Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, #1)

ISBN: 0060593083
ISBN 13: 9780060593087
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

Quicksilver is the story of Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and conflicted Puritan, pursuing knowledge in the company of the greatest minds of Baroque-era Europe, in a chaotic world where reason wars with the bloody ambitions of the mighty , and where catastrophe, natural or otherwise, can alter the political landscape overnight.It is a chronicle of the breathtaking exploits of "Half-Cocked Jack" Shaftoe--London street urchin turned swashbuckling adventurer and legendary King of the Vagabonds--risking life and limb for fortune and love while slowly maddening from the pox.And it is the tale of Eliza, rescued by Jack from a Turkish harem to become spy, confidante, and pawn of royals in order to reinvent Europe through the newborn power of finance.A gloriously rich, entertaining, and endlessly inventive novel that brings a remarkable age and its momentous events to vivid life, Quicksilver is an extraordinary achievement from one of the most original and important literary talents of our time.This P.S. edition includes 16 pages of supplementary materials.Cover design by Richard L. AquanCover illustration from the Mary Evans Picture Library; painting of Great Fire of London on stepback

Reader's Thoughts

mark monday

it took me about a year to get through this one. somewhat worth it, and i will get around to the second and third books of this gargantuan trilogy eventually. i learned a lot about the philosopher-scientists and byzantine politics and what it actually was like to live in the tumultuous times depicted...and didn't learn a whole lot about the inner life of a couple of the central characters. but there are dozens and dozens of truly fascinating and wonderfully written passages depicting all sorts of dramatic and at-times morbid events - more than enough to make up for the relentless and dry detailing of every frickin' scientific, economic or philosophic theory ever contemplated.


Neal Stephenson needs an editor.Also, it may be cute and even kind of interesting to write an historical fantasy novel using idioms and vernacular from the 20th century on purpose, but it just doesn't work for me.And yeah, ok we get it Neal, you're really clever and know a bunch of stuff...that doesn't mean you need to reference every bit of it you can stuff into the books you write.It's kind of dissapointing because the ideas and possibilities of where this book could have been going were really interesting...Neal Stephenson just kept getting in the way.


Technically, Quicksilver probably deserves 3 stars. The plotting is clunky, one of the main characters (Daniel) is so passive as to almost be irrelevant, another main character (Eliza) doesn't really make much sense, it's way to too long, there are way too many names/ideas/concepts introduced quickly without any context, and overall it's just a sloppy mess of a book.But goddamn is it a good read. I can't remember the last time I was so enthralled by a work of fiction. After giving up on it once many years ago, I picked it up determined to finish it, and being prepared to put in the work required to make sense of it all. This included many flip-backs, re-reads, googling, and studying of family trees, but it all added up into an absolutely absorbing and brilliant work of historical fiction that barrels onwards without really giving much of a shit about anything. Whether it's scientific debates between historical figures, detailed geographies of various cities in Europe, diatribes on the economic system of Europe, or side-splittingly hilarious descriptions of ridiculous furniture, almost every topic covered is interesting. Bravo, Mr. Stephenson.


Neal Stephenson is really interested in the same things I am... and he does make it all sound so fun... but the weakness of this book is its heavy reliance on historical characters, like newton, about whom one might have a different idea than he does. I think that Stephenson is also trying play with ideas and adopt a tone that is forever inching him away from the populist (but excellent) Snow Crash into a pynchonesque nerdville where most fear to tread. I wonder if he'll be able to pull it off...


