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

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.


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.

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".


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.


This was an overwhelming book to read, and it’s an overwhelming book to try to review. What is this book about? What isn’t it about would be a more appropriate question! Set in the late 1600s, it is separated into three books, which chronicle the adventures of the three main characters. We first meet Daniel Waterhouse, whose radical Puritan upbringing makes him somewhat of an outcast in post-Civil War England. His main pursuit in life is Natural Philosophy, and he enjoys the privilege of being acquainted with many of the most prominent scientists of his day (and indeed, of all time). In the second book, we meet our other two protagonists, “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, Vagabond extraordinaire, and the beautiful Eliza. At the Turkish siege of Vienna (which Jack is a part of only for the potential looting to be done), Jack rescues Eliza from the harem she has been trapped in since she and her mother were kidnapped by pirates from their home on the English coast. Together, they quest across the Continent in pursuit of fame and fortune. The individual stories of each of the characters are interesting, but they serve as more of a backdrop for the larger events happening in the world around them. It is a time rife with political unrest, and each character ends up playing some part in the countless intrigues that govern the rise and fall of nobles, royals and even empires. I have to admit, I almost didn’t get past the first hundred pages of this book. It took me awhile to get used to the author’s style of writing, which jumps around a lot and was a little hard to figure out. However, the book just sounded so interesting I really didn’t want to give up, and I’m glad I didn’t! Once I got into the groove of reading (and when I knew more of what to expect), I really ended up enjoying it, especially once I got to Jack and Eliza’s story (which I found more engaging by far). Those who are interested in math and physics would probably find parts of this book very interesting, as the character Daniel Waterhouse is friends with Isaac Newton and other scientists and mathematicians, and there are quite a few passages that get pretty technical. Most of it went right over my head, of course (both of those were my worst subjects), but those passages were pretty few and far between, and there’s plenty there for the layman reader to enjoy. I feel like I learned a lot even so (which is rare with a fiction book). I can see, though, how this book wouldn’t be for everyone, but I feel it was worth the time and effort it took to read, and I’m glad my perseverance paid off. In the end, my review (or any) can hardly do it justice. I am definitely looking forward to picking up the next in the series.


I admit it. I have absolutely no desire to finish this book. I'm so very close to the end, but I stopped caring somewhere along the way. I really don't know what it is that keeps me from finishing it. Maybe it's because I only have about 120 pages left and I know that nothing's going to be resolved. Maybe it's because I've read 781 pages and have no idea what the heck is going on. Is there even a plot? Is this book about anything other than history? I can see why people do like it. In fact, I like it myself. I just can't bring myself to pick it up again.


One of the most elaborate, detailed and wonderful books I've ever read and re-reading it was pure pleasure. If you want to be inspired by the 17th century, fall in love mathematics and science, or bedazzled by the sheer complexity of a world then this is book for you.


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

Stephen Dranger

Reading a huge 900+ page hardcover book with a seemingly open plot filled with pages of 17th century philosophical exposition and the requirement of reading two more books just like it may seem like a chore, but for me at least, Stephenson makes it fascinating. He reveals (or invents, at the very least) the inner workings of Isaac Newton, early Dutch stock market fraud, the invention of the calculus, and Turkish harems. This all serves as a backdrop for Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza of Qwghlm. Cryptonomicon readers will recognize these characters as the ancestors of the ones in that book, and indeed, other aspects of that novel make appearances. The plot is difficult to describe, as there doesn't seem to be a central conflict so much as a description of how the lives of each of these characters progress. As dull as that sounds, these people live extraordinarily interesting lives, and anyone interested in science or philosophy will be entertained by various tidbits Stephenson throws our way.This book isn't really the first in a trilogy as it is the first part of a really fucking huge book. (Technically, it's the first 3 books in a series of 8.) As such, you will be rewarded if you manage to make it to the second volume, where the real payoff for these characters is.Stephenson doesn't have a poetic way with words; rather, his strength lies in his marvelous ability to explain just about any concept. He also remains a master of the alternating academic/punk style that made Snow Crash such a popular book.


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?"


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.


