Quick as silver

After being diverted by Peter F Hamilton’s great block of a book, Pandora’s Star – an excellent read as ever; a real slow powder-burn building to a really nail-biting and (almost literal) cliff-hanger – I returned this week to the literary delights of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. Yes, two 900-page tomes back-to-back, I am a literary masochist, but they are both bloody brilliant books. And The Confusion, the sequel to Quicksilver is next on my list – I’ll get my vamp fangs into that on my week off (with the second Sookie Stackhouse Vampire Mystery, the Living Dead in Dallas, for a little fun Gothic diversion on the side).

For anyone who doesn’t know about it, Quicksilver is set mostly during the Restoration period. Stewart politics, revolution in society, religion and the birth of Western science. Isaac Newton, Charles II, William of Orange, Robert Hooke. Escaped Turkish harem slaves who carve out lives as Mata-Hari spies between protestant and Catholic powers while dabbling in Amsterdam stock markets and befriending Huygens and von Liebniz and a picaroon (ain’t that a marvellous word?), king of the vagabonds involved in all sorts of scrapes. Natural philosophers and power politics. Hell, there are even Barbary Coast pirates thrown in for good measure! Add to this All of this told in luscious details with wonderfully fluid prose which manages the astonishing trick of giving often enormous amounts of rich detail to create a vibrant world which you are IN while not compromising the narrative. There are even sections performed as plays of the period and Stephenson’s disclaimer at the end that any readers who posses a time machine and travel back to the period should not totally rely on the information contained in the novel is delicious (there is a fine vein of humour running through the entire massive edifice – a construct Wren would be proud of – of the book).

Then this afternoon I was working on the upper floor of the bookstore. A customer asked me if I could recommend a good science-history, preferably in HB for a birthday present for her friend, who is eccentric, intelligent and quirky. Hmmm – well, what about this nice hardback biography of Robert Hooke? Perfect. Two hours later an elderly gentleman asks if we have any books on someone I may not have heard of – Robert Hooke? I present him with two books to choose from and discuss Stewart period science with him. Reading – truly the key to knowledge! And all knowledge is useful, as these small examples illustrate to any silly enough to doubt it.

But it wasn’t over yet – in another little coincidence I was watching the always enjoyable and ebullient Adam Hart-Davis on a documentary channel. It was an episode of What the Stuarts Did For Us (bah humbug, that Anglicised spelling of Stewart – pah!) and what did we have tonight? Well, Robert Hooke and his magnifying lenses, using the first microscopes to examine a whole new world no human eyes had ever seen… I love it went life throws up lots of little coincidences like these. The latter half of the show described how the early telescopes allowed the Stuart scientists to see that the moon was not a smooth globe but a world itself. And if it was another world, could they not voyage to it?

Knowing their elementary science was not up to such a fantastic voyage they did something we’ve been doing for centuries now – they explored it in their imagination, with some of the earliest science fiction. My beloved Cyrano de Bergerac travelled through the ether of course, but so did many others of the period. Even the great Johannes Keppler, the apostle of the legendary astronomer Tycho Brahe used his mind not only to calculate that the orbits of the planets were elliptical and not circular (and like his near-contemporary Newton his laws still stand up pretty well centuries later even under the scrutiny of space-age technological probing) but also to voyage to the moon, long before dear old Jules Verne fired his cannon at the glowing face of Diana.