(The following is an excerpt from the journal of Neal Stephenson.)After the success of Cryptonomicon, I’m having some problems narrowing down my next project. The issue is that I have far too many ideas, and I can’t decide which plot to use for my next book.I know that I want do something set during the late 17th century in Europe. It was an amazing time with huge changes in politics, culture, commerce and science, but there was just so much going on that I can’t seem to make up my mind and pick one or two concepts for the book. Here are some of the top ideas I’m mulling over:• The soldier and scientist dynamic between Waterhouse and Shaftoe worked so well in Cryptonomicon that I’d like to do something similar here. Perhaps have characters who are the ancestors of Lawrence Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe? • This would be during the early period of the Royal Society when men like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, and many others were essentially creating modern science and battling among themselves. Putting an ancestor of Waterhouse in among them seems like a natural fit.• I’m also fascinated by all the religious upheaval in England following Cromwell’s death through The Glorious Revolution. Having a character with a Puritan upbringing caught up in these events would be interesting. Maybe that’s the place to bring a Waterhouse into it?• But I’m equally interested by all that was happening in commerce during this time. Our modern economic systems were being developed, and even the very nature of money itself was being redefined. I’d very much like to do a plot that involved that.• However, I’m also intrigued by all the political machinations and palace intrigue that took place across all of Europe.• If I do something with the political side, then I’ll almost certainly need to set something among all the wars and conflicts that took place. That might be a natural place to use a Shaftoe character.• I’d really like to dig into the details of how dirty, smelly, nasty and short life was to most people back then.• It might be more original to get away from the known events and famous people of the time and show a viewpoint from someone common like a vagabond. (Maybe this should be a Shaftoe character.)• Thinking about vagabonds, it’d be interesting to do a modern take of a picaresque novel with a rogue-ish hero getting into adventures and insulting the people of quality. This would definitely be a great Shaftoe character.• I’d also like to explore the role of women in this society. Maybe have some kind of very smart female character who has to use her charm and brains to navigate a variety of social and political challenges? Could I tie that in with the money thing?• Doing some kind of story about spies would be really cool. If I write about spies, I could use some of the cryptography stuff I brought into the last book again.• Pirates. I definitely need to do something with pirates.• Slavery. I should also work in some stuff about slavery.• I’d also like to use the Enoch Root character again. That’d really establish him as an ageless stranger who is kind of pushing events in certain directions, just like he did in Cryptonomicon. Plus, that gives it a bit of a sci-fi element so I’ll be eligible for all the Locus and Hugo-type awards.• On top of everything else, I’m dying to play with the format a little. Maybe do some chapters like a stage play from the era? Or tell a section via a series of letters? If I use letters to tell the story, it’d be another chance to work in the code stuff.There are too many possibilities. I don’t know how I’ll ever …. Wait. I just had a crazy thought. I shouldn’t be trying to NARROW the focus. I should EXPAND the focus. Throw all of these ideas and even more into one giant stew pot.No, that’s insane. It’d be too complex and convoluted. How could readers keep everything straight? Just trying to keep track of the various royal families alone would drive most people mad. I guess if I used just two or three main characters, but then had them shift into a variety of roles??? Waterhouse as a Puritan, a scientist, and a political player in England? Shaftoe as a soldier, a vagabond and a syphilis sufferer? (Maybe add another Shaftoe if one is going to have syphilis.) Make the woman a spy, an anti-slavery advocate, and a natural genius with money? Could it work? Have them all bounce against all the people and events of the time? How could I make that coherent? And it’d have to be huge. Probably at least three books with 800 to 900 pages a book. Yes. Yes! I can make it work! I am just that damn good. Those who go along with it will marvel at my genius. Those who can’t follow along will be too exhausted to complain. It’s brilliant. Those fools won’t know what hit them!And I will call it…. The Baroque Cycle. BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! (Yes, I, Neal Stephenson, like to write evil laughter into my journal while I’m plotting my books.)Kemper’s Random Comments on Quicksilver• Wikipedia is your friend while reading this book.• Jack Shaftoe is not called ‘Half-Cocked Jack’ just due to his tendency to act without thinking. *shudder* • Isaac Newton should not have been allowed to handle needles.• Considering the way that various dogs, cats, horses, rats, frogs and ostriches are treated, this story is obviously set long before the ASPCA or PETA existed.• Stephenson has a lot of fun allowing his characters to make history. Daniel Waterhouse casually comes up with the name New York when others are debating what to call New Amsterdam after it changes hands. Eliza invents the word ‘sabotage’. Young Jack and his brother Bob create modern advertising and an early form of infomercial while making up small plays to advertise for their service helping condemned men hang faster and suffer less by dangling from their legs.•Venice gondoliers suffered from ‘canal rage’ caused by the hectic fast paced modern lifestyle they lived in.• After reading of the various ‘medical treatments’ used in here, you will hug your doctor the next time you go in for a check-up, and you will also feel the urge to call your dentist for a cleaning.• Jack considers it quite an accomplishment to have lived to the ripe old age of 20, and tells 19 year-old Eliza that she’s got a good ten or twenty years left to her.• European royal families were kind of gross.• I loved that Stephenson brings back his fictional country of Qwghlm, a godforsaken island under British rule where ice storms in June are common, and the English cut down all the trees.• Who knew that you could outwit pirates with math?• The scenes of trying to buy something are always hilarious because of all the haggling, not over the prices, but over what type of coins will be accepted because most are worthless due to the lack of reliable currency.• Why did I find it so funny that the English characters call syphilis the ‘French Pox’ and the French characters call it the ‘English Pox’?


