Friday 7 August 2009

Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson

It is so very hard to classify Quicksilver - the first in an extremely weighty trilogy (this book alone weighs in at over 900 pages!) Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? It is historical? It most certainly is dense, dull, delightful and dry.

The book is split into three different sections. The first of these looks back on Daniel Waterhouse's early life in London and his association with the Royal Society and the pre-eminent philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of that time, including Isaac Newton. This period of the book can be extremely difficult reading, and needs intense concentration. Even with that, I found myself struggling with the esoteric vocabulary used and the overwhelming amount of science on display. I find science and maths difficult at the best of times, and this book did nothing to ease me - often I found myself understanding only one paragraph in three and had to really persevere to get through this section. There was light relief periodically from present-day Daniel, travelling by ship back to England and being pursued by pirates. One thing I enjoyed immensely about this part of the book - science aside - was the way that Stephenson conveyed the wonder and mystery of the discoveries that were coming thick and fast, driven by certain people whose ideas have not been surpassed even now.

The second part of the book dealt with Eliza and Jack Shaftoe. This section flew past in a flurry of giggles and adventure, including an amusing interlude with an ostrich and a Turkish harem. Jack is a lively character, seemingly destined to die from the French pox (syphilis), but determined to make a life for himself and generate an inheritance for his two boys. Eliza is enigmatic, alluring and tom-boyish by turns - both drawn to Jack and repelled by him. They travel together across a lot of Europe and end up in Amsterdam, where Jack leaves Eliza to make his fortune in Paris and ends up on a ship bound for deepest Africa. I loved this part of the book, and it more than made up for the dryness of the first section.

The last part draws all the threads of the story together, culminating in the revolution that Waterhouse has spent his life working towards. There is intrigue, and gripping letters between Leibniz and Eliza, who, by now, is the Countess de la Zeur. James II is overthrown and Daniel suffers a spell in prison.

So, all in all, a massive book with massive ideas and massive characters. It should have been unbelievable and unforgettable, but I was left feeling a little as though it were too much work. I will read the other two volumes in the trilogy for completeness, but I don't embark on them with a lightness of spirit!

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