on 11 January 2007
Quicksilver is the first part of The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, a magnificent historical romp that explores the Age of Enlightenment with a humerous, intelligent and well-researched mix of fact and fiction. When originally published it was as 3 volume hardback set; however, each hardback book contains 2 or 3 sub-books and these have been published separately by some paperback publishers such as Harper Torch, so the paperback version of the complete cycle can consist of 7 separate books! My advice would be to check what you are getting before parting with your cash as some of the paperbacks on sale aren't the bargains they seem to be.
For example, the first hardback volume of Quicksilver consists of Quicksilver, The King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, and runs to nearly 1000 pages; the paperback that just contains Quicksilver is only 456 pages. Buyer beware!
on 28 March 2004
I admit Stephenson, aong with James Ellroy, is one of the few authors I buy as soon as a new book is released. I've enjoyed every book he's written, even his earlier stuff such as The Big U where he was crafting his trade. Cryptonomicon is a fantastic read which goes flying off on tangents such as cryptography, politics of the Phillipines, dot com business and the perfect way to eat breakfast cereal. As a result, I waited with bated breath for Quicksilver.
I was not disappointed. Set in the reigns of Charles II, James I (of England, if you're Scottish) and William and Mary, it traces the lives of Daniel Waterhouse, Bob and Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, a freed Turkish slave. Walk-on parts go to Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebniz, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, Samuel Pepys, Judge Jeffreys, Christopher Wren and John Churchill, to name but a few.
As in his other books, there are several stories going on at once, which he moves between regularly, but there is an underlying central theme involving the politics of Europe in that era. I read the book once and immediately read it again, the second time picking up the classic Stephenson detail about the creation of the banking system, the Puritan movement, the gigantic scientific strides taken in the period and the intrigues which took place in the courts of England, France and the Netherlands. It is not surprising Stephenson takes so long between books as the research he does in diverse subjects is enormous. For instance, he has clearly studied Winston Churchill's biography of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, which is a humungous collection of letters, etc covering the period that could have been converted into a novel on its own. But this would have covered perhaps 10% of what this story is about.
His writing style is very clear and his use of English (as spoken at the time in England) does not cause problems with understanding. The characters are all fully rounded and their actions and reactions are plausible.
As with many of his fans, I have problems with the ends of some of Stephenson's books (for his explanation, see his webpage). This book, neatly gets over this by being the first in a trilogy and leaves you with a cliffhanger which forces you to buy the next in the series (not that I object).
In summary, Cryptonomicon this is not although it has been cited as a prequel. There are several names mentiones which appear in Cryptonomicon also and there is reference to cryptography, although this does not feature as a major factor as it did before (however there is a thread in the story which plays on the breaking of a cypher). The second part of this trilogy is out in UK next week, and I for one will be getting hold of a copy as soon as possible.
on 6 March 2006
Not really a review, more a caution - this item is in fact the first book in the Baroque cycle, but is ONLY the first book (of 9)! You really want to buy the same named book that contains the first 3 bits together (ISBN 0099410680 I think), as otherwise its hard to buy the 2nd and 3rd bits (King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque).
on 5 July 2004
I must confess up front that I love this book, I love the next one (The Confusion), and I love everything else (in greater or lesser amounts) that Neal Stephenson has written. Cryptonomicon was fantastic, an effortless weaving of multiple strands. The Baroque Cycle (of which Quicksilver is the first) is more ambitious but just as successful.
I cannot understand those who complain that there's no plot. Apart from the vast, overarching plot of the development of the modern world, Stephenson chucks out a multitude of plots, schemes, machinations and ideas, any of which would have served as the basis of an entire book for his lesser contemporaries. It's true there is no simple dramatic thread, but that's like complaining that there's no disco beat in Mozart (though a more resonant comparison would be Bach). Anyone with any interest in this period of history would appreciate that allusion and discursion are part of the mechanics of telling a story, their initial irrelevence merely a way of determining the most critical distinction of that time: who understands what is really going on and who does not. If you like Tom Stoppard, you'll like this.
Similarly, there seems to be a moan from those who want it to be more like Snow Crash - you know, proper SF. Grow up - Stephenson has. This has all the intellectual thrills of Snow Crash, but made far more resonant by being embedded in a time of true intellectual discovery. Yes, there are contrivances galore, but they are so charmingly lobbed in that they produce something that does not fit an any pigeonhole I would care to define.
Like Stoppard's plays, this book makes you feel cleverer than you are. However, Stephenson's huge range, his wit and clarity of vision make this one of the most humbling books I have ever read. In this dumbed-down world we do not deserve this man.
on 27 December 2010
When I first started this book I found it opaque and thought it had too many storylines which seemed completely unconnected with too many characters that I didn't particularly like. I ended up setting it aside for several months and only picked it up again in order to finish it so that I could get rid of the terrible thing. However, evidently the break was exactly what I needed, as this time around I found it fascinating and everything clicked into place, and now I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Baroque Cycle.
