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...
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
Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem, and the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
(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’?
The plot's about an angry guy chasing a whale. There's not a lot of variation on this theme: he catches it, or he doesn't. Maybe he catches it and wishes that he didn't, maybe he doesn't and regrets that he failed. But this basic plot, a straightforward quest for revenge, is such thin gruel that you'd have to be on the lower end of the intellectual spectrum to fail to realize that the book's about something a little bit more than hunting a big fish.
Even so, there's no guarantee that you're going to tolerate 20 pages about rope. At the end of the digression, you're either going to respond in one of two ways. You might be of the sort to go, "Hmm, that was some fascinating rope discourse. I had no idea that rope could be used in such multifaceted ways, and having read that, I am now a different and slightly more rounded person." Then again, you could respond with a "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, enough with the stupid rope already! For fuck's sake, where's that son of a bitch whale? The white sea mammal is the TITLE of the book, and I'm reading about some shitty rope?! Christ, I need some vodka."
You should know what sort of reader you are before picking this book up, because The Baroque Cycle is about 3,000 pages long, and Neal Stephenson digresses like an ADHD kid on speed. Melville's focus is a goddamn space laser in comparison. Quicksilver has economics, mining, mathematics, piracy, slavery, early Puritan philosophy and I forget what else.
It is genius, pure and simple.
This is one of the first great works of the 21st century, and I can't recommend it highly enough. But odds are great that you'll hate it mightily if your concern is the destination instead of how you get there.
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.
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?"
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".
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.
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 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.
As a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, I am slowly working through his backlist which means tackling the daunting Baroque Cycle. Quicksilver is an intimidating read and I would not recommend starting here with his work.
I don't read a lot of historical fiction so this one went a bit over my head in places. There were so many references to people and events that I was not very familiar with. Yet that's what I love about this author. I love that he inspires me to learn and research.
I enjoyed some sections of this novel more than others but I overall really enjoyed it. I will absolutely be continuing on with the rest of the series.
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...
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.
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 consider myself a Stephenson aficionado, but perhaps I am not intelligent enough for the Baroque Cycle after all.
While I consider Cryptonomicon at least my third-favorite of his tomes, this prequel to the saga does not work for me. Yes, one can learn quite a bit by reading about Daniel Waterhouse's conversations with Newton and Leibniz and even a young Benjamin Franklin, covering the Enlightenment period well. And the 'vagabond' sections with Jack Shaftoe's adventures, along with the impressive Eliza, are the more fun parts.
But overall, it can't be avoided how hard to follow this is. Generally, I find Neal Stephenson to be excellent at being a readable author who makes the most complex concepts interesting for a lay reader like myself. Yet, with this it does not work. This is not necessarily because of the thousand-plus page length. His science fiction world of scholars in Anathem is a far more successful attempt.
It was surely worth a try, and hopefully I do now have more of a sense of historical Europe and the natural sciences. What an effort it was, however.
So I suppose I shall not continue the trilogy, nor reread by way of audiobook any time soon...
it took me about a year to get through this one. somewhat worth it, and i will get around to the second and third books of this gargantuan trilogy eventually. i learned a lot about the philosopher-scientists and byzantine politics and what it actually was like to live in the tumultuous times depicted...and didn't learn a whole lot about the inner life of a couple of the central characters. but there are dozens and dozens of truly fascinating and wonderfully written passages depicting all sorts of dramatic and at-times morbid events - more than enough to make up for the relentless and dry detailing of every frickin' scientific, economic or philosophic theory ever contemplated.
Reading this book was kind of like... spending an afternoon on a long walk through the countryside, with a kindly but eccentric uncle, who happens to be a brilliant historian. I could listen to his rambling anecdotes for hours... except at some point I realised that we'd been walking for so long... hypnotised by his voice... that I had grown several inches of beard...
It's a big book, but it's utterly fascinating and I loved it.
