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Quicksilver
Neal Stephenson
William Heinemann hardcover £16.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Following the success of his critically acclaimed Cryptoniomicon, Neal Stephenson's latest is a three-part prequel beginning with Quicksilver. If Cryptonomicon was a huge undertaking, this trilogy looks set to establish new epic scales of bigness that will make even fantasy authors sit up and take notice.
   Quicksilver is divided into three parts. The first focuses on an aged Daniel Waterhouse torn from his newly established technological institute in Massachusetts (wink-wink!) to return to England and settle a dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over who developed differential calculus. The voyage that follows leads Daniel to ruminate on his past as a puritan during England's religious wars, a fellow student of Newton, and an early member of the Royal Society in the 17th century among the early scientists who are beginning to tease out the true nature of the world from religion and superstition.
   The second part, introduces Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond, and Eliza an ex-slave to the Ottoman Turks, who meet up with Dr Leibniz in their travels west from the siege of Vienna in 1683. Their journey takes them from the bloodiest of battles, through psychedelic paganism, to the beginnings of modern capitalism.
   In the third part, the stories meet up and all the characters (apart from the unfortunate Jack, whose place is soon taken by brother Bob) are drawn into the royal courts of Europe and the political and religious conflicts governing the Crown of England.
   A bald recitation of the plot hardly does this huge, discursive novel justice. Along the way we are treated to contemplations of science, mathematics, alchemy, sectarian disputes, the genealogy of the royal houses of Europe and, crucially, cryptography. If all this sounds a little dry, Stephenson stuffs Quicksilver with thrilling scrapes and adventures, anachronistic jokes and asides, and a plot as baroque and intricate as the royal blood lines that drive the wars and intrigues.
   One of the chief pleasures of this book is the scholarship on display that simultaneously provides a convincing background and a goldmine of historical and scientific trivia. Stephenson's novels always have a didactic element and he is a master at juggling this with the demands of plot and character.
   Of course, there are other Stephenson habits that are less welcome. He's never been a great writer of character, and while there is so much on offer here that it seems churlish to point it out, the voices of Daniel and Eliza are barely differentiated - both are practical and technically minded, with only the slightest concession made to gender and circumstance. The echoes of 21st century West Coast slacker slang in the dialogue are distracting (and probably intentional), and the occasional longueurs sometimes make one wish for a little less rumination and a little more action, although it is perhaps to be expected in a novel of this length and scope that there is the occasional piece of lead amongst the gold.
   Being part of a trilogy, Stephenson manages to avoid his greatest weakness, the bathetic ending - indeed, Quicksilver finishes on a cleverly set-up (if gruesome) note that resonates with much of what has gone before. There are loose ends a plenty to be tied up and I was left hungry for the next volume.
   It's a huge, fascinating book, but I will admit to being a little unsure what to make of it all. There's plenty here to enjoy, but whether it all adds up to more than the sum of its very enjoyable parts remains to be seen. That said, Stephenson has created another deep and exciting story, a pleasure to read and a masterpiece of research and science. Having finished this long, dense book I'm tempted to go back for another look at Cryptonomicon, but with the next volume - The Confusion - out already, and similarly gargantuan, I don't think I'm going to get time.
Quicksilver

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