The book was still confusing and was by no means an easy read. It is written in several different forms: regular prose, playscript style and in letters where the real message is hidden in italics among the main body of the missive. The narrative skips about from one character to another, in between countries and passing over chunks of time, so Stephenson keeps you on your toes constantly. But this time I enjoyed the challenge rather than being frustrated by it. I think part of the reason that it feels so difficult is that it's such a large book that it can be easy to find it overwhelming. I noticed that the novel is in fact divided into three books, and I think that when I approach The Confusion, the rather appropriately named second volume of the Baroque Cycle, I will take a break to read something palate cleansing in between the composite books so that I don't become fatigued and disillusioned as I did with Quicksilver. This seems a far more sensible way to tackle these massive, dense books and I would recommend this approach to anyone else.
Although there were lulls in between the good bits, when Stephenson gets it right his writing is perfectly pitched, wry, deadly accurate and very quoteable. It is full of encoded stereotypes, contemporary and modern, and biting satire. He has an impressive way with words, and hopefully I'll be able to appreciate this a bit more in future volumes now that I've learnt to stop fretting about the plot(s).
I've been a bit nervous about reading alternative history in the past, primarily because my historical knowledge of any given period isn't sufficiently complete for me to be able to distinguish exactly what is history and what is the author's own deliberate departure from it. In order to verify everything that went on in Quicksilver I would have to research for years, and I have a huge respect for the effort that Neal Stephenson has obviously put into crafting his slightly off-kilter seventeenth century, but at any rate the events of the book were so bizarre (I seem to recall chasing ostriches in Vienna, although that was in February's section so I may well be wrong) that I decided to throw caution to the winds and just to go with it. I think that is the best attitude to have when reading this book, as its wonder doesn't rest on what is accurate and what isn't but on the world full of intrigue, real or not, that Stephenson has created.
Quicksilver is hard work to read, but ultimately I found it to be worth the effort. The story is very tangled, but cleverly so, and the rewards for the reader who is prepared to sit and unpick the knots are great.
on 28 April 2005
Having finished reading this book (for two months) a few days ago, I feel I've now recovered sufficient energy to write a review.
OK, it's interesting (in places) but you can't help feel that much of the book's meandering content isn't necessary. I'm not saying that every novel should follow the three tier 'beginning-middle-ending' format as such, but Quicksilver takes things a bit too far. Padding a book with superfluous characterisations and (un)events does not a clever book make, and I'm afraid that Neal Stephenson may have shot himself in the foot here.
Having said that, everybody seems to love it. I think either they're pretending to like it a bit more than they really do to sound clever, or I'm missing something. I was often left scratching my head trying to fathom out the point of the narrative and, despite what others may tell you, more than a fleeting interest in 17th century history and/or science is required to glean maximum enjoyment from this epic (and arduous) tale.
Anyway, moaning aside, there are good points. Stephenson has to be credited for the level of detail he's managed to cram into the 900+ pages, and one wonders how he had time to research so much material. It should also be mentioned that for all the, frankly boring, 'filler' material, there is enough content to hook and reward the more patient reader.
Overall I'd say my boredom to enjoyment ratio was probably about 60:40. Somewhat worryingly, that's probably enough to encourage me to read The System of the World, the 'next' installment in this massive trilogy. I'm hoping that the synopsis of each of the other two books ring true and that they can fill the frustrating voids left behind by this volume, and that as with books such as The Diamond Age, value is added by subsequently revisiting the material. If so, I'll gladly eat my own words, while digesting Neal Stephenson's.
The 17th Century. The birth of the modern age. The monarchies of Europe are being overthrown, starting in England. A new nation is being born across the Atlantic. The old order is beginning its slow, two-hundred-year-long death. Science is revolutionising the world every bit as dramatically as war. In Europe the scientific war is being fought between the two inventors of calculus, Newton and Leibniz, a battle which will end with one being hailed the father of modern physics, the other reduced to a historical footnote. Taking place from 1655 to 1713, Quicksilver is the story of individuals scattered across Europe and the Thirteen Colonies, all being hurled by science, progress and history into the brave new world is dawning, the information age.
Quicksilver is the first in a monumental trilogy and is in itself a dense, multi-layered work featuring hundreds of characters divided into three plot strands, roughly summarised as 1) the friendship of (fictional) Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton, also incorporating the Restoration and the Great Fire of London; 2) the adventures of the Shaftoe brothers and various others in Vienna, Paris, Versailles and the Dutch Republic; and 3) the Glorious Revolution and the continuing adventures of Waterhouse and co. in England. The second plot is action-packed with battles, fights and political intrigue. The other two are more restrained with lots of scene-setting and historical information. The book cannot be described as a fast-paced page-turner by any means, but what it is is a tremendously deep and vivid exploration of an interesting (but underrated) period of history. Stephenson's writing skills are vivid and impressive, with an amusing sense of humour if perhaps a bit too vivid ability to describe the more dubious practices of 17th Century science (dog-lovers may find one chapter in particular to be nearly unreadable).
