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Newton's Cannon by Gregory Keyes
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Newton's Cannon by Gregory Keyes is a fascinating new book with alternate history elements, although it is being marketed primarily as fantasy. A lot of writers wanting to have magic in an analog of the present day have tossed off some explanation to the effect that Newton's investigations into alchemy and magic were successful. Keyes takes that premise seriously and in developing it, demonstrates that such a discovery would have produced a world not even remotely resembling our own.
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 Keyes' alternate world, Newton discovers a substance called the "philosopher's mercury" and stands the world on its head. Within a few decades, applications 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.
However the aether-schreiber has a limitation -- it works only in pairs. At the heart of each device is a bit of glass known as a chime, which is the separated twin of the device to which it is mated (to make the two chimes, one cuts in half a single piece of this special glass). Because of this, a group of scientists working on a secret super-weapon for King Louis XIV rely upon them for secure communications with colleagues working in various countries.(One major plotline deals with a brilliant young woman who is denied the ability to fully use her mathematical ability simply because she is a woman, and how she becomes involved with intrigues around Louis XIV in her endless quest for intellectual sustenance).
However a young Boston printer's apprentice named Benjamin Franklin, as a part of a money-making scheme for his brother, seeks a way to create a tunable aether-schreiber. In the course of his experiments he attracts the wrath of the mysterious Trevor Bracewell, who tells him to experiment no more. Yet Ben's insatiable curiosity drives him to discover the secret of tuning an aether-schreiber, and in doing so he stumbles upon some curious mathematical correspondence. He offers some solutions to the correspondents' problems, and only afterward does he realize that he should not have assumed that the writers were English simply because they wrote in that language. When Bracewell returns to murder him and instead murders his brother, Ben realizes that he may well have inadvertantly aided the enemies of England. He then flees Boston and heads for London, where he seeks out Newton and his following in a desperate effort to discover the true secret of "Newton's Cannon" before it is too late.
Newton's Cannon is the first in a series, but the major plotlines of it are tied up rather than just ending. However, the last two chapters set up the opening for the second volume, entitled A Calculus of Angels.
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If you enjoyed Newton's Cannon, you may also find The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre of interest
Review posted December 1, 1998
Updated July 20, 1999
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