I went on a long Neal Stephenson kick a while back:QUICKSILVERI finished reading Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson about a month ago. This book took me almost two months to finish reading because it is so freaking long and epic. I really love Neal Stephenson. I've also read Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. I highly recommend reading Cryptonomicon before Quicksilver, because you get to have the pleasure of seeing the family names of characters that lived in the 20th century popping up in 17th century Europe. The book provides an intimate look into the life and times of England and the European continent during the 17th century, and of famous men such as Louis XIV and Isaac Newton. However, it is not a history book. It was an exciting read, giving the reader the feeling of being swept back in time and allowed to observe the details of life often left out of history, such as medical procedures (cutting for "the stone" performed by barbers, for instance), privies, whorehouses, etc. But it was Neal Stephenson's characters, as always, that made the book truly worth reading. Daniel Waterhouse, the main character, lives through some very exciting times in English history. Most famously, the Black Plague and the Great Fire. He also is acquainted with many famous men, such as Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and even multiple British kings in succession. Through him we learn of how many aspects of science and the scientific process that we take for granted in modern times were discovered and/or invented. (gravity, for example, and calculus.) He is also raised as a Puritan, with a famously dissenting father who had his nose cut off as an example and believed the apocalypse would come in 1666 (as did most Puritans at the time). We also get to experience Trinity College at it's most decadent and depraved, with drunken noble sons stumbling about the campus, etc. One third of the way into the book, Stephenson introduces us to Jack Shaftoe (AKA "Half-Cocked Jack" due to a phallic injury, also AKA "L'Emmerdeur" hero of French vagabond tales), an English vagabond wandering around the European continent getting involved in wars, adventures, and business fiascos all over the place. He may be slightly insane (from the "french pox"), but he is wildly entertaining. As is the amazingly resourceful Eliza, whom Jack "rescues" from a Turkish harem during the siege of Vienna. Their story is one of travel, business exploits, attainment, and loss. I think this might have been my favorite part of the novel. The final third of the book goes back to Daniel in London during the overthrow of the monarchy. And, of course, the ending leaves you hanging and wanting to read the second book. But I think I'll have to muster my energy for another long read before I tackle it. I feel almost bad saying so, but I don't think Quicksilver is Stephenson's best work. I loved Cryptonomicon for it's smart, fresh approach to "historical" fiction, just as I enjoyed Snow Crash for it's witty, imaginitive picture of the urban future. But I really felt like the energy had drained out of his writing in this novel. It was still innovative, and smart, and witty...but it felt a little bogged down. Perhaps it was the language, being set in the 17th century, or perhaps it was all the ponderous (but necessary) back stories needed to explain historical events and wars, I'm not sure. But it did seem a little slow at times. Overall, however, this book was an entertaining read, though while I was reading it, I thought it would have been helpful to have some sort of resource that could tell me which characters and events were historical. The wikipedia article was pretty helpful. I didn't notice the "cast" list at the back until I was finished reading the book. This list tells which characters were real and which were fictional, and also their multiple names and titles.


This book is sort of like Woody Allen's “Zelig”, if the movie had been a gigantic doorstop of a book, if it had been set mostly in Europe in the years 1650 – 1713 instead of Great Depression-era America, and if it had had three Zeligs instead of one. OK, so, maybe they're not so similar, but still, like Zelig, the main characters flit from one great historical event to another, influential but unrecognized in life's rich pageant. The three Zelig-like characters are Daniel Waterhouse, Eliza, and Jack. An unscientific study of nearby reviews shows that Daniel Waterhouse is the favorite of the Goodreads demographic. I understand and agree. Daniel has the same appeal for the bookish as the title character in “I, Claudius”: a survivor, decent but not unbelievably so, smart but not overwhelming ambitious, well-meaning but occasionally clueless. He befriends Isaac Newton at school, gives New York its name, becomes an influential figure in Restoration England almost by accident. The other characters may seem less compelling by comparison because, sadly, fewer of us are exotic, seductive, impossibly beautiful, adventurous social climbers and successful derivatives traders (Eliza) or free-spirited, cowardly, romantic hobos, always up for a big caper (Jack). Anyway, it's a historical novel with an attitude, and if you like it, there are still 2,000 more pages to go to complete the trilogy!


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.

Charlie Huenemann

(This is a review of the whole Baroque Cycle.)The saga ranges over the years 1640-1714 (roughly), following three principal characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a British natural philosopher and non-conformist; Eliza, a woman kidnapped from a remote British isle and abducted into the seraglio, who is later rescued and who subsequently makes her way into the court of Versailles and the world of high finance; and Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, adventurer, galley slave, pirate, and sympathetic everyman who will out-connive everyone unless the Imp of the Perverse compels him toward actions uncommonly glorious. Along the way we meet Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren, Boyle, Locke, Peter the Great, royals of Europe, harpoon-chucking Russians, insidious Jesuits, etc., etc. and are led on great many an escapade in which, as the phrase goes, hilarity ensues.In some interview Stephenson defines science fiction as fiction that takes ideas seriously, and by that measure this is major league science fiction. There are no robots, cyborgs, or time travel, but we do encounter the beginnings of modern science (promiscuous with alchemy), the transmutation of rare earth metals into coins, credit, and finance, the operations of the British Mint and Royal Society, the various sultanates of Asia, the global slave trade, the manufacturing of watered steel, cryptography, the logistical difficulties of sailing and of naval warfare, the beginnings of steam engines, and the lived experience of London’s sewer problems, with lots of clanging swordplay along the way. None of these are merely glimpsed, but each is explored in such depth as to prompt the reader to wonder who the hell this Neal Stephenson person is and how many heads he might possess. For a guy who, as he says, gets paid to sit on his butt and make stuff up, the achievement of his series is jaw-dropping, and it is a ripping good yarn to boot, all 916 + 815 + 886 pages of it.

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