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

WK

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.

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.

meg Olson

The first third of the book was generally plodding and lacking in any interesting protagonists (and no, I don't care that the oh-so-clever-writer added in as many famous characters as he could think of, they were still generally annoying). The second third showed much more promise, and was actually really fun, until the very end when everything got awful. Not like The-Empire-Strikes-Back-second-act-as-many-bad-things-happen-as-possible awful, though I think that's what the author was aiming for. Just unneccesary and silly and revolting. Based on that, a quick thumbing of the final third, and the pervasively self-conscious and occasionally completely-annoying prose, I'm done with this one. It had high points. The descriptions of some of the experiments in the first section. The soon-to-be insane Vagabond King. There was even an infrequent well-written paragraph. It appears there is actually quite a lot of story material for a really good book here, but this redition of the plot has abused my trust for far too long. One last thing. The only "real" female character in the novel is badly written. I mean, it's not like his male characters beyond Jack are well-thought out and consistently imagined. But Eliza is a particularly poorly developed character- confusing and often contradictery, with shifting morals and no real reason behind many of her actions. I don't know if this is one of those "well aren't women just like that, guffaw" things or simply another literary over-extension on the author's part. I do know it was aggrivating, though.

Scott

Stephenson deserves an editor that will tell him to write less. The man prodigiously describes "cool" "fun" "interesting" events with such detail and precision that it usually loses its narrative flow. The guy has a command of the english language and is certainly fascinated by late 17th century and early 18th century goings-on that this feels like a historical narrative rather than historical fiction, yet the whole book feels like it was written in computer code; it is an odd stylistic quirk of his that I've noticed in his past books, but does not really fit in this book. The most cool thing about this is that he wrote the whole book (and the next two in the trilogy - nearly three thousand full pages of book) with a fountain pen on cotton paper. Used blotting paper and everything. Don't get into this series unless you read quickly, REALLY like his other stuff, or are unduly fascinated with the Baroque era. I'm enjoying it, but its detractions weigh it down like a sea anchor over the course of three books.

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".

Jeff

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.

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.

Marisa

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...

Steve

For those of you just joining me, I sort of blogged this, and the actual review is down at the bottom.*****Ok, approximately 50 words into the book, discussing an executioner with a noose about to hang a woman, and I'm already completely smitten by these two sentences: "The rope clutches a disk of blue New England sky. The Puritans gaze at it and, to all appearances, think." ******Apparently I'm blogging as I read this book now. Here's another bit I loved (page 175): "Daniel for his part was aware, now, that he was surrounded by the Quality, and that they were all peering at him. He had gotten himself into a Complicated Situation, and he did not like those." The use of capitals in those sentences is not only awesome, but seems to capture Daniel's way of thinking marvelously too.(Loving the book in general so far too)****Here's another awesome quote (page 501):"[Paris:] was built, so far as Jack could tell, on the principle that there was nothing you couldn't accomplish if you crowded a few tens of millions of peasants together on the best land in the world and then never stopped raping their brains out for a thousand years."***********Quicksilver is aptly named. Quicksilver, or Mercury, is a peculiar material, a sort of indefinable liqui-solid. In some ways that is what this book is. I was kind of surprised to re-discover that it lives in the "science fiction" section of Barnes and Noble, as it certainly isn't what one thinks of when one thinks of sci fi. While there is some idle chat about space and exploring it, there are no space ships, no aliens, and in fact, the action takes place entirely in the past (17th-18th century, mostly in Europe). I suppose the classification makes a certain kind of sense, considering that some of the most prominent characters in the book are natural philosophers (what we would now call scientists), and the book focuses a bit on the discovery of calculus, and also touches on various other scientific fields, including biology, astronomy, and climatology. While his scientist characters are exploring the physical world, Stephenson explores the literary one. He pulls some crazy tricks out of his sleeves, and I loved every one of them. Some favorites: One of his characters reflects on how his life is like something from a theatre, and then the next several pages are written as a play, rather than the novel we were reading seconds ago. There is a scene from the perspective of a character who is going mad that breaks out into a musical, complete with reanimated corpses singing in chorus, and a priest directly addressing the mad man, listing all his faults in song. There are a couple chapters written entirely as volley of letters written by a character. She knows that one of her targets is having all of his mail intercepted and read, and the other one she has encrypted everything in a way that she is confident won't be broken, and the difference in content between the two sets of letters is the story. There are a couple caveats to what would be a generally unbridled recommendation here. Caveat the first: I am a huge history, science, and philosophy nerd, and the myriad of cross pollination between the three with the fiction was a cause of joy for me, where others might find it distracting (or even painful). On the other hand, every time a new character, no matter how minor was introduced, with a name I recognized from history, it made me quite happy. Caveat the second: This book is not really complete. The baroque cycle, is really one long story, and the ending to this book is not satisfying at all, as it isn't really an ending. Caveat the third: Sometimes, some of the characters can be really huge jerks. I didn't particularly mind this, but some might.

