I’m off and running with my summer reading project, Baroque Summer, during which I hope to finish all three of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle volumes, Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World.
Quicksilver is conveniently split into three books, so I’ll read and recap them one at a time. Book One is, confusingly or conveniently, “Quicksilver.”
We open on mysterious stranger Enoch Root in 1713 Massachusetts, who seeks out Daniel Waterhouse, a ridiculed figure he finds at the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technology, situated between Charlestown and Newtowne. Initial chapters alternate been Root meeting with Daniel and Root’s past, in which he met a young Isaac Newton. When Root gives Waterhouse a royal summons, though, Waterhouse is persuaded to return to England, and boards the Minerva, whose captain is named van Hoek.
From thence, chapters alternate between the Minerva and Daniel’s past in mid to late 1600’s England. This includes the plague, further religious strife, and burgeoning scientific investigation by those why styled themselves alchemists, and those, like Daniel, who call themselves Natural Philosophers. Daniel was the son of a vocal dissident Puritan. Many around him assume, incorrectly, that he espouses his father’s belief in predestination. From his youth, Daniel encounters many famous historical figures, such as Newton, Leibniz, and Hooke. With them, he participates in numerous experiments. He also struggles to figure out the tangled web of politics and their relation to religion. When his father figure and mentor, Wilkins, dies, Daniel is adrift and worried. He’s not much helped when his former schoolmate Roger Comstock (of the “Golden Comstocks”) offers himself as a patron. As “Quicksilver” comes to a close, Daniel realizes his path will not be simple:
His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might once have harbored about being a man of God had died with [his father], and been cremated by [his mistress]. He very much phant’sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. (330-1)
As you can see, Stephenson employs the archaic “phant-sy” a contraction of phantasy, just as “fancy” is contracted from “fantasy”. The “ph” spelling emphasizes the connection to the Phanatiques, another term for religious dissidents such as the Puritans and the Barkers.
At another point, Daniel comes across a hairpin in the shape of a caduceus, the symbol of the Roman god Mercury, which is also another name for Quicksilver. The caduceus, a rod with two snakes, has been misappropriated by the US medical establishment and correctly should be a rod with one snake, or a Rod of Asclepius, who was a healer.
If this kind of obsessive nerdishness is appealing to you, then you’ll likely enjoy Stephenson’s speculative take on the 17th century.
Is anyone reading along with me? If not, I’m going to take these books in chunks at my own pace. Next up: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, a blast from my past followed by Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for July’s meeting of Books and Bars. Then I’ll be back for book 2 of Quicksilver, “King of the Vagabonds”.