"A gloriously rich, entertaining, and endlessly inventive novel that brings a remarkable age and its momentous events to vivid life -- a historical epic populated by the likes of Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV -- Quicksilver is an extraordinary achievement from one of the most original and important literary talents of our time."--Publisher's website.
Maybe it will be a good marriage with staying power all the way to the final breath of the last page; or, if the book's especially bad, the reader will opt for a quick divorce, leaving the poor book wondering what it did wrong, what it could have done better.
Neal Stephenson's novel, Quicksilver, requires some serious marital commitment.
At more than 920 pages and weighing a few ounces shy of three pounds, Quicksilver can be a draining experience—like having a 300-pound bride sit on your chest and demand your full attention—and along about page 730, you're really starting to ponder those words "to have and to hold."
The novel, the first of a trilogy Stephenson is calling The Baroque Cycle, is set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and is stuffed with a museum's worth of miscellany. Cameos are made by historical and literary figures like Samuel Pepys, Mother Goose, D'Artagnan the Musketeer, Blackbeard the Pirate, William Penn and Winston Churchill (no, not that Winston, but one of his ancestors). Here in these pages, readers will also find such diverse topics as the beginnings of the stock market, French politics, metaphysics, mathematics, archeology, etymology, cryptology, metallurgy, genealogy, high-seas piracy, purloined letters, torture, the medicinal use of manure and scientific discussions involving the gravitational pull of billiard balls and the architecture of snowflakes. I'm sure I've left at least a dozen subjects off the list.
Quicksilver weighs as heavy on the mind as it does the hand.
The densely-packed pages are filled with characters sitting around having conversations about God, gravity and alchemy—characters like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, who is known for believing all knowledge could be coded and numbered. If that was true, he postulated, then determining the mysteries of the universe would be a simple matter of calculation.
This appears to be one of Stephenson's chief aims as well. The novelist has built a reputation, and a devoted legion of fans, with cyberpunk literature like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. His most recent novel, Cryptonomicon, centered around World War Two code-breaking. It, too, weighed in at more than 900 pages, which of course begs the question "Did Stephenson's editor lose his red pen?"
The author is well aware of the stir his heavy-handed volume will cause and has even written in a couple of self-referential winks. Here's an excerpt from a play-within-the-novel (Quicksilver is filled with diagrams, genealogical charts, letters and plays):
WATERHOUSE: Here, m'lord, fresh from Cambridge, as promised, I give you Books I and II of Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton—have a care, some would consider it a valuable document.
APTHORP: My word, is that the cornerstone of a building, or a manuscript?
RAVENSCAR: Err! To judge by weight, it is the former.
APTHORP: Whatever it is, it is too long, too long!
WATERHOUSE: It explains the System of the World.
APTHORP: Some sharp editor needs to step in and take that wretch in hand!
While Quicksilver doesn't exactly explain the system of the world, it goes to great pains and lengths to show us where the basis for much of our modern scientific and philosophic thought originated: the fervid minds of the Natural Philosophers and members of the Royal Society, a men's club which puzzled over everything from dog anatomy to snowflake geometry. Stephenson masterfully shows us how raw and uncharted science was three centuries ago:
"Lately, every time Mr. Hooke peers at something with his Microscope he finds that it is divided up into small compartments, each one just like its neighbors, like bricks in a wall," Wilkins confided.
"What do these bricks look like?"
"He doesn't call them bricks. Remember, they are hollow. He has taken to calling them 'cells'…but you don't want to get caught up in all that nonsense.
Another character claims his goal is to translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old operations on those numbers—and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy.
The novel's title might hold a clue to unraveling what Stephenson is trying to do on these pages:
Quicksilver=Mercury=messenger of the Roman gods=transfer of information=computers
Using this formula, it's not too great a leap from the alchemy of Stephenson's 17th-century characters to his 20th-century hackers in other books. To those early Royal Society gearheads, quicksilver was "the pure living essence of God's power and presence in the world." Newton, Hooke and Leibniz are all hackers, trying to crack the code of knowledge. So, you can see why their skulls were in such torment and turmoil and why, more than 300 years later, Stephenson's cranium seethes with equal energy. God is the x in the algebra equation, and we're all dying to know the answer (but no cheating on the final exam, boys and girls).
