Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

The era's terrible Mage
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The Independent Culture

Neal Stephenson's breakthrough novel, 1999's Cryptonomicon, released him from straight science-fiction to build a historical monument to our last factual, fantastical half-century, linking wartime decrypting at Bletchley Park to the computers now sitting in most Western homes. Quicksilver, the 916-page first book of his Baroque Cycle, digs back further, into the 17th-century intellectual mulch from which our Digital Age emerged. His earlier novel's fictional and historic characters are here replaced by their ancestors: Alan Turing by Isaac Newton, and dotcom raiders by Barbary buccaneers. His skill inbuilding a teeming world is anchored to an obsession with the true history of scientific philosophy which at times almost sinks the novel.

For its first third, the book is a sluggish chore, the mountains of research Stephenson has absorbed making descriptions of Restoration London feel leaden, and intellectual discourses between Newton and his contemporaries textbook-dry. Newton's search for the pure "mercury" of a Philosophical Language in which God's universe can be encoded and understood is, though, this book's core, underlying descriptions of cities, politics and lives, in an age when certainties slither like quicksilver: commonwealths and kings, God and science, apocalypse and utopia, Spanish gold and Dutch stocks transmute as if the alchemy discredited during Quicksilver's span is the cosmos's only rule. Newton is not an apple-bopped bore, but his era's terrible Mage.

In its mid-section Quicksilver starts to breathe, as it leaves Newton's London for the European adventures of "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe (his soubriquet describing the effects of a botched clap cure). The fortunes of Jack, a one-time Thames mudlark, are changed by rescuing harem slave Eliza from the blade of a Turkish eunuch. He becomes her bodyguard as she barters sex, beauty and matrimony with wit and nerve for money and influence, the only means to secure herself as a woman in a fluid, man's world. Eliza is Quicksilver's most admirable adventurer.

Stephenson studs his book with other moments of wonder, spectacle and derring-do, from London's alchemical transmutation in the Great Fire's puff of smoke to a witches' mass in German woods. Quicksilver benefits from the eye of a writer used to fantasy, and from the self-conscious winks to the present of someone with larger concerns than 17th century arcana: the society Stephenson conjures is both as alien and intricate as Brian Aldiss's classic, imaginary Helliconia, and a prism knowingly refracting current scientific revolutions like the internet through the dreams of dead geniuses like Newton. All that keeps Quicksilver from greatness is the way its swashbuckling pleasures and philosophical rigours stay resolutely separate for much of its length, as frustratingly discrete as gold and lead.