October 2, 2003

Nothing's so frustrating as a good book that's also short...fortunately that's not a problem here

I'm a hundred pages into Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. As you probably know, it's a historical novel which explores the early days of what we now call "science," with fictional characters interacting with actual people. (Dating, as far as I've read, from the 1660's to 1713.) So far it's a great read, and I recommend it. (Assuming, that is, that you like history. I noticed some dorf gave it a terrible review on Amazon, because of all the boring historical stuff!! Today's tip: There's a certain sort of Amazon review that starts: I just don't understand why everybody likes this book. I don't get it... If you feel that way, keep quiet.)

...There was no other furniture in the room, although the eight-foot-high grandfather clock in the adjoining hall contributed a sort of immediate presence with the heaving to and fro of its cannonball-sized pendulum, which made the entire house lean from one side to the other like a drunk out for a brisk walk, and the palpable grinding of its gear-train, and the wild clamorous bonging that exploded from it at intervals that seemed suspiciously random, and that caused flocks of migrating waterfowl, thousands of feet overhead, to collide with each other in panic and veer into new courses. The fur of dust beginning to overhang its Gothick battlements; its internal supply of mouse-turds; the Roman numerals carven into the back by its maker and its complete inability to tell time, all marked it as pre-Huygens technology. Its bonging would have tried Daniel's patience even if it had occurred precisely on the hour, half-hour, quarter-hour, et cetera, for it never failed to make him jump out of of his skin. That it conveyed no information whatever as to what the time actually was, drove Daniel into such transports of annoyance that he had begun to entertain a phant'sy of standing at the intersection of two corridors and handing Drake, every time he passed by, a libel denouncing the ancient Clock, and demanding its wayward pendulum be stilled, and that it be replaced with a new Huygens model. But Drake had already told him to shut up about clock, and so there was nothing he could do...
You can see that Stephenson is not taking himself too seriously here. So I can enjoy the story and not mind a few liberties taken with history, things that would usually drive me into "transports of annoyance." And not mind of course, that, as a historical novelist, he's cheating... that his fictional characters are able to concentrate on getting to know people who will be in the history books three-hundred years later, and not waste any time befriending future nobodies. Enoch Root pals around with Huygens and Leibniz, and is able to discern the genius of Isaac Newton when he is a mere schoolboy glimpsed in the street; and Daniel Waterhouse shares a room with Newton at Trinity, and witnesses the invention of the Calculus.

But it's all done with lots of verve and humor and insight, and I'm enjoying it immensely.

* WORD NOTE: There is nothing so frustrating as having a concept without a good name to use when speaking of it. The characters in this book experience that frustration as they grasp the possibilities of what we now call "science" but have no better term for it than "natural philosophy." It's a testimony to the prodigious influence of Isaac Newton that a common name for "science" in the 18th Century was the Newtonian Philosophy.

Posted by John Weidner at October 2, 2003 7:22 PM
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