All the fireworks of Stephenson's impressive research and fluid documentary style might distract you from the simple fact that, at heart, nothing really happens in Quicksilver. There's no arrow-shot arc of a story, no perpetual-motion of a plot. Characters become chess pieces and Stephenson moves them around the board with his God-fingers.
Quicksilver is actually three books bound in one volume: Book the First follows Daniel Waterhouse, Newton's college roommate, and his associations with the Royal Society. Much ale drinking and mathematical ruminations abound. In Book Two, we turn to the Dickensian tale of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe the Vagabond, a lusty adventurer whose genitalia met with an unfortunate accident (hence, the nickname). Jack rescues the lovely, high-spirited Eliza from a Turkish harem and the two set off across Europe. For about 100 pages, the novel turns into a brainier version of a swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power or, even, Johnny Depp (whose Pirates of the Caribbean character is, coincidentally, also named Jack). There's swordplay aplenty on these pages, with scenes cut straight from the best of Robert Louis Stevenson or Rafael Sabatini. The third part blends the stories of Waterhouse and Eliza with royal intrigue. Eliza becomes a spy at Versailles, at one point concealing coded message in embroidery. All three of the main characters are ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon, though it's possible to appreciate Quicksilver without having read the earlier book.
This is, at times, a lusty, bloody tale in which bodily fluids spill, clotting the page like month-old cottage cheese. At one point, Eliza is asked by Louis XIV to fake an orgasm to cover up his own screams during a hemorrhoid operation as his courtiers wait in an adjoining room. Eliza's performance makes Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally look like an amateur moaner. It's just one of many scenes where Stephenson gleefully gets his fingers bloody writing about early science (here, wittily blending sex with surgery). In fact, the book ends on a particularly skin-puckering note as Hooke prepares to remove Waterhouse's kidney stones…sans local anesthesia, of course.
Those are the high points of the book (a recounting of the Great London Fire of 1666 is another). Then there are the dreadfully dense passages where the paragraphs move slow as mercury on a cold winter day.
According to a USA Today story from 1999, Quicksilver was to be published in 2000, on the heels of Cryptonomicon. At the time, it appears that Stephenson was ready to publish his story in one gargantuan volume. "The publisher informed me that I'd exceeded the physical size a book can be," he told the newspaper. "Beyond a certain page length, the machinery explodes."
Now, three years later, the rubble of gears and cogs lies strewn across every inch of Quicksilver. The machine exploded and what came out of the smoking wreck is either brilliant or balderdash. The other two parts of the Baroque Cycle will be published in April 2004 (The Confusion) and October 2004 (The System of the World). So, by this time next year, we should have nearly ten pounds of Stephenson's brain on our hands.
Sure, a lot of reviews will be focused on the sheer tonnage of Quicksilver and it makes for a relatively easy way to overlook the book's content. But I offer this in the way of argument: the elements of weight and content are irrevocably linked. Information overload is the whole point behind Quicksilver. Your fingers go numb, your eyes swell and—if you're particularly sensitive—your nose bleeds. This is an encyclopedia in the guise of a novel and it takes a particular kind of person to turn its pages.
You the reader must decide a) to make the commitment, then b) to stay faithful to the commitment to the last page or death do you part. But somewhere along the way (page 863, perhaps), you have to ask yourself, "What's the payoff? What do I get in return, other than a pair of sore wrists which have held three pounds of small print close to my eyes for the past two weeks?"
Will your brain swell in its cranial bone-case with all the information Stephenson has crammed there, or will you just sit back and take the ride for whatever it's worth and wherever it leads? Either way, it's doubtful you'll echo the words of one character who says, "I love reading novels. You can understand them without thinking too much."
