I have always been interested in science. Imagining myself to be a brilliant and eclectic mind, perhaps a reincarnation of DaVinci or Newton or Leibnitz or Hooke or Franklin or Edison or Schrodinger or Heisenberg or Einstein or Feynman or Gleik (who isn't dead, so that'd be a most remarkable feat), I entered university as a double-major in English and Physics. It turned out, after three years, I was not a truly great mind, but, rather, a clever and curious boy with some talent (verbal and written) in convincing others (and, sadly, often myself) that I was possessed of a brilliance far beyond my actual capacity. I came by such deception innocently -- in my small-town high school I was among the five or six "brilliant" big fishes -- whales, really -- in a teeny, tiny pond; who, possessed of a modest intellect, would not develop a huge ego in such a place? Through the first years of college, I shrunk somewhat to become a fast, flashy, larger-sized salmon in a medium sized stream -- not a giant, but still big, impressive, and destined for great things upstream. When I opened my eyes in my third year of college, in my sixth semester of Calculus, under piles on incomprehensible Physics and mathematical tomes, a year from my BS in Physics and a future as a weary-eyed high school science teacher (enough smarter than my superiors to notice my spirit being slowly strangled to death, like my father or Mr. Schmid) or a beleaguered researcher (forever kneeling in the dirt so a truly brilliant mind could stand upon my back to see over some great wall), I found I was but one of the fatter specimens of a school of moderate sized pretty tropical fish, really little different from my fellows, but sticking out just enough to be noticed by the really big fish and sharks in the water around me as a promising target. Discovering that, at best, I would probably be little more than a meal (a large, filling meal, but a meal nonetheless) to a truly big fish, I decided to get out of that pond altogether. But even as I put my wit and verbal talents to work as an actor (a long leap from Physics, and, in the end, the absolute right move for me), I retained a scientific curiosity always larger than my intellectual capacity to satisfy it.
Which is, in a convoluted nutshell, why I find such enjoyment in the books of Neal Stephenson. Stephenson satisfies the artistic parts of me -- the parts constantly drawing or writing or dabbling in photography or (when given that ultimate opportunity) acting -- with a rollicking good story, engaging characters, and clever, masterful writing. But my artistic side can find that satisfaction in a dozen places and more. What makes me crave Stephenson is the way he satisfies my scientific parts: as I open the first page of a Stephenson book, I know I am going to learn something, perhaps in a roundabout way, and perhaps those new trinkets will be so heavily intertwined with fiction that I have to engage in research to separate the real from the fancy, but something will be learned. I first discovered this in Snow Crash (in which I learned about politics, computer science, social theory), which I have to admit I picked up in an airport because the cover looked moderately cool, but did not read until years later. I then devoured, in rapid succession, Zodiac (politics, environmental science, chemistry) and Cryptonomicon (politics, history, cryptography, computer science, sociology, military tactics). Last month, Shannon bought me Stephenson's newest book, Quicksilver.
Quicksilver is the first in what will be a trilogy, and a sort of prelude to what is widely considered Stephenson's masterwork, Cryptonomicon. As such, some of the main characters of the book are ancestors of Cryptonomicon's main players -- Daniel Waterhouse (Quicksilver) is assumed to be the ancestor of Cryptonomicon's Waterhouses, and Jack and Bob Shaftoe (again, Quicksilver), the progenetors of Cryptonomicon's Shaftoe clan. Others are new, but the ones which tickle my imagination the most are the real characters -- fictionalized versions of science heroes: Newton, Leibnitz, Huygens, Hooke and others. Apart from Newton, prior to reading Quicksilver these names were footnotes in my brain (Leibnitz: fought with Newton about Calculus, Hooke: clocks, etc.) and little more. I knew a little of what they contributed to science, but I had no sense of time or place for them or their achievements. In Quicksilver, Stephenson brings these legendary minds to startling life -- they live and breathe and piss (or don't -- you learn a lot about bladder ailments in this book) with such bright humanity that it's easy to forget this is a fictionalized account of these folks.
I know -- I'm rambling. Here's the deal: Quicksilver is a book about the beginnings of the modern scientific age. Told mostly in flashback, it revolves around the members of Britain's Royal Society in the late 1600s, and their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. It's an exciting time -- the birth of "Natural Philosophy," of gravitational theory, of Calculus, of machines and telescopes and microscopes and, well, all of the tools upon which modern science relies. It's also the birth of commodities speculation (stock markets), a time of great political and religious turmoil throughout Europe, and the beginning or end of so many western traditions, it's hard to keep up. It's impossible to describe what actually happens in the book -- there's just too much going on. But Stephenson's writing is magnetic as his narrative is slippery, and provides a vivid historical perspective to and relationship between all of these "things" which long schooling had stored in my brain, but never really connected together.
The story opens with Daniel Waterhouse, an aging inventor living in America in the early 1700s, summoned back to Britain to tend to some business of the Royal Society, of which he was once a prominent member. His oceanic journey is fraught with swashbuckling peril to rival Master and Commander, but between these brief encounters, the story slips into long flashback, chronicling his youth as a student of Natural Philosophy, a member of the Royal Society, his friendship with Newton and the others, his political meddling, and generally all the nooks and crannies of politics and science in the latter half of the seventeenth century. As this is the first of a trilogy, the ending is more the closing of a chapter than anything else, and leaves you salivating for the next volume.
As you might imagine from my description, the book is dense. But Stephenson's easy, descriptive prose and engaging characterizations (both of real and imagined figures) are so delightful that you slip through the large volume almost effortlessly. There is occasionally trouble with names and titles (Stephenson provides a glossary, but I didn't realize it was there 'til I'd finished the book), but after a short time I found that I'd volumes of names and titles and relationships in my head, and needed only a few seconds pause to clear the confusion.
I can't offer enough praise for this book -- both parts of my brain were thoroughly delighted with what I found. If you are afraid of learning new things, have little interest in politics, history or science, or don't want to be challenged intellectually, then this book may not be for you. But for all others: please read Quicksilver. I give it my highest recommendation.