Cover by Terese Neilsen
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The year 1998 certainly looks like it will be the "Year of the Comet." Although lacking such brilliant visitors as Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp, this year has seen an influx of novels and films about cometary collisions, from "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" to Michael Flynn's Rogue Star and Jack McDevitt's Moonfall. These are now joined by what is, perhaps, one of the stranger alternate histories to come along in recent years, J. Gregory Keyes's Newton's Cannon.
The point of divergence occurs in the seventeenth century when Isaac Newton discovers the rules of alchemy rather than physics. From that point, "science" advances at a different pace and direction than in our own world. Keyes's story really begins in 1720 with a fourteen year old Benjamin Franklin in Boston and Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil at the court of a rejuvenated Louis XIV.
In Boston, Franklin's attempts to improve an aetherschreiber (a sort of limited FAX machine) for his brother's printshop results in his connecting with the scientific project Adrienne is working on. Franklin's work provides an important clue to Adrienne's project and sets the novel's events in motion.
Keyes does a good job of creating interesting and likable characters. Even his villains seem to be more misguided than evil. However, he does fall down in some spots. Although his characterizations are strong, their relationships, even love and hate, do not seem to have particular depth. Benjamin Franklin, who even discusses his out-of-sight/out-of-mind problem with relationships, also does not come across as the fourteen year old Keyes says he is. Increasing Franklin's age by even as few as three or four years would have made him more believable, not merely in his accomplishments, but in his attitudes and actions.
Keyes does some interesting things with the structure of the novel. Chapters alternate between Adrienne and Franklin however the events in alternating chapters do not necessarily seem to be simultaneous. In most cases, this doesn't cause a huge problem, however many of Keyes's chapters end in cliffhangers and are resolved at the beginning of the next chapter to discuss those characters. When a non-synchronous chapter appears between those chapters, it is a little disjointed.
The details of Newton's science of alchemy are well thought out and its laws appear to be as rigorous as any physical laws. Different philosophical camps exist in the world regarding how or why these physical laws work. Newton favors the idea that he and his peers are regaining the knowledge lost by the ancients, giving alchemical reality to the miracle of the Bible and hinting at the complete reinterpretation of the historical record. In many ways, this aspect of Keyes's novel is reminiscent of Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters which postulated Greek science as a reality.
Newton's Cannon is a pleasant surprise. The book is paced well and there is a feeling of suspence until the end. Billed as the first book of the "Age of Unreason" series, Newton's Cannon quite definitely stands on its own.
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