When I posted my discussion of Cryptonomicon, the comment I got from Ken was, “I can’t tell if you said too much or not enough.” Which was funny, because that was my feeling about the thing, too. I really struggled with how much I should discuss in that piece, and the problem is going to stick with me all the way through the Mt. Stephenson expedition. These books contain so many ideas and interwoven plot lines that there’s just no way to discuss them thoroughly, nor any way to convey their flavor without including a few spoilers. The best I can do is talk about my view of the books, and hope that you’ll explore them for yourself if what I write sparks your interest.
Despite my fondness for these books, I rarely recommend them to anyone else, because they’re dense and little fun for anyone not interested in the themes they explore. Sometimes, they’re not even fun for readers who are interested: our expedition lost a member this month, partly because the book just wasn’t keeping him engaged. It’s unfortunate, because Corvus was the one who inspired us to meet old-fashioned book-club style, which was good nostalgic fun while it lasted. But, since that leaves just me climbing the mountain (Ken has already summited), I can be flexible with my timeline. I’m now planning to take a break between the second and third books, so I can fully participate in this year’s Readers Imbibing Peril. I’m excited to have the full two months free to devote to my very favorite challenge.
I think the thing to do is to discuss each of the component novels that make up Quicksilver in turn. And if I didn’t make it clear enough in the opening paragraph: Here Be Spoilers. (Maybe. Probably just little ones, though.)
In the first novel, also called “Quicksilver”, we meet Daniel Waterhouse, eminent scholar of the Royal Society and founder of the American branch of the Waterhouse family tree, which in the time of Cryptonomicon blossoms with Lawrence and Randy Waterhouse. Daniel is summoned back to England after 25 years of happy, self-imposed colonial exile by Caroline, Princess of Wales, soon to be Queen of England. She needs Daniel to resolve a vicious dispute between two of her pet natural philosophers, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. They’ve been feuding for years over their rival systems of calculus, and the future queen wants the matter settled, so her court may be peacefully graced by both eminences grises.
As Daniel’s ship sails for England (after battling its way past Blackbeard’s fleet in Boston Harbor–yay, pirates!), he reminisces over his youthful association with Isaac Newton and his own path to becoming a natural philosopher. The son of an infamous Dissident preacher, Daniel’s childhood was steeped in religion and politics; as a child, he witnessed the execution of Charles I and as a young man, his own father’s death literally at the hands of the restored monarchy. Little wonder he sought refuge in the fledgling discipline of science! Daniel’s reverie covers the plague years, the Great Fire, the founding of the Royal Society, the reigns of several Kings and one Lord Protector; there are Stygian dealings and moments of sublimity. Daniel’s time is heavily pregnant with our own modern world, science and commerce wrestling in the womb for right of precedence.
In Book 2, “The King of the Vagabonds”, we meet Bob and Jack Shaftoe, vagrant children in London (interesting that this family of mudlarks will become salvage operators and treasure hunters in a few centuries.) Forced to live by their prodigious wits, the brothers manage to rise above their origins–Bob as a soldier and Jack as a trickster/con man/thief/charmer/wanderer–in short, a vagabond. Nay, the very king of all vagabonds: driven by an impulse to naughtiness he calls the “Imp of the Perverse”, Jack commits such entertaining outrages that he becomes a folk hero known as L’Emmerdeur (something like the Scarlet Pimpernel crossed with Zorro, but in it more for his own profit and amusement than for the succor of the downtrodden.) Gleefully looting an Ottoman camp after the 1683 siege of Vienna, Jack frees a beautiful English(-ish) woman who had been enslaved in a harem: this is Eliza, and she has brains to match her beauty, as Jack swiftly learns. Eliza is actually from Qwlghm, an island off the coast of Scotland, which features in Cryptonomicon as an Allied outpost and the homeland of Mary Waterhouse, née cCmndhd, Lawrence’s wife. (SPOILER: though you might suspect so, the cCmndhd clan are not descended from Eliza, though we may consider them her spiritual heirs. But she is also represented in Cryptonomicon by a blood relative, although who that is will not become clear until a later book.)
Jack and Eliza agree to make their way in the world together. The deal works out rather better for Eliza, as by the end of the novel, she is wealthy and well-connected, a successful stockbroker, a countess in France and a secret duchess in the Netherlands, thanks to her role as a spy in both courts. William of Orange is about to make his move on the English throne, and if it succeeds, Eliza will come into her Anglo-Dutch title. Even when caught in the machinations of kings, Eliza is working the system for her own ends. She’s committed to ending slavery (in general) and the life of the man who enslaved her (in particular). A misguided business venture puts Jack afoul of Eliza’s quest, and their partnership is broken–which is really bad for Jack, as he himself will soon be enslaved by Barbary pirates.
The two story lines are brought together in Book 3, “Odalisque”, as Daniel Waterhouse makes the acquaintance of Eliza in Amsterdam. He is smitten, and she has uses for his connections in the Royal Society. Much of this novel is told in epistolary form, as we read Eliza’s letters to various people–and the coded messages embedded in them. Eliza uses a cipher she knows the Dutch have broken to correspond with her French spymaster–serving to keep William of Orange informed, per her double-agent status, and the French dis-informed. She uses a much better code to send real news to her friend, Gottfried Leibniz, and a curious system of needlework to keep an encrypted journal. Unfortunately for Eliza, there is one man gifted enough to break even her crewel-work code, and he just happens to be King Louis’ court cryptographer, Bonaventure Rossignol. He’s about to complicate Eliza’s life even more thoroughly than the warring kings have.
The book ends on a shriek for both our heroes: Eliza is kidnapped by enemies while in the throes of labor with a mysterious and potentially miraculous child; as Daniel prepares to sail for America, his friends throw him the worst going-away party imaginable.
The thread running through all these books is money: the creation, pursuit, movement, and uses thereof. Spanish pieces-of-eight are the currency of all the world, except in a few odd pockets–England, for example, makes do with its debased, clipped coinage. A market town in Lyon has a strange, ledger-based system in which no-one ever receives actual cash; it’s essentially a barter economy with a theoretical overlay of money. The tides and currents of cash flow are a problem which will increasingly attract the attention of the great minds of the age.
Now, on to the rollicking pirate adventures and devious court intrigues of Camp Confusion!