- Hardcover: 944 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow; 1 edition (Sept. 23 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0380977427
- ISBN-13: 978-0380977420
- Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 5.1 x 23.5 cm
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 Kg
- Average Customer Review: 162 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #319,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Quicksilver: Volume One of The Baroque Cycle Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Sep 23 2003
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In Quicksilver, the first volume of the "Baroque Cycle," Neal Stephenson launches his most ambitious work to date. The novel, divided into three books, opens in 1713 with the ageless Enoch Root seeking Daniel Waterhouse on the campus of what passes for MIT in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Daniel, Enoch's message conveys, is key to resolving an explosive scientific battle of preeminence between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the development of calculus. As Daniel returns to London aboard the Minerva, readers are catapulted back half a century to recall his years at Cambridge with young Isaac. Daniel is a perfect historical witness. Privy to Robert Hooke's early drawings of microscope images and with associates among the English nobility, religious radicals, and the Royal Society, he also befriends Samuel Pepys, risks a cup of coffee, and enjoys a lecture on Belgian waffles and cleavage-all before the year 1700.
In the second book, Stephenson introduces Jack Shaftoe and Eliza. "Half-Cocked" Jack (also know as the "King of the Vagabonds") recovers the English Eliza from a Turkish harem. Fleeing the siege of Vienna, the two journey across Europe driven by Eliza's lust for fame, fortune, and nobility. Gradually, their circle intertwines with that of Daniel in the third book of the novel.
The book courses with Stephenson's scholarship but is rarely bogged down in its historical detail. Stephenson is especially impressive in his ability to represent dialogue over the evolving worldview of seventeenth-century scientists and enliven the most abstruse explanation of theory. Though replete with science, the novel is as much about the complex struggles for political ascendancy and the workings of financial markets. Further, the novel's literary ambitions match its physical size. Stephenson narrates through epistolary chapters, fragments of plays and poems, journal entries, maps, drawings, genealogic tables, and copious contemporary epigrams. But, caught in this richness, the prose is occasionally neglected and wants editing. Further, anticipating a cycle, the book does not provide a satisfying conclusion to its 900 pages. These are minor quibbles, though. Stephenson has matched ambition to execution, and his faithful, durable readers will be both entertained and richly rewarded with a practicum in Baroque science, cypher, culture, and politics. --Patrick O'Kelley
From Publishers Weekly
Stephenson's very long historical novel, the first volume of a projected trilogy, finds Enoch Root, the Wandering Jew/alchemist from 1999's Cryptonomicon, arriving in 1713 Boston to collect Daniel Waterhouse and take him back to Europe. Waterhouse, an experimenter in early computational systems and an old pal of Isaac Newton, is needed to mediate the fight for precedence between Newton and scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, both of whom independently invented the calculus. Their escalating feud threatens to revert science to pre-empirical times. Root believes Waterhouse, as a close friend to both mathematicians, has the ability to calm the neurotic Newton's nerves and make peace with Leibniz. As Waterhouse sails back to Europe (and eludes capture by the pirate Blackbeard), he reminisces about Newton and the birth of England's scientific revolution during the 1600s. While the Waterhouse story line lets readers see luminaries like Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton at work, a concurrent plot line follows vagabond Jack Shaftoe (an ancestor of a Cryptonomicon character, as is Waterhouse), on his journey across 17th-century continental Europe. Jack meets Eliza, a young English woman who has escaped from a Turkish harem, where she spent her teenage years. The resourceful Eliza eventually rises and achieves revenge against the slave merchant who sold her to the Turks. Stephenson, once best known for his techno-geek SF novel Snow Crash, skillfully reimagines empiricists Newton, Hooke and Leibniz, and creatively retells the birth of the scientific revolution. He has a strong feel for history and a knack for bringing settings to life. Expect high interest in this title, as much for its size and ambition, which make it a publishing event, as for its sales potential-which is high.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Let's be clear: I liked Zodiac, I liked The Diamond Age, I loved Snow Crash (despite the fact that Neal borrowed many elements from Gibson's Neuromancer, a superior work), and I LOVED Cryptonomicon. So yes, I'm a Stephenson fan. I agree it would certainly help to be acquainted with and to have enjoyed his prior novels, if only to be familiar with his sense of humour, intellect, and passionate descriptions. That having been said, anyone with an open mind, a desire for a complex tapestry rather than a floor mat, and, above all, PATIENCE will be rewarded should they choose to break the spine on Quicksilver.
It's interesting to note that volumes 2 and 3 (The Confusion and The System of the World) have far fewer reviews, but much higher ratings. It goes to show that those brave and interested enough to tackle (and complete) volume one of The Baroque Cycle go on to love the rest of the trilogy.
