The story opens in 1713 when Daniel Waterhouse, a former Puritan and natural philosopher (as scientists were then called) living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, finds himself invited back to England, where a dispute has arisen between Newton and Leibniz over exactly who developed calculus. Yes, he is that Dr Daniel Waterhouse who has founded “The Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts” (or, as it is known today, MIT).As Daniel undertakes his voyage, leaving his wife and son behind, we go back forty years to his youth, when, as a student, he watched his classmate Isaac Newton develop into an obsessive and eccentric genius. Newton is so absorbed by his work (mathematics, light, even alchemy, an idea still taken seriously then, you name it) that he would neglect food and proper sleep if it weren’t for Daniel’s care. Daniel practically serves as the young genius’s butler during their school days although it was supposed to be the other way round (Daniel, as a richer student, had a right to employ poorer boys, called sizars, as his personal servants). This section takes first 340 pages give or take.
Then we move into “King of the Vagabonds,” which shifts the novel’s focus from the lives of English high society to society’s dregs. Jack Shaftoe is the vagabond of the title, an orphan whose earliest career involved dangling from the legs of men sentenced to hang in order to quicken their deaths. As an adult he wanders the continent, eventually falling in with an army battling the Turks at Vienna. Here he rescues Eliza, who had been sold as a concubine to a Turkish prince. Jack and Eliza travel together for a time, until they reach Amsterdam. Here, Eliza proves to have a strong mind for business and money management, and she remains in Amsterdam — quickly turning into a European financial center thanks to the Dutch East India Company — while Jack (who is slowly losing his mind from syphilis) continues to France.
|Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), German philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The final section of the book, “Odalisque,” brings Daniel’s and Eliza’s story threads together. Daniel has re-established contact with Newton, whose studies are veering away from the purely scientific into the metaphysical following his completion of the Principia Mathematica, while on the continent Leibniz has finally published his calculus. Eliza’s reputation as a financial wizard, meanwhile, has brought her into contact with some of the most powerful people from Holland, England, and France. She finds herself ensconced at Versailles, managing the finances of virtually everyone there, which gives her unprecedented contact with people who would ordinarily be off limits to one of her lowborn class. Meanwhile, she has become a confidant first of the Duke of Monmouth (whose rebellion in England against James II fails miserably), then of William of Orange (whose succeeds), and of Leibniz, to whom she writes of her escapades in cipher.
I felt this first part tried to capture one of the pivotal periods not merely in European history, but one which ultimately shaped the course of the modern world as we know it. 17th century as a period cannot and shouldn’t be underestimated. In the field of science, there were Newton’s discoveries, as well as the first formal instance of politics and science going hand in hand with the Royal Society. The financial markets of Europe at this time set the stage for the stock exchanges that propelled economies the world over today. I found myself gasping several times when I rediscovered such obvious truths here. It was a mental challenge but also something truly enjoyable. What were Renaissance alchemists but hackers, rooting around in and trying to reprogram systems of matter? Modern cryptanalysts and programmers have their intellectual roots, too, in work done by wigged mathematicians of centuries past. The idea of a modern computer was most probably invented by Leibniz. The learned discourses of Waterhouse, Newton, Leibniz, Hooke et al contains the germs, sometimes even the clear outlines, of future scientific discoveries. Daniel refers to “a kind of net-work of information”, a long time before the OED’s first record of such a figurative use of “net-work” (by Coleridge in 1816, talking about property). One letter from Leibniz more or less invents Einsteinian special relativity and implies the celebrated equation e=mc2; elsewhere someone proposes gravitation as the distortion of spacetime avant la lettre; and there is a buried joke about the improbability of anyone ever believing in the idea of particles which we now know as neutrinos.I am not surprised this book was awarded 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Stephenson’s prose I found very fluid and readable even when he described difficult topics; his gift can draw the reader in and can even make those knotty scientific and mathematical theories palatable.
His novel offers up a wide range of characters, all of them deserving a separate book, like Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Robert Hooke, John Wilkins, Samuel Pepys, Christiaan Huygens, the Duke of Monmouth, Benjamin Franklin, and Louis XIV himself. All of them in Stephenson’s hands become living, breathing, remarkable men, not merely the kinds of stuffy cardboard portraits so often found in historical novels. You hardly know who to look first at and who to like best. It is a feast rarely found in other novels.
|Sir Isaac Newton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
courtiers. Drake Waterhouse, Daniel’s father, is killed by Charles II himself, and Daniel makes the acquaintance of a number of future courtiers while attending Cambridge. They are colourful fellows, interesting to read about but also ones you would run from as fast as you could if you met them in real life.
It seems that the main character of the book is the Quicksilver, a mysterious substance which can represent several ideas. It’s one of symbols of alchemy, which is slowly being replaced by verifiable science; but it is also a symbol of Mercury, the messenger, who in the guise of the mysterious Enoch Root passes messages between members of the nascent scientific community in America, England and on the European continent.
Finally the sense of humour. I loved it when great men in English politics and science, normally fighting brutally with each other (Newton and Hooke would become bitter enemies) confided in Daniel, helping to guide his career to greater heights just because they perceived him as a harmless nonentity among true giants. If you like clever palace intrigue and the unique style of wit that only emerges from Britain you will be in seventh heaven. Usually I laugh that hard only while watching the better episodes of Black Adder or Monty Python. Remember, laughter is good for your health.
What I didn’t like:
|A replica of Newton’s second reflecting telescope of 1672 presented to the Royal Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
As any 900 page work of historical fiction this is a daunting, demanding book. Long, twisted, with several POVs and the narration switching from first person present to third person past in no time. No, it is not for everyone. There were parts which I found boring like the early history of European banking and coin-minting. It’s probably not possible for a book so long to go its whole length without a few longueurs or to keep you entertained the whole time. Well, I managed to finish it and I didn’t regret doing so but it’s up to every reader to determine whether the good parts are worth persevering. The answer will depend to some extent on the reader’s taste in historical fiction. Those who prefer it straight and full of anachronisms might balk at Stephenson’s attitude and laissez-faire when it comes to sticking to the historical accuracy. Characters and the narrator often knowingly use modern slang (at one point Charles II is called “a foreign-policy slut”), and there are numerous little contemporary jokes such as a reference to “canal rage” in Venice – gondoliers are increasingly involved in violent altercations, which some take to be “a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world” – or when Enoch Root offers a Grantham apothecary a cup of tea, which the latter considers “inoffensive enough, but I don’t think Englishmen will ever take to anything so outlandish” (in fact I LOVED that scene but I know some people might frown).
Final verdict (short and sweet):
After a break I will read the rest. For sure. I loved it, despite some boring parts and the fact that it was a very long novel. While reading such books you feel your brain cells rejoicing and multiplying. For the sheer effort of writing something so long and so good I proclaim it to be…