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Newton's Cannon by Gregory Keyes

Cover art by Terese Neilsen

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

A lot of writers wanting to have magic in a world that's a fictional analog of the present day have tossed off some explanation to the effect that Newton's investigations into alchemy and magic were successful. The presupposition is that magic would've developed along science and technology to create a world that is pretty much like our own except for the addition of magical abilities. For instance, in Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series, we have a recognizable contemporary world complete with the political structures and conflicts of the time in which the books were written, but with spells alongside and sometimes augmenting technology. Keyes takes that premise seriously and in developing it, demonstrates that such a discovery would have produced a world that would have rapidly diverged from our own and within a few decades would have changed beyond all recognition.

In our own timeline, Newton did turn his mind to the study of alchemy and magic after completing his famous investigations on physics, but reached only a dead end. In fact, his later mental instability is often ascribed to mercury poisoning as a result of the role of that highly toxic liquid metal in alchemical operations. In Keyes' alternate world, Newton discovers a substance called the "philosopher's mercury" and stands the world on its head. Within a few decades, applications of the properties of the mysterious substance have been made in all fields, producing analogs of twentieth-century technology in the dawn of the eighteenth century. Terrible weapons boil blood and turn castle walls into crystal in a renewed war between England and France, while devices known as aether-schreibers enable people to communicate instantly over vast distances.

And it has some even stranger applications, as we see when King Louis XIV, desperate not to leave wartime France in the hands of a regency for an infant king, decides to take a mysterious elixir of life that was given to him some time earlier by an equally mysterious Persian ambassador. Weary of life, the Sun King had hesitated to use it until the moment he was on the brink of death, but within moments after he ingests the mysterious substance, strength and health begin to return.

Five years later, things have not gone well. The war with England grinds steadily on, a quagmire from which France can neither wrest victory nor extract itself without unendurable humiliation. And on the personal front the Sun King has fared no better, losing one after another of the people most dear to him. At times Louis wonders whether the renewed life and health given him by the Persian elixir might be no blessing, but a curse. But all the time a strange voice within whispers reassurances that all is well.

When a strange little Swiss natural philosopher with a grudge against Newton offers to build him a weapon such as the world has never seen, one that will lay England low once and for all, the despairing king willingly gives him the resources he claims he needs. Maybe this man will prove to be a mountebank, but it's also possible that like that strange little Persian ambassador, he'll actually have something of worth, something that will benefit France so well that it will be profitable to indulge his hunger for vengeance.

And thus enters into the story Adrienne de Mornay de Monchevreuil, daughter of a noble but impoverished family. Formerly the secretary to the king's secret wife Maintennon, she is a quiet and modest young woman, but fiercely intelligent. In a society in which women are to be completely uninterested in such abstract and masculine matters as mathematics and physics, she has had to pursue her studies in secret once her interests took her beyond the arithmetic it is deemed appropriate to her gender. Thus she's quite happy to become secretary to the mysterious Fatio, although she knows she'll have to maintain the appearance that she finds all this higher math quite tedious.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, young Benjamin Franklin is finding his own situation equally frustrating in its own way. Four years ago he accidentally witnessed a natural philosopher reading a mysterious book in an unknown script, by the light of a flameless lantern. At once he knew he wanted to master those skills for himself, but he's also painfully aware that three years of schooling was all his father could afford for him. Always the compulsive autodidact, he's been reading every book on science and alchemy he can get his fingers on. trying to apply the principles he's read within them in experiment and invention. His latest project is something he calls a harmonicum, which enables him to freeze and boil water.

As Ben discusses the underlying principles of the device's operation with his young friend John Collins, we begin to get a sense that perhaps there is more to this alternate world than just alchemy and magic working alongside the familiar sciences that are the foundation of the technologies we know. Ben speaks of atoms and elements, but it soon becomes obvious that this is not the Mendeleevan Periodic Table of the Elements we learn in chemistry class -- which means that although the world of the novel looks superficially like our own, with familiar names and faces out of history, its processes operate on the basis of four elements not dissimilar to those of the ancient Greeks, mixed in various ways to create the matter one sees.

However, Ben is more focused on the immediate problems of applying what he's learned with the harmonicum to more useful matters. Freezing and boiling water by alchemical means is an interesting demonstration, but most people will probably find it more economical to boil it the usual way, by setting a pot over a fire, and how many people really need ice on demand? On the other hand, there might be other applications, for instance, with that aether-schreiber he induced his brother James, to whose printshop he's apprenticed, to acquire in order to publish a London newspaper on the same day in Boston. They've had some success, but it's only a matter of time before someone else figures out what the Franklins are doing and imitate their success, undercutting their business.

Worse, the aether-schreiber has a limitation -- it works only in pairs. At the heart of each device is a bit of special glass known as a chime, which is the separated twin of the on in the device to which it is mated (to make the two chimes, one cuts in half a single piece of this special Regulas glass). The Franklins' device is twin to one in London on which their agent copies out the articles of the newspaper they are printing. But if Ben could somehow devise an aether-schreiber that could be tuned to receive from any other aether-schreiber, they'd no longer be dependent upon that agent in London. Instead, they could pick up information from anybody transmitting on an aether-schreiber and turn it into articles for their newspaper, and scoop every other newspaper in Boston.

