Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Stephenson: Quicksilver - King of the Vagabonds

Bobby Shaftoe went to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee.
He'll come back to marry me.
Mother says so!

Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe is the eponymous King in Book Two of Stephenson's Quicksilver, and easily the most likeable character in the novel. Here is where Quicksilver swings into adventure-mode, as Jack gallivants across the Holy Roman Empire, liberating damsels in distress and rescuing the odd coin or two—or vice versa.

Like the other principals, his life is intertwined with Liebnitz', and serves as well to illustrate the mathematician-philosopher's other vocation: mining engineer. Like Isaac Newton (as well as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin), Liebnitz was a wildly productive genius whose efforts spanned nearly all of the industries and intellectual pursuits of his time.

Half-Cocked Jack is almost his antithesis, preoccupied with getting and spending his gains, ill-gotten and virtuous alike. As such, Jack is much closer to the Bobby Shaftoe of the nursery rhyme than is his g-great-grandson Bobby in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

King of the Vagabonds is the second book of Quicksilver, the first volume of The Baroque Cycle. Book One of Quicksilver is also titled Quicksilver. Book Three is Odalisque.