I received an unexpected visit yesterday evening from a Mr. Nosnehpets, who told me he was a time-traveller and writer from the early 25th century. He had just published a historical novel, and wondered if I would do him the service of reviewing it."Why me?" I asked, bemused."Well," replied my visitor with an insinuating smile, "You appear in it more than once. You don't know it yet, but you're one of your period's major authors."I snatched the book, Mercury, from his hands, and it was even as he said. There was hardly a chapter where I didn't turn up. Often I would speak for paragraphs at a time."You have cast me in an overly flattering light," I protested. "I think you'll find that quotation actually comes from Oscar Wilde. And this one is due to Winston Churchill.""Details, details," said Nosnehpets impatiently. "Only the worst kind of wikipede is going to object. Try and see the big picture.""I never came close to stopping the invasion of Iraq," I said faintly, as I continued to leaf through it. "I went to a demonstration in Washington, that's all. And I never had a torrid affair with Catherine Zeta-Jones. I know we were both brought up in Wales, but..."Nosnehpets sighed. "I suppose you're going to tell me you didn't discover the Higgs particle either?" he asked, with an unpleasantly ironic inflection. "Even though you do admit that you were resident in Geneva in 2011, and you worked for years with Stephen Hawking?""I live in Geneva," I agreed reluctantly. "And in Cambridge, my office was on the other side of the road from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics. But to jump from that to...""You inspired them," snapped Nosnehpets. "Stop nitpicking. You and Angelina were the real source of all the ideas. If I've exaggerated a little, it was only for dramatic effect."He looked hurriedly at his wrist. I suddenly noticed that what I had taken for a tattoo was actually a high-resolution display projected directly onto his skin."I'm sorry," he said. "The portal will be closing in a minute. But please, before I leave, just answer me one question. Why did you do it? Why did you destroy the whole world of classical literature? And why that ridiculous pseudonym? I've tried my best to explain it, but, honestly, I still don't understand."I gaped at him. "Whatever are you talking about?" I asked.He was already starting to fade, but I could still hear his voice. "Doctor Rayner," he whispered plaintively. "Why, why, why did you write Twilight?"

Mark Hebwood

Well. Where to start with this... Ok. Let us first pretend that there are only two criteria to use when analysing works of fiction, (1) number of characters and (2) richness of plot. Now let us say we are drawing a chart, with quality 1 on the horizontal axis, and quality 2 on the vertical axis. Now we have a space into which we can slot a few books lying around the house. A Dickens novel goes into the upper right quadrant of the grid - many characters and rich plot to bind them together. A Samuel Beckett play would be located upper left - just a few characters, but richly textured interactions between them. Dan Brown? Bottom left I am afraid (ok there are other views but this is me talking now...). And what's in the bottom right quadrant? The London telephone book takes pride of place, situated on the far right and exactly on the axis. And just to the north-west of it we find... Quicksilver.Why? Well let's see. Let me talk about size first. Quicksilver forms part of a sequence of three volumes, each weighing in at some 900 pages. Each volume consists of 3 reasonably stand-alone novels, so essentially we have a series of 9 texts, running to a combined 3000 pages. Indeed, the scope is even more expansive than this and we can think of these 9 novels as a prequel-series to Cryptonomicon, another 900-page tome in which Neal deals with events happening in WWII. So in terms of scope, Neal's work is biblical.So. What happens in the three novels bound up in Quicksilver? The first novel is about a 17th Century natural philosopher, who is recalled to England to mitigate in the quarrel between Leibniz and Newton. The second novel is about the rise and fall of an Oriental slave girl as a merchant in Amsterdam. And the third novel is about the Leibniz/Newton quarrel again. You think that by distilling near 40,000 lines of text down to five I have done the plot injustice?Well I haven't. And this is precisely what bothers me about Neal's first three books. I don't know what they are. I do not think they are novels. But neither do I think they are narrative history, as, for example, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. So what are they?I think Neal's work is best described as a tableau of 17th Century life. Let me explain what I mean by this. Let us imagine a detailed, comprehensive historical monograph entitled 17th Century Europe in Politics, Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Our imagined work is a huge achievement in scholarship, its scope dwarving that of Gibbon's Rise and Fall. Now imagine this monograph as a pop-up book, delivering a three-dimensional model of intricate detail, showing all the facets of social life, all the complex interactions of historical persons, all the painful breakthroughs in nascent scientific thought.For the moment, this model is static and not animated. Now we create several figurines that we set into our pop-up model of 17th Century life. We breathe life into these figurines, and they start walking around, interacting now with this person, now with that one, creating an event here, and another one there. We observe what's going on and write it all up, bind it into one book and call it "Quicksilver".Excellent. We have successfully created a tour d'horizon through the world of the 17th Century. It does not matter that our characters do not have depth - they are only vehicles to transport our encyclopaedic knowledge. It does not matter that events do not create and develop a plot - we are not really telling a story. In the end, Neal hands the reader a kaleidoscope to observe the 17th Century. It shows the richness of life in glittering, but confusing colours, and in identifiable, but jumbled shapes. If there is an overall, guiding principle in the work, the disjointed mass of detail and isolated events makes it hard to discern.Quicksilver is to literature what music scores are to music, what a dictionary is to poetry, what a street map is to a metropolis. It shows the detail, but not the "soul".