This can be exhausting. Certainly if, like me, you reach for books to check whether these historical ``facts'' are indeed facts or just facts of the fictional variety. This is the frustrating bit. Stephenson makes no secret of his novels having a fictional element, which means that it occasionally feels like reading a text book without the added bonus of being allowed to trust the information that textbook offers. The majority of the book, however, was so well researched, I was delighted. I had to force myself to stop checking up on it all after a while, and someone really could have told me that there was an appendix containing a list of dramatis personæ in which the fictional were distinguished from the real (or as Stephenson puts it, some are historical, others might ``produce confusion, misunderstanding, severe injury, and death if relied upon by time travelers visiting the time and space in question''). He sometimes makes use of some rather stretched devices in order to include this research, and at other times he makes too much of information that is really common knowledge, but I won't quibble too much.
Stephenson gets stars aplenty for his research. I have always been vaguely insulted by authors who felt it was all right to riddle their novels with inaccuracies. It suggests, or states flat out, that they believe their readers will be too ignorant to notice the difference. Checking up on obscure facts and finding they were accurate made me very happy.
The real strength of the book is craftsmanship. Not just in terms of research, but also in the variety of literary styles. I am a little annoyed that this is not done in a coherent way, but the styles fit their subject so well, I have no real issue with it. He starts off playing with time, presenting the opening of the story as a series of protracted flashbacks from an old man trapped on a ship attacked by pirates, runs off into history and frolics about (there is no other word for it) with the Royal Society for a while, before changing the style completely into a semblance of the picaresque (which, of course, also has the picaresque novel as a participant). He also uses occasional bouts of drama to good effect, and large portions of the last third of the book take the epistolary form.
The book is divided into three sections. The first focuses on Daniel Waterhouse (fictional), a close friend of Isaac Newton (not so fictional) and a great and lovely cast of Royal Society members like Hooke, Wilkins, Boyle, Oldenburg and that lot in 1660s and 1670s London. The second is the picaresque, mainly focused on Jack Shaftoe, a Vagabond (also fictional). I wonder to what extent it is a coincidence that the portrayal of Daniel's youth is shown in apparently objective flashbacks, whereas Jack is allowed to tell his own story to a beautiful woman, with the truth value that entails. The third and final part is not so easily connected to one character, but it is closely tied to Eliza, a former harem slave (and fictional to the extent that she comes from a fictional country) picked up by Jack in part two. Leibniz, rather than Newton, dominates the latter two halves, as the question of Leibniz and Newton and the Calculus hovers in the background throughout.
Historical figures like Huygens, Rossignol, Charles II, James II, William of Orange, Louis XIV and any number of others gravitate (oh dear) around these three protagonists with varying appeal, while the historical moment with its mix of experimental science, theoretical physics, alchemy and other murky activities is presented in full glory. I think he does a very good job of showing that the modern scientific theories did not spring pure and fully formed out of the head of Rationality, but are the result of a general willingness to try everything and investigate it all, while also showing off the fascination with the more spectacular elements (mercury and phosphorous in particular) -- after all, if they did not have spectacular properties, they would not look so cool, right?
I will not try to pronounce on the plot as a whole (I assume the missing resolutions of major questions will be dealt with in the following two volumes), and I would generally not dwell too much on Stephenson's language (while it does occasionally take on the flavour of the period, this sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not; but on the whole it is perfectly serviceable, although not something I would go into raptures about). I really wish there weren't quite so many gratuitous sex scenes. And if someone could properly explain to me how on earth the binary/I Ching code works in Eliza's letters, I will be both more impressed with Stephenson and very grateful to whoever does the explaining. But on the whole I recommend it to anyone with patience who is willing to get lost in the details of the period, particularly those with an interest in history and/or science.
As for the characters themselves, I found it very difficult to care about any of them, which made it very difficult to involve myself in the story.
I really had to wonder what the benefit was of creating a gargantuan work that appeared to say so little; as if mere volume could substitute for depth.
