Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review: Quicksilver (2003)

Sword-fighting author Neal Stephenson was in the middle of writing the amazing Cryptonomicon when he read George Dyson's Darwin Amongst the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence, which planted a seed that would  become his massive, sprawling Baroque Cycle trilogy. The first volume, Quicksilver, sets the stage for the series by including all the essentials of a Stephenson novel: nerd protagonist, irreverent macho protagonist, insanely competent female protagonist, mind-bending narrative structure that presents vast amounts of information in new and interesting ways, and of course, cryptography. Rabid fans will savor each and every one of the novel's 900+ pages. Delighted readers like myself will occasionally skim over descriptive paragraphs whilst maintaining our happiness level.

Quicksilver begins right here in Boston, in the 18th century. Mysterious old man Enoch the Red, also in Cryptonomicon, finds Dr. Daniel Waterhouse in Cambridge trying to establish MIT, basically. Enoch persuades the English scientist to return home, and Daniel boards the ship, then takes readers to a flashback that lasts a few hundred pages. In between, Enoch remembers meeting a very young Isaac Newton; Daniel proves useful during a multi-pirate attack, and we see the 17th century Royal Society in its rigorous pursuit of knowledge. Since this is Ye Olde Days, we get descriptions of a live dog having its thorax removed so the men could tinker with its lungs. Arrrrgh. The first part of Quicksilver centers on Daniel's religious and personal development while pursuing his studies in Trinity College in Cambridge (UK, not MA). Since this is historical fiction, prominent nerds natural philosophers join the action: Newton, Robert Hooke, Gottfried Liebniz, etc. Stephenson's writing of these men's interactions features crackling dialogue, wry humor, droll witticisms, and other stylistic flourishes. Not fun: being reminded that doctors used to bleed people to balance their "humours." Double arrrrgh.

The next part of the book amps up the action with a new pair of characters: crafty Jack Shaftoe, King of Vagabonds, and spirited Eliza, a former slave (eventually) turned stockbroker/Countess. The pair travel all over: Leipzig, Bohemia, Marseilles, Amsterdam, Disneyland. Just kidding on the last one. With these characters, Stephenson illustrates the resourcefulness of people born without titles or means, in a world order that's constantly shifting to accommodate new trends and wars and monarchs and diseases. Jack survives for so long through sheer grit and luck, and so does Eliza, to an extent, although she has the added bonus of being literate, multilingual, and mathematically gifted. Eliza and Daniel cross paths in the third part of the book, which marches toward the conclusion of what Daniel considers as his life's work: revolution! Hence his relocation across the ocean.

I enjoyed this novel as a history buff, a nerd, a bookworm, and a woman in a binder. The novel drew me into its e-pages. I harrumphed at the workings of Louis XIV's court; cackled at the depths of Eliza's cover-ups; rooted for Jack and Daniel; and ooh-la-la'd at all the raunchy bits. I still can't wrap my head around all the information that Stephenson wrestles into an entertaining and informative yarn about a group of exceptional people living in extraordinary times. Some of those people are even real!

I'm looking forward to picking up The Confusion, the second book in the trilogy. But I thought I'd do a little light reading in between, and settled on Snow Crash, which has 7,598 locations on my Kindle. By contrast, Quicksilver has 17,663, and The Confusion  has 15,041. My Lasik eyes have been enchanted with the screen resolution of the Kindle app on the iPhone 5, but it's good to take a break now and then, yes?

In other news: my copy of the Wii game, The Last Story, arrives today! Amazon Prime: f*ck yeah.