Epiphyte Book Review up to review index

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

by Neal Stephenson

US hardcover edition

Quicksilver, Volume One of the Baroque Cycle, is the new doorstop from Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. It's set in late-seventeenth-century Europe, and while it has a few links to Cryptonomicon, you don't need to read Cryptonomicon first. A bit of background reading about the English Civil War wouldn't hurt, though.

First, let's make it clear that Quicksilver is not science fiction. It's historical fiction, occasionally about science, for people who like science fiction, i.e. geeks. It has math, optics, and vivisection, but no computers, no code, and no high-speed pizza delivery.

This is also not a book that gets anywhere quickly. It's 900-plus pages, and it's not padded so much as it is fractal. Stephenson wanders down side tracks, stages elaborate adventures and morality plays, explores philosophical issues and geometric proofs, assembles obscure puns, and drags in all manner of famous people and events, purely for his own amusement. Either you sit back and enjoy the game, or you hurl the book (with effort) at the wall somewhere in the first few hundred pages.

Daniel Waterhouse is a seventeenth-century geek; his father's a prominent associate of Oliver Cromwell, but Daniel's more interested in Natural Philosophy than in decapitating kings and Catholics. At Cambridge, he befriends Isaac Newton; later he becomes sort of a grad student and chief bottle-washer to the Royal Society. He starts out as naive observer of London politics, but over a few decades, gravitates into the intrigues of both the Court and the European intelligentsia. Just as Lawrence Waterhouse befriended Turing in Cryptonomicon, Daniel Waterhouse orbits Newton and Leibniz. It seems to be the fate of Waterhouse men to be brilliant thinkers eclipsed by the geniuses of their age.

Jack Shaftoe is a legend in his own time, a thief and mercenary who propels himself around Europe on sheer balls and avarice. He bumbles into and out of ridiculous scrapes, including an ostrich-chase at the Siege of Vienna that results in his rescue of the slave-girl Eliza from a Turkish harem. Eliza's business savvy draws the pair back across Europe to Amsterdam, where Eliza becomes entwined in both the Dutch stock exchange and the court of Versailles.

Cryptonomicon readers will remember the improbably long-lived Enoch Root, who shows up occasionally to nudge the plot along. Most of the story takes place between 1655 and 1689, but it opens with Enoch in Massachusetts in 1713, interrupting Daniel's efforts to found MIT by presenting him with a summons from England. Daniel spends the next several weeks being chased around Plymouth Bay by the pirate Blackbeard, only to have his plot thread left dangling with no apologies. Either it will be picked up in the sequel, or Stephenson is attaining a new degree of sadism.

Where Cryptonomicon was about secrecy and deception, Quicksilver is about revealing the hidden and the unknown, and the free dispersal of ideas and money. Stephenson uses quicksilver as an unsubtle symbol of the scientific discovery that was beginning to percolate through the known world. He highlights the dichotomy between the religious viewpoint, of a world that began in perfect knowledge and order and has steadily decayed since the Fall, and the scientific viewpoint, of a chaotic world that is slowly being brought into order and the reach of understanding. Much of this understanding was accomplished through the efforts and correspondence of the Royal Society, which operated in a state of excitement, enthusiasm, and confidence that they would decipher the mechanisms of nature: an attitude not unlike that of the dot-com startup era, but fueled more by wonder and less by naked greed.

Lesser writers dump blocks of expositionary prose into the narrative; Stephenson shamelessly shovels it into his dialogue. As a result, much of the dialogue is stilted, and the banter is painfully odd. You get used to it. Some bits are more blatant than others, such as a dialogue between Waterhouse and Newton and a Jewish prism-merchant, in which Stephenson trots out a brief overview of European coinage of the time, while cycling through a catalogue of synonyms for "Jew".

So, is Quicksilver worth the effort? On the one hand, it's an insightful look at both the Scientific Revolution and the Glorious Revolution. On the other hand, it's got plague, pirates, astronomy, sex, explosions, daring rescues, religious strife, and the profound effect on European history of stockbrokers and syphilis. It's a terrific book, but don't expect it to resemble Stephenson's prior books in anything but ambition and length.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
September 2003

hardcover edition
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: September 2003
ISBN: 0-380-97742-7
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 944
Price: US $27.95

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

Bruce Sterling: A Good Old-Fashioned Future

Steven Brust and Emma Bull: Freedom & Necessity

John E. Wills, Jr.: 1688: A Global History
  up to review index
Sep 2003 / CMS