However, things don't go so well. While Ben's examining the chime, he over-tightens the cover and cracks the precious Regulas glass, rendering the device unable to fulfill its original purpose. Even as he's out walking around Boston, trying to figure out how to get himself out of this jam before James discovers the damage and vents his wrath on him, Ben's accosted by the mysterious Trevor Bracewell, who tells him to experiment no more. This man, whom Ben saw on that fateful day four years earlier, has a shadowy companion that Ben only barely glimpses, yet seems oddly full of malice.

But in that moment Ben realizes that what he most wants to do isn't to escape or to survive his brother's wrath, but to fix the broken aether-schreiber. And in that moment he sees the key to not only putting it back into operation, but turning it into a tunable device that he can use to receive from any other aaether-schreiber. After a visit to a glassblower to make the device he has imagined, he calls his friend John Collins over to witness his first trial of it. At first it seems to have failed, but as he adjusts the sliding cylinders, he captures reports of fighting in various places, then missives in foreign languages that may be German or Greek. And then he receives one that John describes as "love letters between mathematicians."

Both young men are fascinated with the abstract principles being discussed, and apply their own capable minds to the problems their elders have failed to solve. However, when Ben sends their solution out on the aether-schreiber, he is not yet ready to sign it with his own name. Instead, he decides to sign it with the Classical allusion "Janus," referring to the Roman god of doorways, of beginnings and endings.

Back in France, in the palace of Versailles, disaster strikes. Amidst a grand pageant Louis has staged in hopes of winning back the affections of his subjects, one of the alchemical lanterns explodes and showers fire upon the assembled courtiers. Suddenly the king is struck blind, and worse, his only heir is dead.

Although Adrienne was at this fete, she was far enough away from the center of the explosion to avoid the worst injuries. Thus while she's recovering, she has some leisure time to receive the missives of the mysterious Janus and to consider what they mean. Their entire system of communication was predicated on the idea that an aether-schreiber speaks only to its mate, so that no one else can intercept a message. Yet this Janus seems to be a genuine scholar, not a spy, and his excitement about his discoveries is untainted by any interest in personal gain beyond access to still more knowledge and the esteem of the communities of the mind. So she decides to write back to him, but to sign her missives with the name Minerva, the Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom.

Ben is excited to be taken seriously by this Minerva, but after several exchanges, he begins to feel something is amiss. For instance, why are all the missives coming across this aether-schreiber dated eleven days in the future? Slowly he realizes that he was foolish in assuming that just because the correspondence was always in English, the writers were themselves fellow subjects of King George I. Might they instead be from some other country, one that uses a different calendar? Maybe even France, which as a Catholic country uses that new Gregorian calendar rather than the Julian calendar Protestant England has stuck with?

A sick dread comes over Ben when he realizes that he may well have committed treason without even realizing it. The mathematical discussion may well have been no abstract exercise, but research to develop a weapon that will draw a stone from the heavens and draw it down upon a terrestrial target. Even as he's trying to figure out what to do, the mysterious Trevor Bracewell comes back to murder him and instead kills James. Realizing just how serious things have been, and that if he stays around trying to protect his friends and family he will only end up dead and of no use to anyone, Ben finds his way aboard a ship bound for London. There he intends to find Sir Isaac Newton and try to sort out just what he has contributed to, and whether disaster can be headed off at this late date.

Meanwhile, in Versailles King Louis is undergoing strange and sinister transformations. Although to all observers his eyes remain empty and unfocused, he clearly sees and recognizes people and things around him. Yet his moods grow strangely unstable, his appetites more fierce -- including his appetite for women, which now becomes fastened upon Adrienne. He will take her to wife and together they will beget an heir for France. He sets the wedding date for the very day Fatio tells him that Newton's Cannon will fire. Already it has selected a rock, what we would call an asteroid of the Main Belt, of about a mile in diameter and given it a sociability with London. Now gravity will do the rest, and even if someone were to discover what has happened, it is too late to stop the destruction of the enemy capital.

Anybody who's done any reading on asteroid impacts will immediately realize that King Louis and everyone around him have no idea what they've unleashed. It's several times smaller than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, to be certain, but it's still going to produce an energy release several orders of magnitude greater than the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever exploded in the Primary World. It won't just destroy London like a nuke's blast -- it will lay waste to all of Western Europe and disrupt the climate throughout the world, quite possibly a civilization-ending event if not an extinction-level event.

The rest of the novel is Ben's mad race to reach Newton and convince him that something very serious is afoot, even as Adrienne becomes increasingly entangled in court intrigue, until she is finally convinced that her sovereign is in fact under the control of a malign entity and it is imperative to break the connection with it in order to stop the madness, even if it means the death of the king.

Newton's Cannon is the first in a series, but the major plotlines of it are tied up rather than just stopping. However, the last two chapters set up the opening for the second volume, entitled A Calculus of Angels.

Review posted January 1, 2013.

Buy Newton's Cannon (The Age of Unreason, Book 1) from Amazon.com

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