Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, #1) By Neal Stephenson

This was the book that knocked Neal Stephenson off of my buy on sight list. Too long, nothing happening, the first of three dauntingly large volumes. That about sums it up. Neal Stephenson Book 1 in the Baroque Cycle published 2003.
A recommended 4 star read.
First thing that needs to be said is this is not a quick read, at 927 pages it’s huge by any standard.
The next thing to say is that there is no discernible plot; well none discernible to me that is.
So how does one read a 927 page plot less tome?
The answer to that, strange at it may seem, is with ease.
It reads more like a diary, a diary that records some of the most monumental scientific discoveries of all times.
The narrator, Daniel Waterhouse, is a member of the Royal Society along with some of the most influential Scientist, not only, of their day but in human history, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz and Robert Hooke just to name a few.
As a member of this most elite club Daniel Waterhouse was there when these luminaries were make their world changing discoveries.
The 16 and 17 hundreds were an interesting period in history apart from the scientific advances there was the Great Fire of London, The Black Plague, religious turmoil and the Anglo Dutch war, all of which is entertainingly retold to us by Daniel Waterhouse.

As you would expect with a 927 page book there are part that just seem to go on and on so I have to admit to a bit of skimming.
But for all that Quicksilver proved to be an entertaining and illuminating look at life in the 16 and 17 hundreds. Neal Stephenson Stephenson serves up a real doorstop here, and it is the first of three in The Baroque Cycle trilogy to boot! Quicksliver is divided into three discrete but related parts (Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds and Odalisque) each having its own main protagonist and main characters, but of course lots of overlap. Trying to review a book of this magnitude is difficult, however, especially as Stephenson likes to meander around rather than give the reader a straight forward plot. That stated, here goes.

Set in the 17th and early 18th century in Europe (largely England, but significant parts are in France and Holland), Quicksilver has multiple, related themes. Perhaps the key, or major, one concerns the scientific revolution occurring at the time, and many of the key figures of that are major characters (Issac Newton, John Locke, Leibniz). Our main protagonist, Daniel Waterhouse, is associated with many of these figures and a member of the 'Natural Philosophy' club; a group of 'free thinkers' in England who ride the crest of the scientific revolution.

Another theme concerns the various political and religious revolutions embroiling Europe in the 17th century, where 'Papist' kings trying to root out the various strains of Protestants, who have congregated largely in Holland and England. England, however, is still in the throes of religious tension, with 'kingly' pressure to reinstate a 'uniform' church (Papist or Anglican) versus the 'puritans' and other protestants who have no desire to return to such. Basically, Quicksliver as a whole features the political landscape of England in the 30 or so years leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Another theme, although not as pronounced as the political, scientific and religious revolutions concerns the 'commercial' revolution spearheaded by Holland and the V.O.C., which led to very sophisticated financial practices such as futures and 'joint-stock' corporations like the V.O.C. itself, but also insurance and such. Holland, via the V.O.C., went from being largely a backwater to carving out a huge global trading empire in the 16th and 17th century, pioneering many trading and financial practices that other nations (notably England) would emulate in the 17th and 18th century to conquer the world. Note-- not all of these practices were 'nice' as Holland lead the slave trade and the V.O.C. was basically an armed corporation, sometimes carving out 'deals' via cannon and war.

The first book, Quicksilver, features Daniel on the one hand growing up and going to college (where he rooms with Newton) and then forward in time to his later years (after founding MIT in Cambridge, MA) heading back to Europe as a relatively old man in 1713 (where his ship is attacked by pirates, Blackbeard no less!). This section focuses primarily upon the scientific revolution in England and the somewhat bizarre characters that lead it.

The second book, King of the Vagabonds, turns more toward politics, with its two main characters of Jack the Vagabond and Eliza. This starts off with the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1682 or so. Jack, a notorious Vagabond (something of an international brotherhood of rogues) manages to find himself at the battle looking for some loot. What he finds instead is Eliza, a former Harem girl in the Sultan's entourage, who he manages to free and flee with. Eliza is a young virgin that the Sultan planned on 'taking' after winning the battle in celebration. She and her mother had been kidnapped from Europe years ago by pirates and sold/taken to the Barbary Coast as slaves; eventually, Eliza was sold to the sultan of Turkey.

