond, pirate, mercenary, theif, wit, and lover. He meets the enchanting courtesan Eliza and together they form a lucrative partnership (and romance) that navigates the religious and territorial wars on the European Continent and masters the exploding trade markets in Amsterdam. 

Odalisque picks up several years later to find Daniel fully evolved into a man of domestic and international politics. Increasingly a secularist, Daniel is caught between the Catholic tendencies of the monarchy that he closely advises and the separatist Puritan elements who see him as a natural leader. While Daniel seems most interested in his original love of natural philosophy, he ends up in the middle of the Glorious Revolution, the torture chambers in the Tower of London, and even on the operating table in the notorious freak show that is Bedlam insane asylum. Having become a figure of international trade, Eliza finds herself forced into espionage to protect her fortune made in the Amsterdam markets. She takes up residence at Versailles while sending encrypted letters to Leibniz, dukes, and intellectuals in an attempt to position herself advantageously for the oncoming Glorious Revolution. Both Eliza and Daniel must contend with the likes of King James II, King Louis XIV, William of Orange, and their various agents in order to save their lives and alter the course of history in Europe. 

Quicksilver (I'm speaking of Volume I as a whole now) is a momentous world map of the early modern era. It is hard to pick out an area of 17th century Europe that Stephenson leaves untouched. The clarity, mastery, and sophistication that be brings to every aspect of this era's religion, philosophy, politics, science, stage drama, social decorum, dress, geography, economy, war, metaphysics, and technology trace elegant lines of latitude and longitude across this globe that he has created. 

Stephenson bridges many genres among and within his different works. The Baroque Cycle is as credible and thoroughly researched as any historical fiction out there, but the science fiction is hard to miss. In the time of Newton, alchemy, philosophy, astrology, religion, and what we would call "science" were inextricably linked, and Quicksilver shows us the period that began to pull them apart. Stephenson captures the birth of calculus, binary code, epistolary cypher, a universal philosophical language, and Newton's Principia Mathematica in a way that only a science fiction author can. 

The hard science fiction in Quicksilver can sometimes be a bit daunting, especially if it's been a while since your last class in advanced physics or calculus. Stephenson has a talent for making complex ideas clear and tying his science thematically into the plot, but you probably will get a little dizzy more than once if you are not a veteran of hard science fiction. There are also a TON of characters, so many in fact that Stephenson even includes a glossary of names and titles at the end of the novel to help you keep everything straight. Nontheless, Stephenson's skill at vivid world-building and sophisticated wit will make rereading some paragraphs well worth the effort. I am about 100 pages into Volume II, The Confusion, which so far is just as delightful.

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