by Neal Stephenson

Published by William Morrow

927 pages, 2003



Three Pounds of Brain Cells

Reviewed by David Abrams


Earnest readers approach new books like a relationship. They size up the heft of the tome, the thickness of spine, the cosmetics of the cover. They think to themselves, "Should I get involved? Do I really want to commit?" After all, for three days or three weeks, they will be wedded to these pages.

Maybe it will be a good marriage with staying power all the way to the final breath of the last page; or, if the book's especially bad, the reader will opt for a quick divorce, leaving the poor book wondering what it did wrong, what it could have done better.

Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, requires some serious marital commitment.

At more than 920 pages and weighing a few ounces shy of three pounds, Quicksilver can be a draining experience -- like having a 300-pound bride sit on your chest and demand your full attention -- and along about page 730, you're really starting to ponder those words "to have and to hold."

The novel, the first of a trilogy Stephenson is calling The Baroque Cycle, is set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and is stuffed with a museum's worth of miscellany. Cameos are made by historical and literary figures like Samuel Pepys, Mother Goose, D'Artagnan the Musketeer, Blackbeard the Pirate, William Penn and Winston Churchill (no, not that Winston, but one of his ancestors). Here in these pages, readers will also find such diverse topics as the beginnings of the stock market, French politics, metaphysics, mathematics, archeology, etymology, cryptology, metallurgy, genealogy, high-seas piracy, purloined letters, torture, the medicinal use of manure and scientific discussions involving the gravitational pull of billiard balls and the architecture of snowflakes. I'm sure I've left at least a dozen subjects off the list. It almost goes without saying that Quicksilver weighs as heavily on the mind as it does the hand.

The densely-packed pages are filled with characters sitting around having conversations about God, gravity and alchemy -- characters like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, who is known for believing all knowledge could be coded and numbered. If that was true, he postulated, then determining the mysteries of the universe would be a simple matter of calculation.

This appears to be one of Stephenson's chief aims as well. The novelist has built a reputation, and a devoted legion of fans, with cyberpunk literature like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. His most recent novel, Cryptonomicon, centered around World War Two code-breaking. It, too, weighed in at more than 900 pages, which of course begs the question "Did Stephenson's editor lose his red pen?"

The author is well aware of the stir his heavy-handed volume will cause and has even written in a couple of self-referential winks. Here's an excerpt from a play-within-the-novel (Quicksilver is filled with diagrams, genealogical charts, letters and plays):

WATERHOUSE: Here, m'lord, fresh from Cambridge, as promised, I give you Books I and II of Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton -- have a care, some would consider it a valuable document.

APTHORP: My word, is that the cornerstone of a building, or a manuscript?

RAVENSCAR: Err! To judge by weight, it is the former.

APTHORP: Whatever it is, it is too long, too long!

WATERHOUSE: It explains the System of the World.

APTHORP: Some sharp editor needs to step in and take that wretch in hand!

While Quicksilver doesn't exactly explain the system of the world, it goes to great pains and lengths to show us where the basis for much of our modern science and philosophy originated: the fervid minds of the Natural Philosophers and members of the Royal Society, a men's club which puzzled over everything from dog anatomy to snowflake geometry. Stephenson masterfully shows us how raw and uncharted science was three centuries ago:

"Lately, every time Mr. Hooke peers at something with his Microscope he finds that it is divided up into small compartments, each one just like its neighbors, like bricks in a wall," Wilkins confided.

"What do these bricks look like?"

"He doesn't call them bricks. Remember, they are hollow. He has taken to calling them 'cells'…but you don't want to get caught up in all that nonsense.

Another character claims his goal is to translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old operations on those numbers -- and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy.

The novel's title might hold a clue to unraveling what Stephenson is trying to do on these pages:

Quicksilver=Mercury=messenger of the Roman gods=transfer of information=computers

Using this formula, it's not too great a leap from the alchemy of Stephenson's 17th-century characters to his 20th-century hackers in other books. To those early Royal Society gearheads, quicksilver was "the pure living essence of God's power and presence in the world." Newton, Hooke and Leibniz are all hackers, trying to crack the code of knowledge. So, you can see why their skulls were in such torment and turmoil and why, more than 300 years later, Stephenson's cranium seethes with equal energy. God is the X in the algebra equation, and we're all dying to know the answer (but no cheating on the final exam, boys and girls).

