September 9, 2008

Interim Book Review: Quicksilver

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle consists of, I believe, eight books total. Each book is of about novella length – maybe not quite long enough to be a stand-alone novel but much longer than a short story. They are sold in three volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. I’ve just finished book one of volume one, which is also called Quicksilver. A more delightful reading experience I haven’t had in quite some time. I’m enjoying the second book of the first volume, The King of the Vagabonds, immensely as well. But this review is about the eponymous first book of the volume.

The story concerns the early-life and one late-life adventures of a fictional early English scientist named Daniel Waterhouse. Waterhouse is the son of a firebrand Puritan preacher, raised to believe the apocalypse will take place in 1666. But when he goes away to college, he begins to have doubts about his religion. This doubt, the roots of which were there all along, blossoms through his relationship with his college roommate, the young Isaac Newton. He gains the patronage of a respected Anglican clergyman-turned-scientist who sees Daniel for what he is, a promising and bright young mind, and who by example shows him that a person’s deeds and his mind are more important than the manner of professing his faith. Through this patron’s sponsorship, Waterhouse becomes what we would call an “intern” to the Royal Society before graduating from college and becoming a full member and learning how to make his own way in society.

The book really shines when it describes the meetings of these first real scientists from the point of view of this young student. They are just starting to feel their way through their various disciplines. Biology, anatomy, botany, geology, physics, chemistry – all of these things have not yet been defined. But these men hunger for real knowledge, gained through actual observation and experimentation. The accepted wisdom of the past is no longer enough for them; they can see for themselves that the advancing technology of the world around them has exceeded the ancient teachings that their own educations and backgrounds have prepared them for. Devices exist in the world which are known empirically to work, but how and why are not really appreciated. So they set out to observe the world for what it really is, not what a collection of ancient tomes tells them it is, and to test their knowledge and observation with experimentation and objective observations. They are, in that sense, heroes.

Of course, they are very, very ambivalent heroes. The book does not shy away from the fact that a number of their “experiments” were, to modern sensibilities, quite morbid and cruel. It’s one thing to carefully observe when and under what circumstances maggots will form in rotting meat. It’s something else to vivisect a live animal to see how long different parts of it will live. But apparently that sort of thing really happened, and it took several years of these sorts of “experiments” before the various members of the Society realized that they were cruel and unethical. Even then, they did not stop them, they simply absented themselves from those sorts of proceedings, until eventually no one was doing them anymore.

It’s important to think back on that grisly piece of history to judge the thing by its own standards as well as our own. It’s easy now for us to look back on that and say that it was unspeakably cruel and wrong. But on the other hand, we say that from the vantage point of a world built, in part, on the knowledge gained through such means.

Nor were the Royal Society’s experimenters alone in such techniques. The grandfather of scientific medicine, Galen of Alexandria, learned about human anatomy not just from dissecting cadavers but from vivisecting condemned convicts, who were quite likely conscious during the procedures. At least the Royal Society didn’t do that.

But other sorts of things that were done look somewhat more innocent and daffy, and are just plain fun to read about. Does a pendulum swing faster, slower, or at the same rate when it is closer to the center of the earth? It never seems to occur to the scientists that they could take a pendulum up to the top of a tower and observe it there; instead, they threaten to drop poor Daniel down a well with a pendulum instead – and Daniel hopes they stay awake long enough to pull him out when the experiment is done! Newton is every bit as unorthodox in his approach to learning and experimentation as his counterparts in the Society (which he eventually joins). The petty squabbles and vanities of the Englishmen are as entertaining as the dramatic wartime backdrop of the historical era which they inhabit and learning of the many roles that these prominent gentlemen play within it.

Along the way, we learn of great many other interesting things happening in the world. Europeans, for instance, do not think of themselves as living in Europe. They call it “Christendom” instead – despite bitterly contesting whether Catholics or Protestants even are Christian in the first place. We learn a thing or two about Baroque fashions, the political and military events of the late seventeenth century, the plague, what happens when you grind your gunpowder too finely, money, and – a pervasive problem for so many of the characters you have to wonder if it was really this prevalent – what was done about venereal disease.

Stephenson has a savory, detailed, and masterful voice. It’s possible to let your imagination run very cinematic while reading the book – the imagery is gorgeous and the characters fleshed out nicely. Waterhouse is a particularly interesting figure – his diminishing religiosity is a gradual process, and we get to see it happening from many points in his life before he finally begins to live a secular, scientific approach to the world, symbolized in the end with a lesson to the reader about one of the many uses to which animal intestines were put in the 1680’s. It is very unclear if he ever becomes an atheist so much as a fallen Puritan and an inobservant Christian. There is no firey condemnation of his apocalyptic upbringing; it is simply a world view that plays itself out as inconsistent with the reality he observes, so he simply sets it aside to develop something that makes more sense to him. But at the same time, he is still surrounded by people who integrate their religions into their daily lives and to see the emergence of both social and legal toleration of many different faiths.

It is rich, dense, well-researched, and a pleasure to read. The whole story captures nicely the sort of intellectual state the world was in at the time. The medieval world was being set aside, and the Renaissance was being played out to its logical conclusion. But the Enlightenment had not yet really taken hold, so the religious conflicts of the past continued to linger on, complicating politics and costing a great deal of blood. Superstition and doctrine co-existed with science and new thoughts. What we would call real learning, real science, real education in the modern sense was really only just beginning. And the world was beginning to take on its modern geopolitical shape – the New World colonies of Europe were in their adolescence, Europe itself was organizing itself into nation-states and accelerating its technological edge, and individuals began to see themselves as being citizens of countries and not subjects of kings or even primarily identifying themselves by their religions.

What is truly noteworthy about Stephenson’s creation is the comfort with which his characters inhabit the world he describes. It is a world very much in the process of metamorphosing – and to its inhabitants, it seemed the most normal thing imaginable that it should do so. It is a world that shows both its cruelty, stinkiness, and tragedy as well as its beauty, power, and most of all, its potential.

Comparing this book to the last one I read is like comparing a good meal to a mediocre one. Time and Chance was a rather over-large salad with too much tasteless lettuce and not enough dressing. But Quicksilver! This is a marinated Porterhouse steak of a novel: it is rich, dense, well-researched, complex, and so uncommonly pleasurable that you want to savor every mouth-watering bite while struggling to restrain your impulse to get as much as possible as fast as you can because it’s so good you can barely control yourself.

Book two of Quicksilver is called King of the Vagabonds. I’ll let you know how I like it when I’m done with it. But I’ve read enough of the Baroque Cycle to give it an unequivocal thumbs-up. This is possibly the best book I’ve read in at least a year.

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