I find the discursive story, with its tangents, wink-and-a-nod semi-anachronistic cross-century linguistic and cultural lessons/references to be enlightening and entertaining, but for the reader of facile history books or pulp fiction, it would be maddening. I think it's a lot like the meta-story in Goldman's _The Princess Bride_, if the narrator of _tPB_ were too dense to find value in the high wit of Morgenstern.
I'm conflicted about giving this book a rating. For some people, it would score four or five stars and for others only one or two. There should be very little middle ground. So, rather than average the two into meaninglessness, I will rate it as I see fit for a reader just like me: 5/5
The book is split into three different sections. The first of these looks back on Daniel Waterhouse's early life in London and his association with the Royal Society and the pre-eminent philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of that time, including Isaac Newton. This period of the book can be extremely difficult reading, and needs intense concentration. Even with that, I found myself struggling with the esoteric vocabulary used and the overwhelming amount of science on display. I find science and maths difficult at the best of times, and this book did nothing to ease me - often I found myself understanding only one paragraph in three and had to really persevere to get through this section. There was light relief periodically from present-day Daniel, travelling by ship back to England and being pursued by pirates. One thing I enjoyed immensely about this part of the book - science aside - was the way that Stephenson conveyed the wonder and mystery of the discoveries that were coming thick and fast, driven by certain people whose ideas have not been surpassed even now.
The second part of the book dealt with Eliza and Jack Shaftoe. This section flew past in a flurry of giggles and adventure, including an amusing interlude with an ostrich and a Turkish harem. Jack is a lively character, seemingly destined to die from the French pox (syphilis), but determined to make a life for himself and generate an inheritance for his two boys. Eliza is enigmatic, alluring and tom-boyish by turns - both drawn to Jack and repelled by him. They travel together across a lot of Europe and end up in Amsterdam, where Jack leaves Eliza to make his fortune in Paris and ends up on a ship bound for deepest Africa. I loved this part of the book, and it more than made up for the dryness of the first section.
The last part draws all the threads of the story together, culminating in the revolution that Waterhouse has spent his life working towards. There is intrigue, and gripping letters between Leibniz and Eliza, who, by now, is the Countess de la Zeur. James II is overthrown and Daniel suffers a spell in prison.
So, all in all, a massive book with massive ideas and massive characters. It should have been unbelievable and unforgettable, but I was left feeling a little as though it were too much work. I will read the other two volumes in the trilogy for completeness, but I don't embark on them with a lightness of spirit!
Quicksilver is the first book in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a trilogy of historical fiction novels covering European history of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, focusing specifically on the political maneuverings of the time and the development of science as we know it today. It involves such people as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, Robert Hooke, Charles II, Louis XIV, and William of Orange. The main characters are, however, completely fictional: Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza. (Readers of Cryptonomicon may notice the reuse of family names. Also reappearing are Enoch Root and Qwghlm.)
As I mentioned above, I found the pace of the book to be exceedingly dull, despite the fact that I actually have an interest in the history of science in that period. (And no such interest in that period's politics, so the science was merely dull, while the politics were excruciatingly dull.) That's really my biggest complaint. I do feel that the book could have been more interesting if it had been edited down a lot.
Still, I did gain some things from the book. For one, I have a lot clearer picture of the history of the area (and, as far as my research can tell, the history in Quicksilver is quite accurate). But I can't really bring myself to recommend it to anyone other than raving history fans. Almost everyone I know found the book very tedious, and most never managed to finish it.
Steganography and ending spoilers below.
The steganographic cypher that Eliza used really bugged me for most of the book. At first, I thought that the plaintext that Stephenson shows was supposed to be derived from the other visible portions of the letter. Which didn't make much sense, because the proportions of the two texts did not match at all the stated 5:1 ratio for cyphertext and plaintext. Later things implied that we were not shown the cyphertext, which is a little more believable, but runs into the problem of boundaries--sometimes the hidden text forms its own paragraphs, but sometimes Eliza appears to insert bits into otherwise cleartext sentences. Said sentences appear to flow naturally with both the hidden text and without any text, but there must be some steganographic text that is there in the undecyphered letter. The only way I could deal with the cypher, given the various problems I perceived with it, was to regard it as an unexplained author's vehicle for plot and try not to think about how it worked. I don't like having to do that with a story.
