Newton's Cannon

Reviewer: Brian Sniffen

Author: J Gregory Keyes

Published: 1999

Reviewed: 2006-02-17

Publisher: Del Rey

This is the first book of J. Gregory Keyes "Age of Unreason" series.
I expect it to be a trilogy, but we'll see whether he catches
Jordanitis. The setting and superficial feel are similar to
Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle": 1720s Boston, London, and Paris. Keyes'
approach is much more gentle than Stephenson's, and nobody will be
making jokes about confusion or world-spanning plots here. It's more
like the Stephenson of "Zodiac" writing this than the Stephenson of
"System of the World."

A young Benjamin Franklin is a major character, and is presented in a
way that this Franklinophile finds plausible: a canny, clever sapling
that might grow into the razor-minded statesman of the Republic. He
never gets the chance. Keyes' world breaks from ours very clearly, in
a manner reminiscent of Garfinkle's "Celestial Matters." Newtonian
Alchemy is true and accurate---and often reduced to practice, as the
eternal lightbulbs illuminating Boston Common attest. LaPlacian
Monads are real and often malevolent.

Given the greater power at their disposal, the students of Newton's
historic quarrels sow far greater destruction. By the end of the
first book, the geography of the world has permanently diverged from
ours, and it appears the surface plot will involve correcting those
errors and more firmly yoking the new Science to Man's will. A deeper
message discusses the tradeoffs between utility and morality, and
compares this daemonic, willful science to the horrors wrought by the
dumb tools in our hands.

This moral never surfaces for too long, and the alternating
protagonist characters are all so enjoyable that I wouldn't mind if it
did. Much as in Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire," I've often given in
to the temptation to skip to the next chapter following this
protagonist. It doesn't hurt the story flow to do so, and the others
are waiting when I turn back.