The final book, Odalisque, brings several of the main treads together. Daniel, whose father was something of a firebrand in England (Daniel was raised to believe the 'END OF TIMES' would happen in 1666) is now a bit on the outs with the King of England (James II, a papist, but also a bit crazy). Eliza, having found her groove in Holland, is working the markets and befriending people (Jack the Vagabond is in a bad way; I am sure Stephenson will return to him later in the series). Working with the William of Orange in Holland, and some help via Leibniz, Eliza heads to France to be something of a spy in King Looie's court. Things get complicated, but Stephenson goes a fine job exploring the political intrigues of the day.

Whew! This is a hard book to rate. At time enthralling, other times pondering and meandering. I loved the eccentric band of 'proto' scientists and their various explorations (calculus, physics, etc.) and the political intrigues were first rate (although at times rather slow going). It is pretty amazing to think of what Europe was like a few hundred years ago, but I think Stephenson did a fantastic job bringing this era to light. This will tax your European history to some degree and make you stretch your mind on some serious scientific concepts. Stephenson's dry wit also comes through in the oddest places as well, along with his fine prose. Yet, as far as plotting, meandering is perhaps the best way to describe it. Reading Stephenson is an experience you may or not like. If you liked Cryptonomicon, you will like this; if not stay far away. More than 4 stars, but not 5, so I will go with 4. Viva la revolution!!

I should also mention that this is not straightforward historical fiction as Stephenson introduces some fantasy elements as well. First we have Enoch the Red, as 'timeless' alchemist of some sort who occasionally appears (always very timely) and everyone seems to know something about. Secondly, we have Eliza's abductor, who we never meet, but seems to live on severely rotted food, like fish left to rot for a week or so. Obviously, these two characters will have some role in the upcoming sequels... Neal Stephenson Neal Stephenson books are not for everybody. Actually, they are but not everybody will like them. This will certainly be the case for Quicksilver. It's a love it or WTF did I just read? kind of reaction. A NS book is often dense and erratic in the linear story. Mr. Stephenson has a myriad of interests and a sizeable intellect backing him up. His stories tend to delve in a variety of side topics (all of which are very informative but outside the normal story arc) and that can be off putting to many who dislike tangential topics to the main plot. Well..you have been warned. For the rest of you that like NS, let me tell you about Quicksilver.

It is a book broken up into three parts. The first part, Quicksilver, is flashback of the early life of Daniel Waterhouse during the early 1700s. The second part, King of the Vagabonds, focuses on James half-Cocked Shaftoe and the vast majority takes place circa 1683. The final part, Odalisque, goes back to D. Waterhouse and details his exploits during his time as a courtier for Charles II of England.

Set during the Baroque era NS shows the monumental changes taking place. As an aside, the Baroque era was one where the Catholic Church, under the guidance of the Council of Trent (1545-1563 in Trento, Italy), decided to perform a Counter-Reformation to act against the growing Protestant outbreak. What the Council espoused, ironically contrary to past Church policy, was that the Church ought to encourage arts that explored religious themes with a direct and emotional involvement. Thus the exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail of the Baroque style found a receptive audience among the Church and the Aristocracy who felt that the the dramatic style of Baroque art and architecture was a means of impressing visitors by projecting triumph, power, and control. Thus the Baroque style originates in Italy, specifically Rome, and began to spread throughout Europe during the 1600s.

The story is a grand adventure. The setting is Europe and the cast includes many famous people from Newton to William of Orange. Along the way you will learn about the conflict between Gottfried Leibniz and Issac Newton about the math behind Newton's ideas was interesting (well..to me). It shows the basis for the creation of calculus and how it differed from geometric and trigonometric expressions. Truly amazing. It also hints at the fact that what Leibniz is referencing as a math language is the basis for the binaric calculations done by modern computers! Very cool.

