Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle, Volume One

NealStephenson_QuicksilverWes Unruh wrote this review for us. It has been updated by the editorial staff.

Quicksilver certainly doesn’t fall under the traditional conceits of science fiction, instead falling into something resembling ‘history-of-science fiction’. Set during the heart of the Baroque period, Neal Stephenson’s carefully crafted book follows fictional and historical characters through a world torn by conflict and plague. Those familiar with Neal Stephenson’s earlier novel Cryptonomicon will recognize the Shaftoes and Waterhouses, and the imaginary Qwghlm islands. Quicksilver, while exploring the state of alchemical study during the years of the Royal Society, focuses on the contributions of the ancestors of the protagonists of Cryptonomicon. Even so, you don’t need to have read Cryptonomicon to enjoy Quicksilver.

Quicksilver is a true volume, in that it is composed of three separate books, each with a different main character. The first book is also named Quicksilver, in which we are introduced to Daniel Waterhouse, through whose eyes we are also introduced to the members of the Royal Society very early on in its formation.

As one-time roommate of Isaac Newton, Daniel is summoned from his retirement in colonial Pennsylvania by Enoch Root, the unnaturally long-lived catalystic character Stephenson fans will remember from Cryptonomicon, to return before the Royal Society and attempt a reconciliation between Newton and Liebniz. As Daniel returns to London in 1713 he recalls his youth in a series of flashbacks. Thus we are presented with his early life as a student at Trinity College, his experiences during the plague years and the great fire of London, and the peculiar fate of Daniel’s fundamentalist Protestant father.

The second book in the Quicksilver volume, entitled King of the Vagabonds, follows one Jack Shaftoe as he makes his way across Europe in and out of puzzling, threatening, and absurd situations. With Eliza, a woman of Qwghlm whom he has rescued, he seeks to sell some peacock feathers looted from the Turks. In seeking out the best possible price, he and Eliza find themselves embroiled in a conflict between Denmark, France, and England.

The third book, Odalisque, follows the intrigues of Eliza, how she went from being a native of an English Isle to a commodities broker and espionage agent skilled in a variety of encryption techniques. As her client list grows to include French nobility, and war concerns create new investment opportunities, her skill at manipulation and deceit grows. Daniel Waterhouse and Jack Shaftoe’s brother Bob also figure heavily in this third book.

I enjoyed Quicksilver more for the historical details, character sketches of historical figures, and overall texture of the book than for its plot. The discussion between William Penn and Daniel Waterhouse over the future of Non-Conformists in England, or Robert Hooke’s vitamin supplement of quicksilver, iron filings, and flowers of sulphur among other things, help anchor the story, and Neal Stephenson is talented enough to make a dissertation on the nature of money and the origin of banking not only entertaining, but memorable. He laces the narrative with the occasional archaic word or spelling, but never becomes heavy-handed or pretentious, creating a text that is challenging without being intimidating. The numerous quotes and occasional illustration from period literature, and the glyph of Mercury inlay that hides under the slipcover, are only the outer accoutrements of what is more of an event than a novel.

Part of this ‘event’ was the Web site. Originally conceived of by Stephenson as a way for readers of Quicksilver to collect (and collate) information alluded to in the book, and structured on a remarkable open source software framework, it has the potential over the release of the next two volumes of the Baroque Cycle to evolve into a vast repository of historical and alchemical reference material. There was also a Web site devoted to the Baroque Cycle itself, and Neal Stephenson’s personal Web presence, where a number of essays, an interview, and much more are stored.

The Confusion, Volume Two of the Baroque Cycle, and The System of the World, Volume Three, finished out the trilogy.

 (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2003)

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