Jennifer Uhlich

** spoiler alert ** I have been thinking on how to describe the process of reading this book, and I think it best to indulge in a kind of extended metaphor (Mr. Stephenson, I hope, will appreciate the spirit of the undertaking, even if the metaphor itself is a little simplistic.) Imagine, if you will, that you are pressed against a vast stained glass window, which is illuminated from behind. The space around you is dark, but there is something behind you that keeps you from stepping back to see a greater portion of the window. You can move over the surface of the window in any direction, but you can never see more than what is right in front of you. Your task is to grasp the meaning of the window. At first all you can do is study, and marvel at, the colors and textures, the subtle changes in hue and thickness. You linger for a while over your favorites; you touch the ripples in a particularly distorted piece, or move carefully over one that seems excessively thin and fragile. Over time you start to make sense out of small sections—you piece together a figure here, a deliberate striation there—but you still cannot assemble these moments of illumination (hah!) into any kind of larger narrative. About 600 pages in, you suddenly fit together several sections at once; you start to project outwards from there, sketching in your mind’s eye plausible window-shapes, imagining just how large this damn thing might be. Around 700 pages in you suddenly come across a sharp curve in the leading, and another, and you realize that your ideas were far too mundane for this work: this is not just any window-form, but a rose window, as vast and complex as any you have seen. By the end of the book, you sense that there are at least two overarching themes. One is revolutions—not just the political kind, but also the rotations of bodies, their trajectory and orbits and intersecting paths. Another is emptiness—the emptiness behind it all, be it the celestial framework of the universe or the intricate mechanisms of finance and politics as Europe moves through its Age of Reason. I am dazzled. And jealous. But mostly dazzled. Did I mention that he wrote this beast longhand? That he tried many methods of notetaking, but in the end found it easiest to keep his decade of research “in his head”? Why, then, only four stars? Because this is a book where plot and theme are one and the same, and the characters exist to demonstrate the great clockwork he has constructed. Oh they are people to be sure; but they are people who never linger in a moment, never savor a touch or a glance, never lose themselves in a haze of emotion—or if they are teetering on the edge, the curtain falls, the chapter ends, and we are back to calculus. The characters tell us a lot about what they feel, and it is a testament to the fine calibration of the clockwork that how adroitly they delineate their inner states is precisely aligned with their backgrounds, education, and sex. But we never feel it, we only read it. Did Mr. Stephenson ever weep for his people, as he put them through their paces? Perhaps he felt a pang, regret, but I’m not sure he wept, and a book of this scale should provoke tears. There is a coldness in the prose. I am aware that this was not a sentimental age, but I cannot even feel their injuries, their violent surgeries; I felt more moved by the plight of that poor dog than any of the characters, though many of them also suffer what could be called cruelty. Also, Eliza reads like she was written by a man. She is a marvelous construct for an erudite Pygmalion to play with, but she did not live for this reader. In the back matter, Mr. Stephenson describes how he began the project after reading about Newton and Leibniz, and certainly their work and positions are marvelously rendered here. So this was never a project about the human heart, and there is little room for a poignant moment in a book so stuffed with ideas and events and so bustling with people. But now, able to step back a little from the great window, I find myself remembering a blur of descriptions and ideas . . . and yet only three things really stand out: the meticulous tracking of Eliza’s successive penetrations (Pygmalion takes careful notes, to the exclusion of all other displays of love or intimacy), and two bodies. One is the little Shaftoe boy in the beginning, and the other is Tess’s horrific decay at the end. Both float past us with all the other teeming flotsam of this magnificent teeming novel, and I cannot help but think that something was lost in not giving them more weight. Love matters. But perhaps that too is part of the emptiness, of a world ruled by particles instead of God.