I will not spoil the plot nor delve too much into the details since NS does it far better than I. if you're interested in the scientific, political and economic forces that drove the baroque period then this is the book for you. Vast in scope, dark in humor, dense in knowledge, lacking in a strict, linear plot-this is textbook NS. Coming in at the size of a textbook-I reiterate- this is not for everyone, but if you show the patience to get through it, I think, you will find it to be worth it. I did. Neal Stephenson 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 Cœlestial Dynamics, the gold—the universal medium of exchange, to which everything was reduced—was force.
- Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

Book 1: Quicksilver

That one man sickens and dies, while another flourishes, are characters in the cryptic message that philosophers seek to decode.
- Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

Book 1: Quicksilver gives off a bit of a low-brow SF Pynchon vibe. It works well in parts, and falls a bit flat in parts (dialogue, etc). I sometimes wish Stephenson wouldn't chase down every last snowflake. I really do, however, enjoy the primary narrator Daniel Waterhouse and his interactions with such figures as Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, John Wilkins, etc.

Having already read Cryptonomicon, I was also glad to see Enoch Root (one of my favorite characters from that book). Like Pynchon, Stephenson takes historical fiction and probes the fiction needle into history at funky angles. He thrills at causing his fictional characters to interact in oblique ways to historical characters. Given the large amount of negative space in history (think about how much we DON'T know about people like Newton, or even the consumate diariest Pepys), a creative writer of historical fiction can bend/reflect/refract the light of the past to tell many compelling stories King of the Vagabonds(and they don't even have to be plausable, they just can't completely contradict major historical events).

Book 2: King of the Vagabonds

Jack had been presented with the opportunity to be stupid in some, way that was much more interesting than being shrewed would've been. These moments seemed to come to Jack every few days.
- Neal Stephenson, King of the Vagabonds

Stephenson continues his Quicksilver Volume with Book 2: King of the Vagabonds. Where Book 1: Quicksilver dealt primarily with Isaac Newton and Daniel Waterhouse, King of the Vagabonds centers around the adventures of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe*, Doctor Leibniz, and Eliza. It seems to have taken stock of Joseph de la Vega's .
'Confusion de Confusiones (1688), and perhaps also Charles Mackay's later Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and even Frances and Joseph Gies' Life in a Medieval City. Much of the book involves the adventures of two or three of the above Jack, Liebniz, Eliza making their way across many of the markets and cities of Europe. It allows Stephenson to discuss not only the politics of the age of Louis XIV, but also the changing markets (Leipzig, Paris, London, Amsterdam), politics, religion, and birth of the Age of Resaon.

Stephenson has said in Book 1 he was primarily dealing with nobility and the top-end of the economic ladder. So, in Book 2 he wanted to spend a bit of time at the bottom of the ladder (hence Vagabonds).

* Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, Daniel Waterhouse, and Eliza (of Qwghlm) are all ancestors of characters from Stephenson earlier book, Cryptonomicon. Enoch Root appears in this book as well as in Quicksilver AND Cryptonomicon. He is like a Zelig for science. Always appearing just where he needs to be to give the wheel a turn, the cart a push, the clock of progress a wind.

Book 3: Odalisque

Even a well-made clock drifts, and must be re-set from time to time.
- Neal Stephenson, Odalisque

An odalisque was a chambermaid or a female attendant in a Turkish haram (seraglio), particularly the ladies in haram of the Ottoman sultan.

So, the book title references Eliza, who in book 2: King of the Vagabonds is rescued by Half-Cock Jack (King of the Vagabonds). Eliza in this book enters the world of European economics and spycraft. She rises from broker of the French nobility, eventually earning the title of Countess of Zeur. She also aids William of Orange as he prepares to invade England, gaining the added title of Duchess of Qqghlm. Odalisque also brings us back to Daniel Waterhouse.

I personally missed Jack Shaftoe, but that was partially assisted because we were introduced to his brother Bob Shaftoe.

I've enjoyed Volume one. I'm a big fan of the Age of Enlightenment and was thrilled to experience of fictionalized Pepys, Newton, Leibniz, William of Orange, etc.


Negatives of the book(s), and series, so far? Like in Cryptonomicon Stephenson is going big (think Pynchon, Eco, etc), but his prose is flat often and his dialogue is worse. The dialogue seems closer to a Boston pub in 1987 than in a Royal Society meeting, but meh. It was still intersting and fascinating. I like the label: History of Science Fiction. So, I might not read this one twice, but I'll for sure finish the series - just not tonight. Neal Stephenson


read Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, #1)

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.