All the fireworks of Stephenson's impressive research and fluid documentary style might distract you from the simple fact that, at heart, nothing really happens in Quicksilver. There's no arrow-shot arc of a story, no perpetual-motion of a plot. Characters become chess pieces and Stephenson moves them around the board with his God-fingers.

Quicksilver is actually three books bound in one volume: Book the First follows Daniel Waterhouse, Newton's college roommate, and his associations with the Royal Society. Much ale drinking and mathematical ruminations abound. In Book Two, we turn to the Dickensian tale of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe the Vagabond, a lusty adventurer whose genitalia met with an unfortunate accident (hence, the nickname). Jack rescues the lovely, high-spirited Eliza from a Turkish harem and the two set off across Europe. For about 100 pages, the novel turns into a brainier version of a swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power or, even, Johnny Depp (whose Pirates of the Caribbean character is, coincidentally, also named Jack). There's swordplay aplenty on these pages, with scenes cut straight from the best of Robert Louis Stevenson or Rafael Sabatini. The third part blends the stories of Waterhouse and Eliza with royal intrigue. Eliza becomes a spy at Versailles, at one point concealing coded message in embroidery. All three of the main characters are ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon, though it's possible to appreciate Quicksilver without having read the earlier book.

This is, at times, a lusty, bloody tale in which bodily fluids spill, clotting the page like month-old cottage cheese. At one point Eliza is asked by Louis XIV to fake an orgasm to cover up his own screams during a hemorrhoid operation as his courtiers wait in an adjoining room. Eliza's performance makes Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally look like an amateur moaner. It's just one of many scenes where Stephenson gleefully gets his fingers bloody writing about early science (here, wittily blending sex with surgery). In fact, the book ends on a particularly skin-puckering note as Hooke prepares to remove Waterhouse's kidney stones…sans local anesthesia, of course.

Those are the high points of the book (a recounting of the Great London Fire of 1666 is another). Then there are the dreadfully dense passages where the paragraphs move slow as mercury on a cold winter day.

According to a USA Today story from 1999, Quicksilver was to be published in 2000, on the heels of Cryptonomicon. At the time, it appears that Stephenson was ready to publish his story in one gargantuan volume. "The publisher informed me that I'd exceeded the physical size a book can be," he told the newspaper. "Beyond a certain page length, the machinery explodes."

Now, three years later, the rubble of gears and cogs lies strewn across every inch of Quicksilver. The machine exploded and what came out of the smoking wreck is either brilliant or balderdash. The other two parts of the Baroque Cycle will be published in April 2004 (The Confusion) and October 2004 (The System of the World). So, by this time next year, we should have nearly ten pounds of Stephenson's brain on our hands.

Sure, a lot of reviews will be focused on the sheer tonnage of Quicksilver and it makes for a relatively easy way to overlook the book's content. But I offer this in the way of argument: the elements of weight and content are irrevocably linked. Information overload is the whole point behind Quicksilver. Your fingers go numb, your eyes swell and -- if you're particularly sensitive -- your nose bleeds. This is an encyclopedia in the guise of a novel and it takes a particular kind of person to turn its pages.

You the reader must decide a) to make the commitment, then b) to stay faithful to the commitment to the last page or death do you part. But somewhere along the way (page 863, perhaps), you have to ask yourself, "What's the payoff? What do I get in return, other than a pair of sore wrists which have held three pounds of small print close to my eyes for the past two weeks?"

Will your brain swell in its cranial bone-case with all the information Stephenson has crammed there, or will you just sit back and take the ride for whatever it's worth and wherever it leads? Either way, it's doubtful you'll echo the words of one character who says, "I love reading novels. You can understand them without thinking too much." | October 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.