Quicksilver is an astonishing accomplishment, although perhaps a bit long-winded at times. The only major criticism is that the Shaftoe storyline ends on a major cliffhanger but I supposed that inevitably is to lead into the next book. Highly recommended.
on 18 December 2007
It irritates me intensely that Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is frequently classed as Science Fiction, even in bookshops. It is quite straightforward Historical Fiction (or Faction as it mixes real with imagined characters). It seems if you write one SF novel in your life, you are forever tainted with that label! This cycle of books will appeal to anyone interested in history, particularly the history of ideas. Stephenson's great talent, also evidenced in his Cryptonomecon, is his ability to infiltrate a surprisingly deep and sophisticated educational experience into a really good novel.
I have just finished reading the complete cycle again and for the first time in order (more than two thousand pages in total). It is a stonking good read, with only the odd page or six tending to drag a little. It is easy to say it needs an editor, but the problem is that an editor would probably cut far too much, and the wrong bits. Stephenson can make a conversation about philosophy between two princesses in a garden into a really exciting page-turner, but his action passages tend to drag badly. These can feel like a scene-by-scene description by a nine-year-old boy of a movie he's just watched!
Stephenson's trick is to tell the story from the perspective of three invented characters who have a modern outlook on life (while not being glaringly anachronistic). This enables him to render characters like Leibnitz and Newton accurately as only partly modern figures (Newton is an alchemist and Leibnitz something of a religious obscurantist), whilst allowing them to be viewed and interpreted by characters we can identify with. Contrast this with John Banville's frankly unreadable novels about Copernicus, Newton and Kepler in which the accurately rendered thought processes typical of the times are alien and incomprehensible to the modern reader. We forget that science has selected the stuff these early scientists got right and edited out whole bodies of nonsense.
Read these books for their exciting narrative, great characterisation and lovely, flip humour. But you will find that you have absorbed an amazing amount of knowledge, both traditional historical knowledge and also the foundations of modern science and capitalism. This experience left me viciously angry about the lousy standard of history teaching in schools. When I was taught this period, nothing happened that did not involve the British, and history was the tedious machinations of kings, politicians and religious nutters. Stephenson's history is global in scope and unashamedly emphasises the origins of the ideas that have lasted to shape the modern world.
on 14 October 2003
Going beyond what William Gibson and Bruce Sterling managed with The Difference Engine, yet again Neal Stephenson stretches the boundaries of what we consider to be Science Fiction. The first book in the Baroque Cycle is a deeply compelling read, taking us back to when Natural Philosophy emerged and began its evolution away from its Alchemical roots and into what became modern Science. Starting with Daniel Waterhouse, progenitor of the Waterhouse family of Cryptonomicon fame, Stephenson not only makes history real and also exciting, blending his fictious characters in with the political, social,and intellectual giants of the age, he casts a light on metaphysical and scientific debate which we take for granted almost 400 years on. Despite the apparently serious content, the writing style is once again very funny and extremely witty, creating a marvellous world in which historical facts form only a part of the tapestry, offset by the all too human actions of the protagonists. This book shows that Neal Stephenson is in a different league from his SF contemporaries. I for one can't wait for Book 2
on 30 November 2004
I stumbled upon this book in a Japanese bookstore and bought it on a whim, mainly because English language books in Japan are pretty expensive. I thought given its weight, this one might last me a while. I'd already read Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" some 10 years before and remembered how much I had enjoyed it back then, so I was curious to see if he could write as well about past history as he does about the future.
Quicksilver is an absolute treat. The characters are richly detailed and really draw you into the story. The way Stephenson cleverly weaves their lives together from different directions, jumping backwards and forwards in time on occasions to contrast different stages of the overall story makes me realize why this guy is a bestseller, and I could never be. The sheer consistency throughout the book (despite its length) at times almost makes you want to sit back and gasp. There are simply no weak, or boring parts.
Other than pointing out that the book largely takes place in the late 17th century in Europe I'm not goint to spend time outlining the plot (there are other reviewers who have done that already). But don't be put off if historical novels are not your thing. I was a little unsure about whether I'd be interested in this period of history until I read Quicksilver, and now I have to say I'm absolutely hooked.
Quicksilver itself is divided into 3 "books" (although these are contained within a single volume). At the end of the first book I had grown quite fond of Daniel Waterhouse (the main character) and was disappointed to leave him behind for a while. However Stephenson quickly introduces the hilarious double-act of Jack and later Eliza in book 2 and the story just gets better and better.
As a portrayal of history I can't say clearly how accurate the story is - clearly a good dose of artistic license has been taken, but as a thrilling, exhilarating (and at times laugh-out-loud) journey into the past, it is simply faultless. One word of warning... This is an intelligently written work and at the risk of sounding snobbish, probably won't be your cup of tea if you're more at home with Chris Ryan or Jeffery Archer. However if you like to read something which leaves you feeling genuinely more enlightened than when you first picked it up, you can't go wrong with this one.