And it's just the beginning...

(back cover)

This P.S. edition includes 16 pages of supplementary materials.

Cover design by Richard L. Aquan
Cover illustration from the Mary Evans Picture Library; painting of Great Fire of London on stepback Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, #1)

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?
Neal Stephenson Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson is in some ways the strangest book I’ve read this year.

The most surprising aspect of the book is the fact that there is no plot. I’ve read books that have started really slowly, and even books where the author largely ignores plot to focus on building the setting. This book, however, has no plot.

For all intents and purposes, Quicksilver is The 17th Century: The Novel. In many ways it feels like the literary equivalent of an open world video game. You just go around exploring with the characters, with no context or coherence whatsoever. Historical value is incredible. Certain individuals, like Isaac Newton, John Churchill and William of Orange, figure heavily. Tons of others make shorter appearances. As for location, the book takes you everywhere from the port of colonial Boston to the 1683 siege of Vienna.

And almost surprisingly, it’s charming. Almost a thousand pages of exploring a historical setting occasionally becomes an arduous task, but occasionally also becomes an exciting adventure filled with interesting details.

The book is divided into three parts. Considering the ridiculous size of the whole volume, you might define the three as books in themselves. I definitely had to take a break and read other things between each of them.

The first book focuses on Daniel Waterhouse, Puritan thinker and scientist and one-time member of the Royal Society. His part is split in two between a “present day” (1713) account of his leaving Massachusetts on a ship bound for England. This acts as a frame story for the second, which is a tale about his life and exploits with the Royal Society decades earlier. I strangely enjoyed the former more than the latter, even though it is moving so slowly that although the book starts out in Boston, the ship ends the part by sailing out of Massachusetts Bay.

The second book focuses on Jack Shaftoe, vagabond turned mercenary, and Eliza, slave in the harem of the Ottoman sultan. From their meeting during the siege of Vienna, the book follows them on a journey together through the various principalities and kingdoms of Europe, filled with strange details and interesting histories.

The third book pulls the first two together in something of a conclusion, leading up to the year 1688. The (historical) ending of the book was rather obvious if you are familiar with these times.

Overall, it’s a much more interesting book to read in than a book to read. While there is little sign of a story, and the fictional protagonists are not particularly outstanding, the setting is uniquely interesting and very well described. Despite being a work of historical fiction, the reader will inevitably learn a lot about 17th century history, in very enjoyable ways.
Neal Stephenson 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. Neal Stephenson (The following is an excerpt from the journal of Neal Stephenson.)

After the success of Cryptonomicon, I’m having some problems narrowing down my next project. The issue is that I have far too many ideas, and I can’t decide which plot to use for my next book.

I know that I want do something set during the late 17th century in Europe. It was an amazing time with huge changes in politics, culture, commerce and science, but there was just so much going on that I can’t seem to make up my mind and pick one or two concepts for the book.

Here are some of the top ideas I’m mulling over:

• The soldier and scientist dynamic between Waterhouse and Shaftoe worked so well in Cryptonomicon that I’d like to do something similar here. Perhaps have characters who are the ancestors of Lawrence Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe?

• This would be during the early period of the Royal Society when men like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, and many others were essentially creating modern science and battling among themselves. Putting an ancestor of Waterhouse in among them seems like a natural fit.

• I’m also fascinated by all the religious upheaval in England following Cromwell’s death through The Glorious Revolution. Having a character with a Puritan upbringing caught up in these events would be interesting. Maybe that’s the place to bring a Waterhouse into it?

• But I’m equally interested by all that was happening in commerce during this time. Our modern economic systems were being developed, and even the very nature of money itself was being redefined. I’d very much like to do a plot that involved that.

• However, I’m also intrigued by all the political machinations and palace intrigue that took place across all of Europe.

• If I do something with the political side, then I’ll almost certainly need to set something among all the wars and conflicts that took place. That might be a natural place to use a Shaftoe character.

• I’d really like to dig into the details of how dirty, smelly, nasty and short life was to most people back then.

• It might be more original to get away from the known events and famous people of the time and show a viewpoint from someone common like a vagabond. (Maybe this should be a Shaftoe character.)