And the ending. For Stephenson (with whose novel endings I've generally been displeased), it's quite good. It works very well for this particular book (as one that leads into another such) and, with minor tweaks, would do well as the closing to a standalone novel. Too bad I probably won't read the final two books in the Baroque Cycle to see how the whole thing turns out.
While Daniel follows the great scientific minds of the era, Jack Shaftoe, vagabond extraordinaire, careens through colorful misadventures all over Europe. He rescues the bright and beautiful Turkish slave Eliza from the siege of Vienna. Together, they travel across Europe to Amsterdam, home to the budding financial markets. Eliza's quest for fortune and revenge on her enslaver lead her deep into political plots and catapult her to Paris where she captures the attention of the King. Jack moves on in his adventures and attracts a different kind of attention altogether. As the fortunes of kings and countries rise and fall, the paths of our intrepid characters twist and cross over the vast scope of history.
Do not expect this to be similar to Stephenson's cyber-punk novels. Quicksilver is not science fiction in the classic sense - do not expect aliens, futuristic technology or time-travel. Quicksilver is historical fiction that takes place in the 17th and 18th centuries. Large portions of the book cover the birth of modern science and math. Other broad subject areas encompass European political intrigue, war and the development of financial markets. But this is no dry, tame history - this is alive and kicking. Having read Stephenson's book Cryptonomicon adds an extra dimension of interest to reading Quicksilver, since the main characters are ancestors of the characters in Cryptonomicon. The one exception is Enoch Root who appears in both books and is apparently ageless.
Quicksilver does not have a neat resolution, and contains a large amount of set up material - it is very obviously the first book in the trilogy. It is also massive, and with two more massive books to follow, you need to be prepared to devote a serious amount of time to this series. Nobody can deny that Stephenson is wordy, but for such a long book, there weren't too many places where I found my attention wandering. Stephenson keeps things moving along even during some fairly detailed explanations of science or politics. He also plays around with different styles of writing, such as writing a chapter as if it was a period play. It gives a feel for the times as well as varying the pace.
The three lead characters balance each other out nicely. Daniel can be a very passive character, which contrasts with Eliza's plotting and scheming. Just when the going gets too heavy, Jack provides physical action and comic relief. The main trio interact with an enormous cast of characters and one of the things I like best about Stephenson's writing is that he takes time to make even his secondary characters interesting.
Dreary, boring, and very difficult to understand, especially as I am obviously not as intelligent as those who can manage to lap all this up. I am not really a fan of historical fiction anyway so it shouldn't have surprised me but I bought all three books certain in the knowledge that I would love it. Maybe if I do a crash course in American history I might be able to scan my way through to the exciting bits - surely there is an exciting bit?
I really really enjoyed Diamond Age and was vastly disappointed by this offering
If you are new to Stephenson, I'd recommend starting out with just about anything else, and if you're an old fan, unless you really loved the direction he started to go in with Cryptonomicon, give this series a pass.
I hope for better from Stephenson soon.
The first part I found to be slow and a little tedious, though very interesting, it bounces back and forth between the early 1700's on a ship being chased by pirates and 50 years earlier when the main character was going to school. The ship scenes I think were mostly there to give the book some action to help along the boredom of the early story.
The second part was much more action packed and I found to be much more fun and faster reading. This is also where we meet Jack "Half-Cocked" Shaftoe, Vagabond extraordinaire and we follow him on his many adventures throughout Europe in his quest to collect a legacy for his twin boys. This one was much better and many places had me laughing out loud.
The 3rd book was mostly back to the main character from the first book, Daniel Waterhouse, with a bit of tie-in from the second. This one slowed down again but was still better than the first part.
Overall I found the book a decent though long read and very interesting. I actually learned quite a bit about 17th Century Europe and England and a few other things. Quite a few ends and hints were left for the next book in the series.
