Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Stephenson: Quicksilver - Pilgrim's Progressive

Book One of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver introduces Daniel Waterhouse as a complex character intimately enmeshed with the major controversies of his day. As a child, Daniel witnessed the death of the King of England with the coming of Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads. As a youth, he attends the re-emergently Catholic Cambridge, rooming with young Isaac Newton and studying "natural philosophy" instead of preparing for the Apocalyse his father Drake expects in the year 1666. (Instead of the expected end of days, Daniel meets the Black Plague in that year, and watches his father die in the Great London Fire.)

And we know that in later years, this pilgrim does finally go to the New World, where he starts the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technological Arts, and intrigues a young boy named Ben (Franklin) into scientific inquiries. (Actually, the book opens on the seventy-plus year old Waterhouse, and the rest of the story is told as flashbacks interspersed with "current day" journeys. This is the same Innis-mode technique Stephenson used in Cryptonomicon.)

Quicksilver is shot through with references to mercury - I counted twenty-three overt occurences in the first few chapters. The quicksilver theme brings together messages (Mercury was the messnger of the gods), natural philosophy, alchemy and chemistry (mercury is an important element to all three), medicine (Mercury's symbol was used by physicians, and elemental mercury was often prescribed), and war (Hg was an essential ingredient in explosives of the day).

Daniel Waterhouse explores his belief in religious free will against the background af revolutions in science, mathematics, cryptography, religion and politics. Like drops of mercury on a heated plate, he ranges far and wide, and reflects the brilliance of those around him.

Quicksilver is the first volume of three in the Baroque Cycle. Book Two of Quicksilver is King of the Vagabonds, while Book Three is Odalisque. Intrigued by the Baroque Cycle and where it intersects history and reality? Check out the Metaweb.

Jane Chord: Enoch wind. Mother died. Like Daniel.