Mindy McAdams

I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and I bought this in hardcover when it first came out. And I hated it. I got about 200 pages in and then gave up. I was just bored silly. But my best friend (also a Stephenson fan) read it and promptly burned through the other two equally gigantic volumes in The Baroque Cycle, and she hounded me for years -- literally, years -- until I finally picked this up again.I started at the beginning, and this time, I fell under its spell. I bought and read the other two books, and I really loved all of them. I give this four stars instead of five because of my initial experience with it. I can't explain why I hated it the first time, but what I would recommend is that if you loved Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon or Anathem, give this a try. By the time you get to know Eliza and Jack Shaftoe, you should be loving it.P.S. Eliza is one of the best female characters EVER.

Daniel Roy

It seems people who have read 'Quicksilver' have either loved it or hated it. I'm sorry to say, I belong to the second group.Neal Stephenson originally became one of my favorite all-time authors for 'Snow Crash', for I felt his prose was quick, sharp, precise and very enjoyable. I remained a fan throughout 'Cryptonomicon', because although he was no longer quick, his drawn-out discussions on Things Geek remained fascinating.I was looking forward to 'Quicksilver', but I'm afraid this book has seriously damaged the affection I had for Mr. Stephenson's work. Quicksilver is no longer witty, nor particularly fascinating. It sounds a lot like somebody who's spent a long time doing historical research setting out to prove the depth of his knowledge... which I guess is exactly what it is.Stephenson spends the better part of this novel throwing out random historical facts of no importance whatsoever in the hopes of sounding as historically knowledgeable as, say, Umberto Eco. It seems in the middle of his research, Stephenson actually forgot about such things as 'plot', because all we're left with is a very, very, very long mess of discussions of things related to historical events and trying to cleverly tie in with historical characters such as Newton or Franklin.To cap it off, this book is only one of three in a series (if you exclude Cryptonomicon as 'Volume 0'.) My god, how can one write so many pages on such a lack of plot? I cannot imagine plodding through another such book, let alone two 1000 pages bricks.If you're thinking of picking this book up because you enjoyed 'Cryptonomicon', try and read a few pages in the library before shelling out the dough. Perhaps you will like it, but I certainly know I did not. I miss the days when Stephenson remembered how to get to the point and pack his novels with action and revelance, instead of being so infatuated with the names Waterhouse, Shaftoe and Root that he felt necessary to write 4000 pages about them.


I think it's official: I hate Neil Stephenson. I hated his so called cyberpunk classic Snow Crash --a fact that sets me apart from most of the nerdegalian-- and I really hated Quicksilver.Quicksilver is kind of hard to classify, if you in fact insist on classifying it. It's kind of historical fiction in that it's set in the 17th and 18th century and follows the rise of empiricism and science. It features real people from that period, like Isaac Newton, Gotfried Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Robert Hook, King Louis XIV, and others. But the "fiction" part of "historical fiction" comes into play because the main characters --an aspiring natural philosopher (read: scientist) named Daniel Waterhouse, a former concubine turned finance tycoon named Eliza, and a charming vagabond named Jack Shaftoe-- never really existed and were fabricated for the sake of the book, which traces the activities of these three main characters as they live through the era.The main problem I have with Quicksilver was that it was largely plotless. I kept waiting for something to happen or some plot to coalesce out of the noise, but it didn't. The characters are really just there to give Stephenson an excuse to carry on about the development of science as a discipline, the ephemeral nature of money, and pirates --sometimes all three in the same passage. There's no narrative, just a seemingly endless burbling of scenes --the damn thing is nearly 1,000 pages long, and I READ the paper version of this one. I actually kind of liked the some of the parts with struggling scientist Daniel Waterhouse the best, because the history of science interests me, but even these moments of engagement were covered up by obscure details and diversions that were like overgrown plants in a sprawling garden.In fact, the whole book is bloated with details about experiments, geneologies, dissertations on stock markets, battles, family histories, and other verbal flotsam that it made it downright hard to read the book and impossible to enjoy. I get the impression that Stephenson gorged himself on research for the book, and then decided to use it all --every last syllable-- no matter what hellacious effect it has on the narrative or the goal of actually telling an interesting story. Quicksilver may be more entertaining than a high school textbook on the same topics, but only marginally.And the thing is that it's only the first THIRD of a trilogy, plus a tie-in to Stpehnons's book Cryptonomicon. What's worse is that I went ahead and picked up the other books in hardback, though I did so at a thrift store and only set myself back a total of like three bucks. I think I'm just gonna eat that cost and not even think about picking them up, given how much I disliked Quicksilver. Life is too short.