Very intriguing and intensely cerebral, the novel is slightly weighed down by an overabundance of philosophical and scientific discourse. However, it is a truly satisfying read that I recommend to those interested in philosophy or those who are seeking to travel several decades in the baroque period (1660s through the early 1700s in this novel). You will certainly travel with the author as the details are not in short supply, and the descriptions quickly place you into the correct context.
Much of the books follow the real and imagined life of Isaac Newton and his fellow Natural Philosophers and Alchemists. Both Newton and his fellow Royal Society comrades are exquisitely intriguing, both for their minds as well as for the drama that follows them in their lives. Book two departs for a time to the life of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza. "Half-cock Jack" leads an entertaining life, with and without Eliza, leaving the reader wanting much more of his exciting adventures and witty conversations. Although we lose sight of Jack near the end of this volume, we do maintain contact with Eliza and the life that she has chosen to lead.
After the reader has resigned herself to the fact that these are separate stories of a single time period, the link between the seemingly thus far unrelated stories comes later in the volume. As the connection came later than I'd hoped, I was glad to remember that there were another 2000 or so pages in the trilogy.
Not the whole book is like this; there is a hilarious battle between Captain Hook and Blackbeard :) And of course the vagabond exploits of our Shaftoe ancestor (for the Cryptonomicon fans) are great. And there is lots of interesting historical stuff on Newton, the Royal Society, Restoration England, good stuff. Just wish I could keep up :) I have been meaning to re-read it... maybe it will be easier the second time... but can't bring myself to.
Disclaimer: I think I adore Stephenson's later work too much to write a proper review. I LOVE the Baroque Cycle, and I LOVE Anathem. So much that I feel like I was the target audience, like Stephenson wrote with my taste in mind.
So, with the Baroque Cycle, reading it makes me feel smart. It makes me appreciate my college Trads (Traditions of the West) graduation requirement. The way he explains things that I already understood makes me appreciate and trust the way he explains things that I didn't know all the more.
So, yeah, I loved the Baroque Cycle. Too much to be objective about it.
I find the tone of the book, which fully celebrates the geekiness of the giants of the English scientific flowering, quite congenial. If more history of Science was written in this vein, I'd have read more of it. So I'm in favour of the beginning of the cycle, and would that even more people had read it. If you want to see Isaac Newton, Hooke, Hygens and Leibnitz portrayed as your college roomies with all of their annoying habits laid out for examination, here they are. I hope to finally find out what Neal Stephenson is getting at by reading the next two books.
If with Cryptonomicon Stephenson tried to write Gravity’s Rainbow, then the Baroque Cycle is his attempt at authoring Mason & Dixon, an exploration of modern technology and the effect it has had on the 20th century followed by a sprawling, weird, detail-obsessed historical novel. Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson was not only too late in both cases, but is also not nearly the writer Pynchon is, and therefore ended up failing rather spectacularly, producing a series of novels that, in spite of their massive bulk, seems rather flat and shallow if held up against Pynchon.
Admittedly, I am being somewhat unfair here – not every writer can be a Pynchon, and usually that is not something you’d hold against anyone. It is just that Stephenson so clearly, desperately wants to be Pynchon, making it impossible to not judge him by that standard, a standard which he just cannot measure up to. I already disliked Cryptonomicon, but that was at least was somewhat entertaining; while Quicksilver, when I first read it (shortly after it was released) was just a terrible slog to get through. I did made it to the end somehow, but didn’t touch another novel by Stephenson afterwards.
But sometimes I do get those strange urges, and a few months back I started ogling the Baroque Cycle again. Whatever the reason, after some months of futile resistance the urge became irresistible, I got myself the e-book version of Stephenson’s trilogy and started – not without some misgivings – digging into Quicksilver. And ended up surprised at how much I was enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I read the whole of the Baroque Cycle, all almost 3000 pages of it in almost exactly a month.