Ryan

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.

William

I loved Stephenson's "Snow Crash". Really liked "Cryptonomicon". But, this novel was terribly boring. It is divided into three books. Book 1 follows the scientist Dan Waterhouse. Book 2 followed Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds. Book 3 sees Eliza, a former slave girl, caught up in a spy ring between the French, English & Dutch governments. Sounds good, but it isn't. The writing is too long, and too detailed to remain focused on what should be important to the story...the story. I found myself skipping paragraphs of setting and science-speak to find the plot of the novel, but to no avail. Oh, there are moments of real conflict and intrigue, but they are few and far between. I know their are two more books which will tie up loose ends, (and there are many) but I don't think I will waste my time wading through another 1800 pages (900 per book) to learn...nothing

Dan

This book is historical fiction at its best. It is jam packed with background on Europe in the 17th century: the wars, political machinations of the royalty, as well as the academic rivalries of continental and British natural philosophers and alchemists. Furthermore, the background of the characters is very well explained.The book is structured in an interesting way, it consists of three books. "Quicksilver", "King of the Vagabonds", and "Odelisque."The first book is almost entirely about the Puritan Daniel Waterhouse (apparently some ancestor of the Waterhouse family from Cryptonomicon.) He was Sir Isaac Newton's dorm mate at Cambridge, another student of "natural philosophy" as science was called back then. The book follows Daniel through the reformation, the plague years, the fire of London. It also details his involvement in The Royal Society, the British scientific academic establishment. It shows what it really must have been like to be an academic in 17th century England. It also shows how modern science came out of alchemy and the religious establishment. This book lays the foundations for the dispute between Newton and Leibniz.The Second book follows Jack Shaftoe, the "King of the Vagabonds" and apparently the Ancestor of the Shaftoe family from Cryptonomicon. It follows him as he joins an army as a mercenary to fight the Ottomans at Vienna. There he rescues Eliza from the Turks, and they continue from there across Europe. Getting into commodities trading in Amsterdam, and making the acquaintance of Leibniz.The Third book follows a now forty some year old Daniel Waterhouse, who is now an Adviser to King Charles II, and also Eliza who is essentially a stock broker for the nobles of France. This book is much more about the political posturing of the French and British royalties.Also, Enoch Root from Cryptonomicon (who is an Alchemist in the 17th century) makes appearances in each of the three books, hinting and helping everyone along.Each of the three books contain stories about Mathematical and Scientific advances of the times, as well as a continual theme of finance and economics.This book was well written, and very entertaining. However, it was so detailed as to be slow reading in some parts (especially in the third book, Odelisque.) Despite this, the book was fun through out. Although in the slow parts, I enjoyed it more for its factual content than the story (at many points, the density of information reminded me of Jared Diamond's Collapse.) Also, I read this book because I liked Cryptonomicon ALOT, and this book starts the Baroque cycle which occurs in the same world as that book. Also, people in the know, like John Banes and Henry Cohn, told me that it is good stuff.

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.

Margo

I bought this book because it said on the cover that it was a "New York Time Bestseller". How can this be? The paperback version is 916 pages and I got to page eight hundred and sixty something and then couldn't take it anymore. It was one of the most boring books I've ever read in my entire life. There were only a couple interesting characters and of course they had the shortest sections in the book. I could saved myself the hassle and only read the 100 or so pages that were semi interesting. It was like a hugely boring history lesson (that isn't actually factual) that seemed to stretch on and on and on. I had to force myself to keep reading it and I wasn't even successful. I can't believe people read this book and then liked it enough to continue on to two (TWO!!) more books in the sereis. Also, why was this book in the science fiction section?!?

Jamie

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.

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