December 16, 2003

Last week I finished Quicksilver and it has taken me a week to decide what I thought about the book.

The book is not science fiction, it is historical fiction taking place in the period after the English Civil War up until the start of the 18th century, encompassing the European Wars and scientific innovation of the time.

On one level the book is good historical fiction with great characters and good story telling. But what I was looking for was the deeper ideas of the novel. In Stephenson's other novels, there is an underlying idea (or ideas) that is being presented. In the Diamond Age, the importance of education is stressed. In Cryptonomicon, the importance of secrecy is stressed.

It took me a week to figure out what Stephenson was getting at in the book. I read several reviews, including a good one from Slashdot, and tried to find someone else I knew that had read it.

Key to the story are two main concepts, the role of religious fundamentalism and the role of scientific innovation. Much of the English Civil War was based on the concepts of gathered churches vs. established churches. The debate over the 'Purity' of the Church left the realm of discussion and lead to open warfare.

The second concept of scientific innovation or as it known in the book as Natural Philosophy. At this point in history, science and the scientific method was finally taking hold and groups like the Royal Society were forming to combine individual efforts into greater projects. Change was occurring rapidly and causing change in the marketplace and the battlefield. The world was changing faster than it had in hundreds of years and the it appeared to have no end in sight.

Now consider the world of the early 21st century. Religious disagreement and fundamentalist thought has broken out into worldwide violence after a period of relative calm since WWII. Science and the daily use of technology is ramping up logarithmically. There appears to be no end in sight for new innovations pouring out of the scientific minds in the world. From genetics to computers to aerospace to media, what we take for granted today was almost unimaginable 30 years ago.

I think this is the point Stephenson is trying to make. I believe that he is trying to compare the world of today to what happened in the late 1600s in Europe. Religion and traditional thought in conflict with science, technology and the general idea of change.

A few specific associations. Half Cocked Jack can represent the hard working third world that may not be literate, but is bright, resourceful, and steadfast. The Newton/Leibniz rivalry can represent the struggle between competing technologies for marketplace dominance.

This first book in the Baroque Cycle (trilogy) is setting the stage for what happens in the next two novels. Looking forward to the release of the next book, I can only hope that I am correct and that there is more to Quicksilver than simply a good adventure yarn.

Of course, I could be full of crap and totally missing the point...

Posted by michael at December 16, 2003 10:30 PM