• Thinking about vagabonds, it’d be interesting to do a modern take of a picaresque novel with a rogue-ish hero getting into adventures and insulting the people of quality. This would definitely be a great Shaftoe character.

• I’d also like to explore the role of women in this society. Maybe have some kind of very smart female character who has to use her charm and brains to navigate a variety of social and political challenges? Could I tie that in with the money thing?

• Doing some kind of story about spies would be really cool. If I write about spies, I could use some of the cryptography stuff I brought into the last book again.

• Pirates. I definitely need to do something with pirates.

• Slavery. I should also work in some stuff about slavery.

• I’d also like to use the Enoch Root character again. That’d really establish him as an ageless stranger who is kind of pushing events in certain directions, just like he did in Cryptonomicon. Plus, that gives it a bit of a sci-fi element so I’ll be eligible for all the Locus and Hugo-type awards.

• On top of everything else, I’m dying to play with the format a little. Maybe do some chapters like a stage play from the era? Or tell a section via a series of letters? If I use letters to tell the story, it’d be another chance to work in the code stuff.

There are too many possibilities. I don’t know how I’ll ever …. Wait. I just had a crazy thought. I shouldn’t be trying to NARROW the focus. I should EXPAND the focus. Throw all of these ideas and even more into one giant stew pot.

No, that’s insane. It’d be too complex and convoluted. How could readers keep everything straight? Just trying to keep track of the various royal families alone would drive most people mad.

I guess if I used just two or three main characters, but then had them shift into a variety of roles??? Waterhouse as a Puritan, a scientist, and a political player in England? Shaftoe as a soldier, a vagabond and a syphilis sufferer? (Maybe add another Shaftoe if one is going to have syphilis.) Make the woman a spy, an anti-slavery advocate, and a natural genius with money?

Could it work? Have them all bounce against all the people and events of the time? How could I make that coherent? And it’d have to be huge. Probably at least three books with 800 to 900 pages a book.

Yes. Yes! I can make it work! I am just that damn good. Those who go along with it will marvel at my genius. Those who can’t follow along will be too exhausted to complain. It’s brilliant. Those fools won’t know what hit them!

And I will call it…. The Baroque Cycle.

BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! (Yes, I, Neal Stephenson, like to write evil laughter into my journal while I’m plotting my books.)

Kemper’s Random Comments on Quicksilver

• Wikipedia is your friend while reading this book.

• Jack Shaftoe is not called ‘Half-Cocked Jack’ just due to his tendency to act without thinking. *shudder*

• Isaac Newton should not have been allowed to handle needles.

• Considering the way that various dogs, cats, horses, rats, frogs and ostriches are treated, this story is obviously set long before the ASPCA or PETA existed.

• Stephenson has a lot of fun allowing his characters to make history. Daniel Waterhouse casually comes up with the name New York when others are debating what to call New Amsterdam after it changes hands. Eliza invents the word ‘sabotage’. Young Jack and his brother Bob create modern advertising and an early form of infomercial while making up small plays to advertise for their service helping condemned men hang faster and suffer less by dangling from their legs.

•Venice gondoliers suffered from ‘canal rage’ caused by the hectic fast paced modern lifestyle they lived in.

• After reading of the various ‘medical treatments’ used in here, you will hug your doctor the next time you go in for a check-up, and you will also feel the urge to call your dentist for a cleaning.

• Jack considers it quite an accomplishment to have lived to the ripe old age of 20, and tells 19 year-old Eliza that she’s got a good ten or twenty years left to her.

• European royal families were kind of gross.

• I loved that Stephenson brings back his fictional country of Qwghlm, a godforsaken island under British rule where ice storms in June are common, and the English cut down all the trees.

• Who knew that you could outwit pirates with math?

• The scenes of trying to buy something are always hilarious because of all the haggling, not over the prices, but over what type of coins will be accepted because most are worthless due to the lack of reliable currency.

• Why did I find it so funny that the English characters call syphilis the ‘French Pox’ and the French characters call it the ‘English Pox’?
Neal Stephenson I think it's official: I hate Neil Stephenson's books. 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. Neal Stephenson