Java News from Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I finally finished Neal Stephenson's QuickSilver yesterday. I was surprised it took me so long since I finished the equally voluminous Cryptonomicon in about a week. It didn't help that the book is way too large to carry on the subway, or stick in my pocket when I go to Popeye's for lunch. More importantly, though, in 900+ pages of QuickSilver, not a whole hell of a lot happens. It's certainly not the page turner Cryptonomicon was. Yes, Newton invents calculus, governments rise, governments fall, a few small wars take place mostly off camera, and the beginnings of the modern stock markets get going in Amsterdam and London. But this is all historical. As far as the main characters, they mostly spend their time trying to survive without any particular goal or purpose. The one notable exception is the middle third of the book, the rather picaresque adventures of one Jack Shaftoe. However, the first third of the book is devoted to setting the stage for the rest of the book. The last third mostly deals with court intrigues and economics, aside from one amusing chapter about sand sailing. The middle third also spends a considerable amount of effort on economics. This may be of interest to anyone who didn't take introductory economics in college, but for a typical, educated 21st century reader, the effects of a dual gold and silver based currency, short selling, and market manipulation are hardly as astonishing revelations as they are to Jack and Eliza. Overall, it's a good book and worth reading (especially if you don't know much about the history of Western Europe in the late 1600s), but it's not up to the high standards set by Cryptonomicon.

It's no secret at this point that Enoch Root is indeed extraordinarily long lived. He shows up at several times and locations throughout the book. Beyond that little new is learned of him. He does seem to have an interest in alchemy, at least in its more chemical, less mystical form. At one point late in the novel he does provide some medicine for one character, but it's not the magic cure-all he's toting around in Cryptonomicon, just a mild anaesthetic. Whatever's in the cigar box, he doesn't appear to have it in the 17th century. He doesn't seem to show any knowledge of the future, or of science beyond what the learned of his day could reasonably know, so it feels much more likely that he's merely long lived rather than a time traveller. He also doesn't appear to be a priest yet. Root is actually quite a minor character in this book, just occasionally popping in for a couple of pages or less to nudge other characters in the right direction

There are a few hints about the Societas Eruditorum. It's possible this was founded in the 17th century by Gottfried Leibniz as a German or Continental response to London's Royal Society. However, these are just offhand remarks. The Societas Eruditorum plays no major role in this book. Leibniz, however, does, as do many other historical figures including Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Louis XIV, Edward Teach, Benjamin Franklin, John Wilkins, Bonaventure Rossignol, Robert Hooke, and many others. Stephenson's set up a Wiki to try and keep all the characters and events straight. It's especially useful for figuring out who's really historical and who's a Stephenson invention.

If anything more is to be revealed (and at this point, I kind of doubt it), perhaps it will happen in the next two volumes of the Baroque Cycle. The Confusion is due out on April 13, 2004, and the System of the World on September 21, 2004. But I think it's more likely that if we ever learn what's in the cigar box, it will have to take place in a future book that follows Cryptonomicon. Stephenson originally intended to set that story in three time frames (present, future, and past) rather than two (past, and present) but decided the future deserved a book of its own. If he ever writes it, then maybe we'll finally find out who or what Enoch Root is.