I have 40+ books sitting on my 'review-soon' shelf that I just don't have time to write proper reviews for, so I'm going to bash out as many of these mini-reviews as I can before Christmas :-)
The first third of the book was generally plodding and lacking in any interesting protagonists (and no, I don't care that the oh-so-clever-writer added in as many famous characters as he could think of, they were still generally annoying). The second third showed much more promise, and was actually really fun, until the very end when everything got awful. Not like The-Empire-Strikes-Back-second-act-as-many-bad-things-happen-as-possible awful, though I think that's what the author was aiming for. Just unneccesary and silly and revolting. Based on that, a quick thumbing of the final third, and the pervasively self-conscious and occasionally completely-annoying prose, I'm done with this one. It had high points. The descriptions of some of the experiments in the first section. The soon-to-be insane Vagabond King. There was even an infrequent well-written paragraph. It appears there is actually quite a lot of story material for a really good book here, but this redition of the plot has abused my trust for far too long.
One last thing. The only "real" female character in the novel is badly written. I mean, it's not like his male characters beyond Jack are well-thought out and consistently imagined. But Eliza is a particularly poorly developed character- confusing and often contradictery, with shifting morals and no real reason behind many of her actions. I don't know if this is one of those "well aren't women just like that, guffaw" things or simply another literary over-extension on the author's part. I do know it was aggrivating, though.
complete reread of the novel (and of course continuing with the sequels) - while I greatly enjoyed it the first time I read the series (in 2008), this time I have appreciated it even more; epic, memorable characters, adventures, intrigue and the birth of the modern world set on the twin pillars of formalized rational inquiry - what we call now science and was once called natural philosophy - and capitalism which forces innovation - which for most history was strongly resisted by societies - by competition
Upon finishing the last page of Quicksilver i really was expecting a gold star; the book is physically massive and ridiculously dense with plot so anyone who finishes deserves an award.
As it was split into three separate parts or books, as the author has labelled them, i decided to treat it the same; after each part i took a few days break and read something else. I believe this aided in enjoying Quicksilver. Reading it all in one go would’ve been overkill and possibly sent me insane.
Book 1 – Quicksilver Daniel Waterhouse is our main protagonist as he lives a life of a Natural Philosopher. There isn’t a plot as such but Daniel is lucky enough to be alive during the time of Isaac Newton and several other famous eccentrics the majority of which i’d never heard of. They spend most of their time carrying out bizarre and grotesque experiments all in the name of science whilst also reacting to the plague, the great fire of London and the reign of Charles II. There’s so much going on i reckon you’d have to read this three or four times to truly appreciate it’s genius.
Book 2 – King of the Vagabonds We leave Daniel behind for part 2 and follow the story of the syphilis infected Jack Shaftoe who, whilst fighting against the Turks in the Battle of Vienna, sets free a lady of the Sultans Harem called Eliza. Both escape the camp and commence a sightseeing tour of Amsterdam, Paris and Marseilles, interacting with William of Orange, Gottfried Leibniz and the Duke of Monmouth who is planning his coup of the English crown. As with part 1 there’s too much going on for a proper synopsis. Needless to say there’s no let up of events/action and i was never bored.
Book 3 – Odalisque Part 3 rejoins Daniel and also concentrates on Eliza who is now a financial adviser and the 17th century female version of James Bond as she aligns herself with William of Orange. We also witness the downfall of James II and the Glorious Revolution.
I read the above and my description of Quicksilver seems sparse compared to the mammoth tome that i read. On paper i shouldn’t have liked this book; there’s no definitive plot and it’s focus is the 17th Century, which wouldn’t be my first choice if i was to geek out on history. It’s also full of historical events and people i wasn’t clued up on and there’s little explanation as to what’s going on; Neal Stephenson writes as if you should know about this period of history and if you don’t then tough! Thankfully Wikipedia is a great aid for research if you’re in need. Despite all of this i loved it. It was interesting, packed full of philosophy and there’s an array of crazy characters, none more than Isaac Newton who is an insane genius!
What a difference the right character makes! I was on page 384 when I suddenly realized that Eliza was finally someone in the narrative that I could care about. Because of her, Jack Shaftoe became more interesting too. (If I was a stickler for Nancy Pearl's rule, I would have abandoned the novel long before this point [Take 100, subtract your age and the result is the number of pages you should read before giving up on a book. When you're 100, you're free to judge a book by its cover.]) But I did end up liking the book, although not as much as I had hoped.
