BOOKS QUICKSILVER Volume One of The Baroque Cycle
INTERVIEW WITH NEAL STEPHENSON
Bestselling author Neal Stephenson’s latest book, Quicksilver, follows the fortunes of an unforgettable cast of vagabonds and geniuses in the 17th and 18th centuries. Quicksilver is a funny, smart, and engaging historical novel, part of the larger story of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.
Quicksilver includes some of the most important events and people during a crucial nexus between historical eras. What compelled you to write about this particular time period?
Around the time that I was closing in on the end of Cryptonomicon, I heard from a couple of different people about some interesting things having to do with Isaac Newton and with Gottfried Leibniz. One person pointed out to me that Newton had spent about the last 30 years of his life working at the mint, which was interesting to me. In Cryptonomicon there was a lot of stuff about money, so I had been thinking about money anyway.
The other related thing that I bumped into about the same time -- I was reading a book by George Dyson, called Darwin Among the Machines. He talked a little bit about the work of Leibniz with computers. He arguably was the founder of symbolic logic and he worked with computing machines. I found it striking at a time when I was already working on a book about money and a book about computers that there were these two people 300 years ago who were quite interested in the same topics. And not only that, but they had this big, famous rivalry that supposedly was about which of them had invented the calculus first, although it was really about a lot more than that.
I began to do a bit of reading about that era and immediately got excited about it because so many things were happening all at once during that time period. So, I decided that as soon as I got done with Cryptonomicon, I would turn all my efforts towards trying to write a historical piece set during that era.
So how does the high Baroque era relate to the Enlightenment, for those of us who are historically challenged?
I didn’t really have a good grip on this either, and still don’t, but it appears that the Enlightenment refers to a bunch of stuff that was triggered by a lot of thinkers who were active during the late 17th century. Work that was done by the Royal Society and other natural philosophers of the time, combined with other currents in politics and religion, led to this later thing called the Enlightenment, more of an 18th century phenomenon. It doesn’t really enter in to the book that I’m writing here.
The Enlightenment, though it sounds really good, is and should be a controversial event because although it led to the flourishing of the sciences and political liberties and a lot of good stuff like that, one can also argue that it played a role in the French Revolution and some of the negative events of the time as well.
In writing a historical novel, as opposed to a science fiction or general fiction novel, you included real-life characters. People like Leibniz, Newton, William of Orange, and Samuel Pepys all figure prominently in Quicksilver. In developing their in-book personalities, how did you decide what they were like? Did you use historical records?
I was fortunate, because this is a very well documented period of history, compared to some others, and it’s documented largely in English. So it was not one of these occasions where it was necessary to learn a new language or delve into obscure historical records. I did little to no genuine original research on this. I simply availed myself of what was already out there in bookstores and libraries all over the place. So, by reading what had been written about these people both at the time and in the 300 years since then, it wasn’t too hard to get a sense of what they were like and how they interacted with the other.
Obviously, the result here is my interpretation of these characters. It’s a work of fiction, which shouldn’t be confused with history. But I’ve tried to make the essence of these characters faithful to what appears in the historical records.
How about characters like Jack Shaftoe and Eliza? Were they based on anybody you came across in your reading?
They were entirely made up, but based on types that seem to have existed at that time. There was apparently a huge problem all over the place with what we would today call homeless people. They’re called Vagabonds in the book. Sometimes there were more of them, and sometimes there were fewer of them, depending on what was going on in the way of wars or economic upheavals. There were encampments of people like this all over Christendom, as far as I can tell, and sometimes they would get together and rove around in big groups scaring the hell out of the citizenry.
That’s a pretty well-attested type of person who existed back then, and Jack is my attempt to build the story of one such Vagabond. As for Eliza, she is someone who began life as a slave of the Barbary Corsairs, which may seem kind of outlandish to us now. But it is a fact that well into the 18th century the Barbary states in North Africa were routinely sending raiding parties up into Europe to snatch people off of beaches and take them back into slavery. Or they were overhauling ships on the high seas, seizing the cargo, and enslaving or taking hostage the people they found on those ships. So again, in the case of Eliza, I’m taking that whole class of people and trying to build the story of one individual.
Jack Shaftoe has an interesting disability, the nature of which makes him a perfect companion for Eliza, considering her personal history as a slave. These two have some of the most moving scenes in the book together. Are they your two favorite characters?
Well, without getting into details, the whole conceit of that relationship is that they have this bond — it’s a complementary relationship that works. Even when they disagree with each other, even when they hate each other for one reason or another, there’s this underlying bond between them that ties them together. I think that’s true of a lot of successful relationships.
I do like those two quite a bit, and that probably comes through in the book. There’s also a lot to be said for some of the other characters. I like Robert Hooke, who’s a real person. I like Daniel Waterhouse, who’s fictitious. And some of the people on Leibniz’s end of the story are also quite fascinating individuals. Sophie, the electress of Hanover, who was Leibniz’s patron, appears to have been a really fascinating and cool woman.
