The World Outside the Web

Neal Stephenson’s new book upends geek chic.

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash set the tone for the Internet decade. Its irony-enhanced lead character, Hiro Protagonist, alternated between delivering pizza at full throttle through a lethal, sprawl-congested America, and jacking into an equally deadly virtual reality to fight villains and viruses. Sure, eight years earlier William Gibson had launched the geek-samurai genre with his landmark Neuromancer. But unlike depressing, dystopian Gibson, Stephenson turned cyberspace into a joy ride, just months before the World Wide Web took off. He made cyberspace seem like fun. Looking back on those days brings misty-eyed memories: If only the Internet had turned out as cool as Stephenson, and by extension his readers, imagined it.

Stephenson’s new book, Quicksilver, is a massive work of historical fiction strong enough to slam the lid shut on the coffin of Internet triumphalism, and hefty enough (at nearly 1,000 pages in hardcover) to hold it down for good. Quicksilver is but the first of a three-book series dubbed the Baroque Cycle due to be published at 6-month intervals over the coming year. Based around the life of Isaac Newton, the series isn’t just Stephenson’s withdrawal from cyberpunk; it’s his proof by exhaustion of information technology’s puny place in the universe. It’ll have to compete with The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach for oversize shelf space in young scientists’ libraries, but the Baroque Cycle has the potential to be the next literary Nerdapalooza. At a time when bright young geeks are no longer sent forth to get rich quick off the Net, Quicksilver infuses old-school science and engineering with a badly needed dose of swashbuckling adventure, complete with a professor-versus-the-pirates battle at sea. Who knew the Natural Philosophers were so cool?

Part of the book’s buzz comes from HarperCollins’ clever marketing, which included a cryptographic puzzle, plus a well-timed review on Slashdot that boosted Quicksilver onto Amazon’s Top 10 list just in time for its release today. But the real enthusiasm for the book is based on Stephenson’s reputation as not just a clever writer, but a timely one. Snow Crash raised the curtain on the cyberspace decade, while 1999’s Cryptonomicon intertwined the tale of an Internet startup with a Greatest Generation flashback, as if the author had foreseen both the Nasdaq bubble and Saving Private Ryan.

Quicksilver leaves the present altogether and returns to the time of alchemists and microscope-makers—the forerunners of the biotech and nanotech researchers who are today’s IT Geeks. The book makes inspiring, if fallible, heroes out of a group of 17th-century mathematicians and scientists who left the Google guys a tough act to follow. Newton established the basics of calculus, invented the reflecting telescope, and began his study of gravity prior to his 25th birthday. Well into his 50s, he undertook a 30-year stint overseeing the British Royal Mint. Yet he was just one member of the Royal Society, a group of gentleman knowledge-seekers sponsored in part by King Charles II.

Stephenson’s unspoken premise is that 1990s California had nothing on 1660s Europe. “Something happened where a bunch of these people found each other, and they just seemed to do everything within 20 or 30 years,” he told Wired recently. “If you have a scientific or hackerish personality, I can’t imagine anything better than being there for one of those Royal Society meetings.” Even their failures were precocious: Bloggers who think XML is a new idea should look into Society founder John Wilkins’$2 600-page Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, published in 1668.

The book’s heft comes not from the plot, but from Stephenson’s endless asides and forays into 17th-century math, science, and society, plus the evolution of standardized currency and the stock market. It’ll bludgeon some readers into unconsciousness by page 30, but awaken the hunger for detail in others. At first it feels like Stephenson is flaunting how much time he spent at the library, but the lure of the next wisecracking history lesson becomes the most compelling reason to keep going after page 335, when he abruptly drops the Royal Society and begins a new story line, with an entirely different cast in another part of the world.

That’s where most readers will hit the wall. Having made it through what is essentially a full-sized novel, it takes more than a deep breath to dive back in for Quicksilver’s two remaining 300-page sections. Will readers hang in there, and then return for two more 1,000-page tomes next year (The Confusion and The System of the World) to learn how it all fits together? More likely, the Baroque Cycle will join Gödel, Escher, Bach—which prompted several college friends to name their computers “Escher” and then get sucked into programming instead of finishing the book—in inspiring a generation of propellerheads who will often quote it but never finish it. It’s impossible to say what fields of study they’ll apply themselves to, but Stephenson’s core message is what matters in these post-bubble days: You haven’t missed your chance. Budding geniuses who can no longer feign interest in what happens to Neo and Trinity will gladly immerse themselves in Quicksilver’s mercurial amalgam of science, fiction, and history, at least for the first installment. But jeez, Neal, 3,000 pages? Newton invented calculus in less time than it’ll take to read about it.