It shouldn't have been that way. I was so optimistic when I started this huge book. After all, Isaac Newton was a prominent character. How could he fail to be fascinating? Well, by appearing for a while, then dropping out of sight, that's how. He reappears fleetingly at the end, at least. Daniel Waterhouse was mildly interesting, but so clueless about politics (and women) that he was next to useless as a narrator. It was the sections about his older self, trying to return from Massachusetts to England on a ship and escaping from pirates that kept me reading until I found Eliza. I'm usually an enthusiastic reader of historical fantasy, but I found my attention drifting frequently. I'd have to back up a couple of paragraphs to make sure I hadn't glossed over a significant point.
I've read a few Stephenson novels at this point in my reading project: Snow Crash, The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, and Cryptonomicon, varying from 2 to 3 stars for me. I am coming to the conclusion that Neal is just not the lid to fit my pot. What’s interesting to me is that I have hit the 2003 to 2004 part of my reading list and many of the titles are huge brick-like tomes! What was it about this time period that encouraged these huge doorstoppers of books? Now comes the question, will I continue this series? Well, I'm going to give the second volume a try for sure. My library has it so it will be effortless to acquire. And I still have some time to wait before the Ruler of my Historical Fantasy Heart, Guy Gavriel Kay, publishes his newest title.
Book Number 445 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project
Nije ni čudo da mi je trebalo tjedan dana za knjigu kad je ona sama trilogija. Upravo je nevjerojatna količina istraživanja koju je autor proveo da bi oov napisao. likovi, scenografija, odjeća, maniri, sve je detaljno do u picabocu. Situacije teku, izmjenjuju se, i knjiga skoro da nema dosadnog dijela. Kraljevi, prirodni filozofi, stvarni i izmišljeni likovi izmjenjuju se iz stranice u stranicu upadaju iz situacije u sitaciju. 4.75 a sad mi treba neka nefikcija da malo isperem mozak prije idućeg nastavka.
You can say any sort of nonsense in Latin, and our feeble university men will be stunned, or at least profoundly confused. That’s how the popes have gotten away with peddling bad religion for so long, they simply say it in Latin.
It is assuring to see Stephenson working and waxing so Pynchonian. The author is putting in the work, sketching the details, plumbing for the argot, inserting the puns.
I've read it twice. the Waterhouse sections are divine, the others not so lofty.
So many people have already reviewed this book--so instead of a comprehensive review, I will only mention one of many truly memorable scenes. In a meeting of the Royal Society in London, various natural philosophers report on their recent findings, inventions and discoveries. The juxtaposition of banal reports with momentous discoveries is absolutely hilarious. I won't try to paraphrase it--the scene is lengthy--but this section is worth reading by any modern-day scientist. The point is that at the time of discovery, its true importance is not known, or even guessed at. It's only after time has passed that we learn whether a discovery is trivial or important.
I was a few books up on my yearly goal and I wanted to read something long and something that would also make me feel smart while reading it. This came recommended to me by the awesome Sud666, sorry I don't know how to tag people, and it met those two criteria perfectly. I was weary because Stephenson has been hit (Reamde and Seveneves) AND miss (Cryptonomicon) with me and it is totally weird because this is written almost exactly like Cryptonomicon, which I DNF'd, and I loved it. It's one of the most immersive books I've ever read without having any focused storyline but everything works and it's entertaining AF. Looking forward to getting into book two in the near future.
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.
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
Quicksilver is an interesting book-especially since you can be discussing two different books. Quicksilver is the first installment of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle. It is a political and scientific monster delving into the 17th and 18th century. The first thing you need to know is that Quicksilver:Volume One is a combination of Quicksilver:Book 1, King of the Vagabonds: Book 2, and Odalesque: Book 3. If you purchase Quicksilver Volume 1 do not purchase the Books that are available in a solitary format. You are not getting anything new. It is a marketing package to make the series look less intimidating. You can purchase the books in whatever format is more appealing to your reading style. My one comment is that if you choose to read Quicksilver: Book 1 rather than Volume 1 you may not be as impressed. It explores of the story of Daniel Waterhouse the friend and colleague of Isaac Newton. He is a Royal Society member in the English scientific community but ends up playing a much more political role. The scientific details are rich. Many have found them excessive. I enjoyed them but the first time I read this it was as the volume and not the book and including the stories of Half-cocked Jack and Eliza helps to make Volume holistic. I think if I had read book one initially I am not sure I would have continued. My personal recommendation, if you enjoy large dense books, read the books in the three volumes rather than the 8 book format.