Which is not to say that I did not still have some problems with it. If one comes to this novel with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series fresh in one’s mind it is almost painfully obvious to what degree Quicksilver fails as a straight historical novel. Not that I’d have thought even for a moment that Stephenson attempted to write one, but his attempts at mimicking the Baroque writing style are quite grating after O’Brian’s full immersion in his chosen period (and don’t even get me start on a comparison to Mason & Dixon). Stephenson seems half-hearted by comparison, his occasional usage of old spellings seems arbitrary (for example he inexplicably keeps writing “roofs” as “rooves” but is perfectly happy to use a modern spelling for most words) and generally gives the impression of someone just wanting to show off (which I strongly suspect is the raison d’être for a lot of the extended, quite often tedious descriptions of all sorts of minutiae). But then, this is not really supposed to be a strictly historical novel – Stephenson liberally peppers his narrative with anachronisms, and the auctorial is distinctly contemporary and postmodern. Which has the rather unfortunate effect that the novel reads like it wasn’t able to take itself seriously – on the one hand, it is a serious historical novel with a plethora of period detail, on the other it seems more preoccupied with finding precursors modern concerns like programming languages and arbitrary signifiers; on the one hand it seems to want to say something important, on the other it’s just here to have some fun.
Quicksilver is separated into three parts, each with a different protagonist, each of which seems to also work as some kind of allegory – Daniel Waterhouse who is the protagonist of the first book, is a Man of Science, Jack Shaftoe, protagonist of the second, is a rogue and classical picaro, and Eliza (not sure we ever learn her second name), protagonist of the third book and a genius of financial manipulation. Personally, I rather liked the first books but I suspect that was mostly because I already had an interest in the history of science of that period, but most readers (and that would include me) tend to prefer the second, because it is there that Stephenson changes from trying to write serious literature (which, seriously, he is just no good at) to spinning a yarn of colourful adventure (which, it turns out, he is really good at). “King of te Vagabonds,” the Jack Shaftoe part of the novel is an inordinate amount of fun, taking our morally doubtful hero from Vienna to the Netherlands to Paris in a series of increasingly wild and improbable adventures in the true picaresque manner and lets the reader forget about the ponderous, slow-moving first part with several hundred pages of glorious entertainment.
Unfortunately, Stephenson then goes and ruins it all (well, part of it, anyway) with the third part where things just fall apart – for some reason, he decided to not tell his tale straight any more but instead approaches all the important events in his narrative at an oblique angle, only telling of them indirectly and second-hand, which gets really annoying after a while and again slows the novel’s speed down to a crawl.
I’m really not someone who scolds novel for being pretentious – usually, I find that it is just a convenient (and extremely flimsy) excuse for lazy readers to not have to read novels that are difficult or challenging in any way and which might possibly ask of them to think about what they are reading, or even only just pay attention to it. With Quicksilver, however, I think the shoe fits – this is a wonderful adventure novel (almost) ruined by its pretensions to be something more. Thankfully, Neal Stephenson seems to have realized where his true talents lie, and things improve steadily over the next two volumes.
The book is divided into three parts, each featuring a character related to the characters and events of Cryptonomicon. The first third focuses on Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse, and follows his relationship with other great minds, including Newton and Leibniz, during the latter half of the 17th century. The second part of the book is more action-based, switching the focus to the noble Vagabond, Jack Shaftoe, as he seeks to make his fortune and his way in the world. The last third returns to Waterhouse, and also greatly expands on Eliza of Qwghlm, a former slave-girl who may just be the lynchpin of European society. Intermingled with all of these events as well is the alchemist Enoch Root
Overall, the book was fairly good, although to be honest I felt it dragged somewhat in the middle third. It was interesting, though, to see the interplay of the ancestors of characters that are already fairly well-known, as well as their interactions with various historical characters. I'll definitely have to give a read to the next volume in the story.
The problem, in my opinion, is that there was no coherent plot, no sense of excitement at all. I didn't really like any of the characters. There was way too many chapters were nothing really happened. The worst thing is, at times some of the humor I learned to like in Cryptonomicon was there, but only just enough to keep me from dropping the book. Oh, I'm just so frustrated right now. Hopefully
(though not likely) the next one, "Confusion", will be better...