Just by naming so many characters, you’ve offered a clue about how vast this story is, and this is just the first third of the cycle. How did you organize your materials to work on this massive project?
For every book I have worked on, not only is the book different (obviously), with different characters, different story, but the system by which I write it is different, too. I always seem to have to invent a new system for writing each book. In this case I ran through a bunch of them, because I knew I had this big data management problem. So, I started with a bunch of notebooks, just composition books, in which I would write notes down in chronological order as I read a particular book, or what have you.
Those are always there, and I can go back to them and look stuff up even when it’s otherwise lost. Then, I’ve got timelines and timetables showing what happens when in the story. I’ve spent a while monkeying around with three ring binders, in which I glue pages here and there trying to figure out how to sequence things. It’s a big mess. It’s a big pile of stationery. Many trips to the office supply store, and many failed attempts. But in the end, as long as you can keep it in your head, that’s the easiest way to manage something like this. You can move things around inside your head more easily than you can shuffle papers or cross things out on a page and rewrite them.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t really do a lot of historical research for this book, but some of the places that you describe -- such as Amsterdam -- are so richly detailed in the book. Did you travel as part of your research?
I’m drawing a distinction here between what a real researcher would consider research and what a novelist calls research. So I did a lot of research in the sense of reading books and visiting some places. But none of it would be recognized by a Ph.D. history student as legitimate research.
I visited several locations and sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn’t. It’s a hit or miss proposition. To give you one example, the headquarters of the Royal Society eventually moved to a place called Crane Court, which is off of Fleet Street in London. In the final volume of the cycle, we see some action at Crane Court. So I went there when I was in London, and found the street, and walked to the end of it, which is where the headquarters were. It’s sealed off by this wall of blue glass -- it’s this modern office structure that they’ve just slammed down across the end of this street. Sometimes you get lucky, and you find a building that’s still standing there, and that looks the same as it did 300 years ago, and other times you find nothing at all.
Quicksilver contains some anachronisms, mostly of speech. Obviously, you’ve put them in there on purpose. How do you decide to use anachronism? And why?
A person writing a historical, swashbuckler, potboiler epic in 2003 can’t pretend that this is the first such book that’s ever been written. People have been writing such books for hundreds of years. The classic example would be the works of Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and so on. If you go back and look at those books, you can see that they are partly historically correct, or as close as one can come to that. But they are also partly a product of their times. When you read a Victorian swashbuckler novel set 200 years earlier, you can tell that it’s a Victorian novel. It’s got all this stuff in there that only Victorians would have put in. The literary style is Victorian, the diction is Victorian. And that’s true, mutatis mutandis, for any historical novel written in any period.
I never tried to entertain the illusion that I was going to write something that had no trace of the 20th century or the 21st century in it. It’s a given that a book is going to reflect the time in which it is written. I didn’t feel a strong compulsion to avoid such anachronisms, and if something came up that I thought might be funny, or that might work, I would just go ahead and slap it in there.
Some of the more colorful characters in your book are Hooke and the other members of the Royal Society who do things like vivisection that are quite disturbing. Was that what the real Royal Society was like at that time?
As far as I can tell, that’s what it was like. I mean, their records of vivisection experiments are very clear. There’s no getting around the fact that they did that kind of stuff, so in a sense the easy thing would be to just reproduce that in the story and show these guys as really cruel vivisectionists. But as usual, the reality is a little more complicated and a little different. If you read the records of the Royal Society and what they were doing in the 1660s, it’s clear that at a certain point, some of these people -- and I think Hooke was one of them -- became a little bit disgusted with themselves and began excusing themselves when one of these vivisections was going to happen.
I certainly don’t think they turned into hardcore animal rights campaigners, or anything close to that, but I think after a while, they got a little bit sick of it and started to feel conflicted about what they were doing. So I’ve tried to show that ambivalence and complication in the book.
These characters are also heavily involved in alchemy. Was that a primary activity for the Royal Society?
Yeah. It started to come out in the 20th century that Newton had devoted more of his time and energy to alchemy during his career than he had devoted to mathematical physics. That’s a fact that is obvious enough if you look at his papers -- he made no particular effort to conceal this. But it was sort of suppressed a little bit during the Enlightenment and Victorian era, when people didn’t know what to make of it. They wanted to view Newton as this paragon of the scientific method, and it was difficult to fit alchemy into that structure. The view of more modern scholarship is that alchemy was all over the place. Robert Boyle was heavily involved in it, John Locke was involved in it, Newton of course, and quite a few of these other people. They didn’t really observe a clean distinction between alchemy and what we now think of as the modern practice of science. I’ve tried to be as faithful as I can to the historical reality in the way that’s depicted in the book.