4.0/4.0It's the Moby-Dick question.The plot's about an angry guy chasing a whale. There's not a lot of variation on this theme: he catches it, or he doesn't. Maybe he catches it and wishes that he didn't, maybe he doesn't and regrets that he failed. But this basic plot, a straightforward quest for revenge, is such thin gruel that you'd have to be on the lower end of the intellectual spectrum to fail to realize that the book's about something a little bit more than hunting a big fish.Even so, there's no guarantee that you're going to tolerate 20 pages about rope. At the end of the digression, you're either going to respond in one of two ways. You might be of the sort to go, "Hmm, that was some fascinating rope discourse. I had no idea that rope could be used in such multifaceted ways, and having read that, I am now a different and slightly more rounded person." Then again, you could respond with a "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, enough with the stupid rope already! For fuck's sake, where's that son of a bitch whale? The white sea mammal is the TITLE of the book, and I'm reading about some shitty rope?! Christ, I need some vodka."You should know what sort of reader you are before picking this book up, because The Baroque Cycle is about 3,000 pages long, and Neal Stephenson digresses like an ADHD kid on speed. Melville's focus is a goddamn space laser in comparison. Quicksilver has economics, mining, mathematics, piracy, slavery, early Puritan philosophy and I forget what else.It is genius, pure and simple.This is one of the first great works of the 21st century, and I can't recommend it highly enough. But odds are great that you'll hate it mightily if your concern is the destination instead of how you get there.


Fascinating insights into the minds, life and times of Isaac Newton, Leibnitz, Boyle, Hooke and many of the greatest minds at the intersection of alchemy and the development of modern science. Also fascinating insights into the development of business and commerce were also beginning in this critical period of history. Some brilliant writing and sometimes drags, but definitely a good read.Some fantastic writing interspersed among some unfortunately slow sections. Sorry for the long quotes, but 2 favorites here:"The notion that the Sun exerted some centripedal force on the planets was now becoming pretty well accepted, but by asking for data on the interaction of the moon and sea, and of Jupiter and Saturn, Isaac was as much as saying that these were all of a piece, that everything attracted everything ... and ... were different only insofar as they came from different directions and had different magnitudes. Like the diverse goods piled up in some Amsterdam merchant's warehouse, they might come from many places and have different values, but in the end all that mattered was how much gold they could fetch on the Damplatz. The gold that paid for a pound of Malabar pepper was melted and fused with the gold that paid for a boatload of North Sea herring, and all of it was simply gold, bearing no trace or smell of the fish or the spice that had fetched it. In the case of Celestial Dynamics, the gold - the universal medium of exchange, to which everything was reduced - was force. The force exerted on Saturn by the Sun was no different from that exerted by Titan. In the end, the two forces were added together to make a vector, a combined resultant force bearing no trace of its origins. It was a powerful kind of alchemy because it took the motions of heavenly bodies down from inaccessible regions and brought them within reach of men who had mastered the occult arts of geometry and algebra. Powers and mysteries that had been the exclusive province of Gods, Isaac was now arrogating to himself." 676-677"Each breaker ... was as unique as a human soul. Each made its own run up onto the shore, being the very embodiment of vigor and power at the start. But each slowed, spread thin, faltered, dissolved into a hissing ribbon of gray foam, and got buried under the next. The end result of all their noise, pounding, repetitious efforts was the beach. Seen through a lens, the particular arrangement of sand-grains that made up the beach presumably was complicated, and reflected the individual contributions of every single wave that had ended its life here;" 689That's some good stuff.


