Sarah Drew

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by Neal Stephenson


Set against the backdrop of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Quicksilver tells the intertwining tales of three main characters as they traverse a landscape populated by mad alchemists, Barbary pirates, and bawdy courtiers, as well as historical figures including Ben Franklin, William of Orange, Louis XIV, and many others.  The story ranges from the American colonies to the Tower of London to the glittering palace at Versailles, –and plays out during a singular nexus point in history, when rationality triumphed over mysticism, monarchy was overthrown, markets become free, and religious tolerance gained ground over harsh oppression.


There’s a lovely bit in Great Expectations, where Pip and Herbert go backstage to congratulate an acquaintance after his performance as Hamlet.

`Gentlemen, how did it seem to you, to go, in front?’ [asked Mr Waldengarver].

Herbert said from behind (at the same time poking me), `capitally.’ So I said `capitally.’

`How did you like my reading of the character, gentlemen?’ said Mr Waldengarver, almost, if not quite, with patronage.

Herbert said from behind (again poking me), `massive and concrete.’ So I said boldly, as if I had originated it, and must beg to insist upon it, `massive and concrete.’

This book – well, this book is quite capitally Massive and Concrete. It’s huge (but you don’t notice that once you get into it). It’s got a cast of thousands (but they are handled with dexterity, and an unusually humorous Dramatis Personæ). It ranges over many lands and seventy odd years (sometimes within the same chapter). It’s also very funny, highly erudite and contains some unrepeatable suggestions of what to do with 10 inches of sausage skin. Above all, it’s fascinated with knowledge and – more percipiently – with how knowledge is transmitted. So, much of it is about the straightforward (if jaw-dropping) discoveries of the polymaths who made up the Royal Society in London in the late C17th, but running counter to that is the less dramatic story of how men of learning exchanged information to their mutual benefit. The central section – about the folk-hero, Jack Shaftoe – explores this from a different angle: how do “ordinary” people find out so quickly about Jack’s exploits?

Other reviews suggest Neal Stephenson is trying to unpick the roots of the Information Age. That’s a perfectly plausible approach. Reading the book, though, what comes across most strongly is his sense of admiration for the energy of the late C17th period – and a well-paced engaging story with scientific highs explained lucidly. If I had a quibble (and it’s a minor one), there is a touch of “Then Isaac Newton came into the room, with Chris Wren and old Bobby Hooke”. Stephenson isn’t nearly as crass as that, but he does manage to catch Anyone who Is Anyone in his net.

In short, a terrific read – and two more volumes of the series to go.

Available from Amazon

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