Language, and the uses of language, also figures prominently in Quicksilver. How does language work in the book to indicate social status, to keep secrets, to communicate more than what’s on the surface?
In this period, of course, England was not in the middle of things. It was this little rock up in a corner of the map. I’m exaggerating slightly, but it was certainly not the case that you could go to France or someplace in the Holy Roman Empire and encounter people who knew how to speak English. English was this minor language up in the corner of Europe, but it was a very vigorous language. I find admirable the way in which these people used the English language. For better or worse, it’s crept into the way I use the language now. I much prefer the way they used English in 1680 to the Victorian style of prose, which seems really stuffy and indirect to me.
One of the odd consequences of this is that the English people who started the Royal Society didn’t like Latin. They felt that the use of Latin in philosophical discourse was impeding progress. They wanted to get rid of it. But they couldn’t with a straight face suggest that everyone use English, because it was this unknown language.
So one of them -- John Wilkins, who later was the Bishop of Chester, and who more than anyone else was the founder of the Royal Society -- created this artificial language. He hoped it would become the standard way that philosophers, by which he meant scientists, would communicate with each other. It’s all set forth in a way that’s supposed to be logical and orderly. Of course it failed. Hooke and Christopher Wren used it a little bit, but they were just about the only ones. But the development of this language plays a role in Quicksilver.
Wilkins is another character that I personally feel a lot of affection for. One of the curious facts about Wilkins is that 20 years earlier, he had written a book on cryptography which David Kahn, the author of The Codebreakers, has described as the first book written on cryptology in the English language. When Wilkins was a younger man living in a war-torn England, he wrote a book about how to keep secrets in a bunch of different ways. how to send secret messages and hide information. But later in his life, when England had settled down a bit politically, he turned around and tried to achieve the opposite of that. To create a system of writing that would be sort of like an anti-code. It would be so clear and logical that you could understand what it was saying even if you weren’t fluent in that language.
Speaking of languages, one of the toughest languages in your books is that of the people of Qwghlm, where Eliza’s from. Is Qwghlm pronounceable?
I never say it out loud. It’s like one of those languages used in southern Africa that have sounds people can’t make unless they’ve grown up in that culture.
What’s the literary utility of using a made-up place like Qwghlm?
All I can say is that it does have utility. As soon as I came up with it, it immediately became incredibly useful. Not only in Cryptonomicon, but in the Baroque Cycle as well. It needed to be invented, and I sort of stumbled over it. It’s been very useful ever since.
Of course Q-W-G-H-L-M is just the transcription of the word from their writing, which is a system of simple runes optimized for people who suffer from a lot of frostbite.
Clearly Qwghlm is a northern European country. When you imagine what this place is like, what landscapes do you see?
Towering spires of rock, some of which are underwater. It’s surrounded by hazards to navigation that ships are forever running aground on. Some mudflats along the beaches. Lots of ice, and lots of guano deposited by seagulls.
They claim that it was formerly richly forested, but all the trees had been chopped down by Englishmen. That is true of several parts of the British Isles, so that’s not even particularly fictitious.
What are some of the other links between Quicksilver and Cryptonomicon?
The links are somewhat loose, so this is not one of these situations where you’ve got to read one of the books to make sense of the others. There’s a gap of about 300 years between the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, and if you’ve read Cryptonomicon, you’ll recognize some family names that are in common. You can infer that some of the families in the Baroque Cycle have descendents who show up later in Cryptonomicon. It’s largely a family saga kind of connection. And then there’s a character, Enoch Root, who possesses unnatural longevity and shows up in person in both of the books.
So it is the same Enoch Root in both of the books?
How does Quicksilver fit with the rest of the Baroque Cycle? Is it exactly one-third of it?
Yes, it’s about a third of the story. Quicksilver is divided internally into three separate books, and each of those books is short-to-medium novel length. So about a third of the way through the volume, everything sort of stops and you begin a new story with some new characters, and as you go on, it becomes clear that these characters are related to the events and characters in the other books.
In the second volume, which is called The Confusion, there are two separate books that are intertwined quite a bit. And in the third volume, which is going to be called The System of the World, there are going to be either two or three books, subdivided in the same way as in Quicksilver. The story will be fairly evenly divided among the three volumes.
You’ve shown us in both Cryptonomicon and in Quicksilver, that you’re not afraid to have fairly abrupt and dramatic things happen to characters, up to and including death. Should we avoid getting attached to our favorite characters?
(laughs) By all means, get attached. Get totally attached. Yeah, I’m all in favor of getting attached. Even if it ends in tears, it’s still a good thing.
You know that Daniel’s still around in 1713, because there’s a flash-forward in Quicksilver, where we see him as an old man in Boston in 1713. But Jack ends volume one in a pretty awkward situation, so ...
When can we hope to see the next volumes in the Baroque Cycle?
They’re coming out at six-month intervals, so April 2004 for The Confusion, and then October 2004 for The System of the World.