It is always painful to write a negative review of a beloved author, but less so when the book in question is as desultory and tedious as this one. Neal Stephenson is probably my favorite living author, but making it through the first volume of his Baroque Cycle (which is really three books in one) was like taking a cross-continental flight through a turbid storm with only momentary glimpses of clear sky. Any experienced Stephenson reader expects to be bowled over by recondite descriptions of, well, pretty much everything, but Quicksilver displays the needless sprawl and lack of restraint that can render impotent even the most beguiling intellect. For a book that spans a considerable length of time during which things are constantly happening, there is a remarkable paucity of events, in the sense of emotional climax or meaningful developments in the story. The book’s bloated nature tarnishes Stephenson’s brilliance, exacerbating his worst tendencies and drawing back from his best.Quicksilver takes place in late 17th century Europe, with small bits set in early 18th century not-yet-America. It is a fictionalized account of the intellectual, social, and political journeys of some of Europe’s most beloved thinkers, most notably Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. This part of the tale is seen through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse (ancestor of Lawrence and Randy Waterhouse from Cryptonomicon), a lesser savant who rooms with Newton in college and goes on to be a member of London’s Royal Society. There are two other main characters: Jack Shaftoe (ancestor of Bobby) and Eliza. Jack is a lovably audacious London-born vagabond who gallivants around Europe with an air of self-determination uncommon for the time period. On one of his many adventures, he meets Eliza and frees her from a harem during a battle with the Turks outside Vienna. They travel together for a time, eventually part ways, and Eliza becomes involved in Europe’s nascent currency speculation business.These three characters, and a massive host of supporting ones, dance around each other throughout the novel, occasionally crossing paths or engaging in indirect shenanigans with mutual acquaintances. They experience many genuinely interesting things, but the book’s plot never quite decides which story it wants to tell, leaving the reader feeling as if Stephenson himself didn’t really know (or––more likely––that he simply didn’t care about adhering to plot conventions). This feeling of disconnection inhabits Stephenson novels with varying strength, but dominated Quicksilver in a way that was both distracting and disappointing.Despite its many flaws, there is much to like in this 900+ page door-stopper. Daniel, Jack and Eliza all come to represent the tension between individualism and allegiance to monarchy that sprang from the Protestant Reformation and culminated in the American Revolution and the advent of constitutional democracies in Europe. Jack is especially flippant about authority and his own status as a person without status. Daniel, the Puritan son of a radical father, is a man whose considerable intelligence makes him useful to British aristocrats, but who is treated as an outcast due to his family history.Describing Eliza is more difficult; she is definitely the character about whom I feel most conflicted. Equal parts proto-feminist and hyper-sexualized temptress, Eliza is a baffling contrast of progressive and anachronistic qualities. I don’t know if that’s what Stephenson was going for, but I was left with the nagging feeling that he wanted to write a character who was supposed to be a strong female in a male-dominated world. In this, he was partially successful. Eliza’s strong qualities are diminished somewhat by Stephenson’s tendency to overemphasize her body as a sexual object of the male gaze. Even worse, Eliza is sometimes blasé about her own sexuality in a way that just didn’t sit right with me. In one particularly disturbing scene, Eliza is coerced into performing fellatio on a nobleman. This is her thought just before capitulation: “What was about to happen wasn’t so very bad, in and of itself” (599). Now, it’s perfectly possible (although I suspect not probable) that someone in this situation could have such a thought, and also that a woman sold into a 17th century harem might be casual about being forced sexually, but in this case Stephenson’s writing really bothered me. Eliza is assertive with her intelligence and sexuality at other points in the story, and is certainly not a simplified caricature. But too often she comes off as a kind of pornographic fantasy that just happens to have a brain and some guts.In general, this novel does a great job of reminding the reader that most humans lived before modern scientific thinking and the plethora of technologies it spawned. Quicksilver is situated at a tipping point in Europe’s historical conversation about what the world is and how we should live in it. Daniel and Jack both represent the struggle between predestination and free will that was taunting Europe’s elite. The idea of scientific truth “pushing back the veil of God” is front and center in the novel’s best moments, with some of history’s biggest minds obsessing over the paradox of how to justify the existence of (or need for) omniscient will within an increasingly understandable set of natural laws. Stephenson’s prose wields its characteristic cleverness and erudition, but his attempts to utilize certain Baroque writing elements largely fall flat, adding little to the reader’s engagement in the story and providing ample opportunity for inanition.My problems with this book stem from the fact that I’m not a European history buff. If I were, I’m sure many of the passages I found absolutely boring would have had me begging for more. The tidbits of intellectual history were fascinating, and I occasionally enjoyed learning about an old type of building, tool, or cultural practice, but more often than not Stephenson’s tangents proved mere distractions from the main story (what little of it there was). The worst part was the politics. I usually eschew the historical details of monarchies, which, as unique and raunchy as they can sometimes be, always amount to the same old shit: assholes trying to get the upper hand on other assholes. I can occasionally get sucked into power-centered narratives like Game of Thrones or Shogun, but such stories need to be emotionally visceral to keep my attention. I really don’t care how Louis XIV and his sycophantic horde of admirers spend their days at Versailles while working people suffer. I don’t care who the next King of England will be, because I’m too modern-minded to want any king at all. Stephenson seems to expect readers to find monarchical plots and authority struggles interesting in and of themselves, and does little to enliven protracted lists of people and events that ultimately have little influence on Quicksilver‘s story or characters.I also don’t care much about the history of money, which plays a large role in this book; it’s just a topic that draws Stephenson’s interest but repels my own. In his other works––most notably Reamde ––Stephenson has evinced in me a fascination with objects and methods about which I have little knowledge and less interest, but Quicksilver couldn't grab my attention enough to challenge those boundaries. My biggest regret here is that I became so annoyed with this book that I stopped reading very closely after the first few hundred pages. I just didn’t get enough bang for my buck by paying close attention, so once I learned who the important characters were, I began hunting for them and skimming paragraphs that clearly weren’t going to teach me anything I wanted to know. It’s also true that elements of this book were simply over my head. And while I managed to follow the story just fine, I’m sure there were plenty of fun and even profound moments along the way that I missed. But I also made short work of a lot of dense gobbledygook.In its finest moments, this book is fantastic––as good as anything one could hope to read. But therein lies the problem: because Stephenson sets such a high bar, it’s hard to take it when the overall effect doesn’t prove earth-shattering. My quarrel with Quicksilver is no doubt due in part to my own intellectual shortcomings and parochial interests, but I also think the book contains some objectively obnoxious and dull qualities. Even so, I love Stephenson and will press on with the Baroque Cycle because I am invested in reading his corpus. He can be a real pain in the ass, but he’s worth it.This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.

