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Review: 'Quicksilver' a bid for literary alchemy

Looking for gold in a big book about mercury

By Porter Anderson

Looking for gold in a big book about mercury

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HarperCollins' William Morrow: Neal Stephenson external link

Message from Neal Stehenson: The Baroque Cycle external link

By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow (hardback)
927 pages

(CNN) -- Page counts may not be routinely noted by industry analysts at Publishers Weekly. But the release this week of Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver" forecasts a good round of Christmas bookstore sales -- in 2004.

"Quicksilver" is the first novel in a series called The Baroque Cycle. It's to be followed by "The Confusion" in April 2004 and "The System of the World" in October 2004. And it may be until the holidays of next year before faithful readers of these sequential works are returned to the market -- because together, these three books comprise 3,000 pages.

Newsweek has called Stephenson the "hacker Hemingway." But these hefty and richly produced rough-cut volumes may not contain what geek-chic fans of Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" and "Snow Crash" expect.

While Stephenson's familiar time-defying character Enoch Root ducks in and out of this work, so do Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Louis XIV, Gottfried von Leibniz, Samuel Pepys, Bishop John Wilkins and the William and Mary who in 1693 chartered the great college in Virginia as "a certain place of universal study."

Study is the key. "Quicksilver" is, in fact, both an invention and a simultaneous examination of it. "Something is happening," the text announces, "the mercury is rising in the ground." That "mercury" is a hunger for knowledge that gripped so many vaunted figures of the 17th century. It's all triggered, in fact, by an attempt to quell the seething disagreement between Newton and Leibniz over the invention of the calculus.

To make all this "rise" like the alchemical impulse he so clearly loves, Stephenson walks among these icons in the guise of fictitious characters. You meet Daniel Waterhouse, both as an elderly traveler caught in pirate battles and as a young roommate to Newton at Trinity College, Cambridge. Then there's Jack Shaftoe, a Vagabond through whose eyes we see the mighty commerce of old Amsterdam and the Siege of Vienna. In the third section of "Quicksilver," we stick close to Eliza, who finds her attractions much appreciated at Versailles.

Knowledge as currency

The writing in "Quicksilver" is never less than charming. Stephenson creates tension even when the larger plot is left to the vapors, as when young Waterhouse is among fleas in plague-ridden London or when Louis XIV undergoes a fantastically disguised medical procedure.

But Stephenson's display of period detail swings wildly, hunkering down for an excruciating description of an experiment at a well, then later watching Jack flee the witches of a Walpurgisnacht with barely a schnitzel of context.

Neal Stephenson's new "Quicksilver" is the first novel in a trilogy, the second and third parts of which are to be released in April and October 2004.

Nevertheless, the intent is admirable. This ambitious project is a growing triptych of the birth of the Information Age. Knowledge becomes currency as mercury feeds the silver in coins.

Stephenson is novelizing an intellectual revolution. On that movement's vivisections rests the treatment you get at your HMO; through its crazy contraptions has come the development of the screen on which you read these words.

Readers of Bill Bryson's new "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (Broadway) will find it an indispensable companion for getting the gist of Stephenson's historical folks.

And "Quicksilver" is a worthy relative of Noah Gordon's too-frequently overlooked novels of historical fiction, most notably "The Last Jew" (2000) and his tales of the Rob Cole medical dynasty, starting with "The Physician" (1986).

Lack of soul

But while Gordon's history is of the heart, Stephenson's is of the mind. Try as he might -- in the death of Wilkins, the romance of Eliza and Jack, the friendship of Daniel and Isaac -- Stephenson has trouble finding the souls of his characters.

And "Quicksilver" runs 927 pages. This is a serious issue. The conscientious reader must consider how many other books and authors will be missed in a commitment to one or all three huge novels of this series.

Long before Eliza is writing her letters from Paris, many readers will have glazed over at intrigues of Papists and Protestants. Editor Jennifer Brehl should be honored with statuary at William Morrow for handling a massive assignment that could render lesser talents fit for the book's Bedlam.

In sum, the result of this alchemist-author's merger of fictional larking-about and historic quests for wisdom is short of gold but often close to sterling. Neal Stephenson's new work ranks as "silver," even if there's nothing "quick" about it.

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