Daniel Waterhouse is a friend and colleague of Isaac Newton. He comes from a deeply religious and puritan background. His father was the infamous Drake and both paves a way for his career in Natural Philosophy as well as is a challenge. Daniel and Isaac meet in Oxford and room together. Daniel soon learns he can learn more from Isaac’s genius than what he can learn in class. The price for this is keeping Newton fed, making sure he sleeps, and taking the brunt of his moods and temper. Daniel is perhaps the only person that Isaac trusts and puts Daniel in the position of caretaker and social diplomat for Newton so the world can see his genius. Nothing would be published of Newton’s if it weren’t for Daniel because Newton. He does not produce his work for acclaim and most of his work isn’t seen by anyone else. As a result, Waterhouse does not get to pursue his own scientific queries. Instead he becomes steeped in politics and an integral important figure in the Royal Society. This is what you learn in Quicksilver: Book 1. Quicksilver: Volume 1 goes on to explore the story of Jack Shaftoe, or Half-cocked Jack. This man is not a political giant but rather an intelligent street urchin grown into a man. He’s not the best of men, but he is smart, crafty, and always seeking opportunity. Jack brings the action to this tale as his story becomes entwined with Daniel’s as well as Eliza’s. Eliza is rescued from a harem by Jack – not on purpose but their relationship is important. She is spy, financial market genius, and rescued white sex slave. If you stop at Book 1 you will miss so much. Carry on because as with all Stephenson’s books it will all tie together in the end.
Stephenson, prior to this series, was known for his science fiction, specifically, Snow Crash and Diamond Age. These are books I love. The Baroque Cycle is purely historical and while it discusses scientific material and how it shaped 17th and 18th century society this is a historical novel. The book provides a very different view of the scientific giants of this time frame compared to the version taught to you in school. Personal issues and mental illness are evident. Stephenson is known for his level of detail and research. In this series Stephenson is even more diligent than his previous works. Later in his career Stephenson will write Mongoloid and Anathem. I am not a fan of these particular books. I have learned several things in being a fan of his work. It is not all the same and if you like one of his books it is no guarantee you will like another. You need to pick the books of his that fit in the genres you like. I enjoy his science fiction and historical fiction. I have no love for his joint works with other authors. Many of his fans have learned to pay attention to these factors. Some say this series is where his work changed for them and they lost interest. I disagree think The Baroque Cycle is intelligent and I am currently on my second read of it. You must judge for yourself, but use some of the information I presented. Approach the work in the format that agrees best with your reading style and don’t fall into the trap of purchasing a book you have already read if you purchased one of the volumes previously. I have layed out the process to reading this series below.
A long, meandering, Europe-trotting historical which alternates stretches of ponderous natural philosophy with stretches of hilarious piratical shenanigans, to somewhat dubious effect. I enjoyed this, the way you enjoy a book that you read in 100 page chunks over the span of a year, and it's worth noting that I could do that since there's very little throughline. But the thing is.
The thing is, Stephenson made a conscious choice to mix his oodles of historical research with a modern prose sensibility. Which is fine, since it's not like the novel as we understand it – and as Stephenson writes it – was actually invented yet when this book is set. But his particular modern prose sensibility is basically a transcription of the stylings of an overeducated hipster douche kicking back in a hipster douche bar, telling his hipster douche friends about that time he got lost on vacation and nearly died of malaria, but the entire point of the story is to be arch and ironic and detached about the whole thing, because let's be honest, nothing bad could truly ever happen to this hipster douche, that just isn't how the world works and he knows it. I mean, he's a funny dude! He tells a great story! But there's a very fine line.
Basically, somewhere around page 700, right about where a couple of characters were observing a rape and contemplating their imminent enslavement and death, and all they did was make arch, detached, hipster douche comments to each other about it, just as every other character had done on every other occasion from the wrenching to the banal to the sublime, right about then was when I thought oh come on, a single moment of genuineness wouldn't kill you.
Except this is Stephenson, so actually . . . it might.
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.