Kat Hooper

[This audiobook contains Book 1 of the print edition of the Quicksilver omnibus. Book 2 is King of the Vagabonds. Book 3 is Odalisque.]I’m a scientist by profession and I love history. Thus, I’m fascinated by the history of science, especially the era of Isaac Newton et al. So, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver should be just my thing and I was fully expecting to love this book (it’s been on my list for years), but I’m sad to say that I was disappointed in this first installment of The Baroque Cycle, though I still have high hopes for the remaining books.Quicksilver is well-researched and well-written and chock full of plenty of stuff I love to read about: 17th and 18th century scholars and politicians exploring the way the world works. What an exciting time to be alive! Neal Stephenson successfully captures the feeling of the Baroque world — its architecture, fashion, nobility, plagues, and lack of waste management. He’s done his research, so he clearly and enthusiastically informs us about such diverse topics as alchemy, astronomy, botany, calculus, coinage, cryptography, the Dutch Wars, economics, free will, Galilean invariance, geometry, heresy, international relations, Judaism, kinematics, logic, microscopy, natural philosophy, optics, politics, the Reformation, the Restoration, relativity, sailing, sea warfare, slavery, taxonomy, warfare, weaponry, and zoology... I could go on. Quicksilver will get you half way through a liberal arts education in only 335 pages.This is quite an accomplishment, but it’s also a problem. I love historical fiction, but great historical fiction uses the context of an exciting plot, engaging characters, and some sort of tension in the form of mystery and/or romance. Quicksilver has none of that. It’s purely what I’ll call (for lack of a better term) “historical science fiction.” Daniel Waterhouse, the character whose eyes we see through (mostly in flashbacks), has no personality, passion, or purpose. In Quicksilver, he exists to look over the shoulders of the men who are the real subjects of the book: the members of the Royal Society.These men are fascinating, yes, but if the purpose of Quicksilver is to relay a huge amount of information about them in an interesting way, I’d rather read a non-fiction account. Then at least I’d know which of the numerous anecdotes about Isaac Newton (et al.) are factual. I can think of no reason to read this history as a fictional account if it contains none of the elements of an entertaining novel.As an example, I’ll contrast Quicksilver with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I read all 20½ of those novels and was completely enthralled. Not only did I learn a lot about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, but I was also thoroughly entertained by the fictional stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. That is excellent historical fiction.Quicksilver was funny in places (such as when the Royal Society members talk about time, kidney stones, and opiates during one of their meetings) — and engrossing a couple of times (such as when Daniel Waterhouse and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz discuss cognition, free will, and artificial intelligence), and though I enjoy learning about the invention of clocks, calculators, and coffee, Quicksilver is mostly information overload without a story to back it up.I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version, which was beautifully read by Simon Prebble (always a treat). Due to its length, Brilliance Audio has split Quicksilver into its three sections: “Quicksilver,” “King of the Vagabonds,” and “Odalisque.” The next audiobook, then, is called King of the Vagabonds, and it shifts focus to a London street urchin who becomes an adventurer. Now that sounds like fun! I’m going to read King of the Vagabonds and hope that the introduction of some non-academic characters will give this saga some life!

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