A 'Quicksilver' Mind

Science fiction, says Neal Stephenson, is "fiction in which ideas play an important part." Ideas certainly abound in his 927-page "Quicksilver," the first of the three-volume "Baroque Cycle," set entirely between the years 1656 and 1714. At the center of this sprawling, irreverent and ultimately profound narrative is the concept of a world being irrevocably transformed by science. Key among its dramatis personae are the real-life figures of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who interact with Stephenson's typically quirky and resourceful fictional characters. The Seattle-based author spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy.

LEVY: The "Baroque Cycle" is nearly 3,000 pages of historical fiction, brimming with new ideas. Who's going to read all this?

STEPHENSON: It's a big planet. Even if the vast majority have short attention spans and won't like this book, there are lots and lots who are more than happy to read big, long epics that they can lose themselves in. The publishing industry knows who those people are, and it's pretty good at reaching them. [Note to "Guinness Book of World Records": this is the first time in history an author has expressed this sentiment.]

You seem to regard some of your characters as the 17th-century equivalent of hackers. Instead of the computer, they had the scientific method.

They were applying the hands-on imperative to the entire world. Everything they could get their hands on--animals and chemicals and whatever--they would grab and mess around with. You could see these guys relentlessly progressing from one experiment, trying to figure out how the heart works, or where bugs come from and all these other basic questions.

Is any contemporary figure changing the world the way Newton did?

No, it's different now, because those guys were at a time when science as we know it didn't exist. There were a bunch of poorly understood things that could be figured out with some pretty straightforward experiments: take two pieces of meat, leave one out in the open and put the other in a jar--the one in the open develops maggots, and the one that's kept in the jar doesn't. That proves that the maggots weren't spontaneously generated from the meat. That's a pretty simple experiment, but it yields this stupendously important piece of information about how the world works. The conditions back then were just right for these people to suddenly change the way everybody thought in one generation.

Does the fact that you're writing thousands of pages about the past mean that you're less interested in looking at future scenarios as you did in your breakthrough novel, "Snow Crash"?

I have to admit that on September 11, I felt like laying down the futurist mantle for a few years. Something about that kind of event makes you feel really irrelevant and incompetent as someone who's supposed to be foreseeing the future. There are many things that we see around us all the time that prove that truth is stranger than fiction, but that was especially dramatic proof.