Because of its length and breadth, a plot synopsis would be foolish to undertake. Suffice to say that the story occurs during the middle half of the 17th century in Europe and is driven by three main protagonsists, each with their own well-developed motivations, viewpoints, and personalities. Real-life historical figures (Louis XIV, Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Robert Hooke), places (London, Versailles, Amsterdam), and events (wars; executions; intrigues of various kinds) are incorporated as a vehicle to further the plot (which does, in fact, exist, contrary to several reviewers' opinions). I laughed out loud countless times; enjoyed learning about the Reformation, Restoration, and "Natural Philosophy" (among others); and was pleased to finish the book, knowing that I still had another two novels to savour.
You love European history: +3 points
You love lots of details in what you read: +3 points
You're into Newton/Leibniz and things scientific: +2 points
You think Neal Stephenson is bloody smart: +2 points
You loved Cryptonomicon for its detail: +1 point
You loved Cryptonomicon for its style: +1 point
You loved Cryptonomicon for its wit: -1 point
You get bored by endless detail: -2 point
You like a strong plot in the novels you read:~~ -1 point
You like a plot, however strong, at least clearly stated: -1 point
You are turned off by graphic descriptions: -1 point
You like a lot science in your science-based novel: -1 point
You like an easy read that flows well: -2 point
Score: >=10 You'll love this book!. 6-9 You'll like the book but find some of it tedious. 1-5 You'll like minor parts, but wonder if it was worth it. -1 to -5 You'll dislike this book. <-5 You'll hate this book.
I usually read trilogies after all the~~ books are published. But I made an exception here because I love Stephenson and because I am also coincidentally reading Isaac Newton's PRINCIPIA (translation by Cohen). Sadly, we see Newton and Leibniz in glimpses only in this book, and instead are treated to Daniel Waterhouse, the ancestor of Cryptonomicon's Lawrence Waterhouse; Jack Shaftoe, the ancestory of his Cryptonomicon counterpart; and Eliza, a former Turkish harem sex slave. As in Cryptonomicon, we see a great genius through the~~ more limited eyes of a very bright, but not brilliant protagonist (in Quicksilver we are treated to Waterhouse's interactions with I. Newton, W. Leibniz, R. Hooke, and others of that era; in Cryptonomicon it was Alan Turing).
Shaftoe is initially almost just to tie plot elements together and supply some much-needed comic relief. Eliza gives us eyes into the political machinations of Louis XIV, William of Orange, and various changing English monarchs. You can read more about plot in other~~ reviews, and I do not wish to spoil it here, suffice to say that particularly early in this book, it seems that we are just getting a slightly humorous lecture on European history.
Given that I have some background knowledge on Newton, the era, the controversies involved in his theories, etc., I can honestly say that I am astonished by N.S.'s detail and accuracy. He captures the theory, the socio-political circumstances, the religious conflicts, even I.Newton's personal issues with a~~ clarity that boggles my mind. He even goes so far as to project somewhat on why Newton uses geometry in his Principia, rather than calculus, to prove his theories-- and it seems consistent to what I have read in Cohen's excellent book. I can only assume that the detail regarding the other issues, and the projections N.S. makes regardng them-- revolutions galore, religious conflicts, economic issues-- is likewise as clear. It is certainly immensely and profusely detailed. The scenes with~~ these great minds are truly to be relished-- N.S. captures the essences of these great historical characters into believable dialogue and interactions. How penetrating N.S. must be to make such characters real from the dry library research he must have spent thousands of hours doing!
But some of the detail is too profuse. The endless political shenanigans and counter-shenanigans motivating each and every noble are a bit much for all but the true fan of European history. Fortunately, it~~ does not all need to be understood in such detail to follow a fairly simplistic plot overall.
This first novel of the trilogy is scene-setting, some plot, character building, for 600 pages. In some places it is tedious. Some of the dialogue is entertaining, some of the character's thinking processes amusing, but N.S. does not hit his stride until after 600 pages. The final 300 are amusing, entertaining, even thrilling. N.S. somehow turns the delivery of a baby scene into a triumph of~~ spirit, ingenuity, and tension, for example. In Cryptonomicon, I was laughing every other page from page one. In Quicksilver, I chuckled a few times, and was entertained about a third of the time.
I am hoping that future volumes are more direct, briskly paced, and less endless detail and trivia. Some of it is excellent for scene-setting and mood building. I am truly grateful I do not live in 1690s England after reading this book. But others are just tiresome and exasperating.
OTOH,~~ N.S. has a unique, unmatched talent. His characters breath like real people. You come to understand their motivations, their emotions-- like a real-life friend. This may come about by his endless, detail-driven meandering style, and so changing one destroys the magic of the other. But I would think he could manage with just a little less narrative.
Still, all in all, you must experience N.S. at the peak of his powers. He has evolved from Snow Crash to Cryptonomicon to this, a splendid~~ insight into a revolutionary, chaotic time in our world history. You might be deluged with detail, but then you swim through it and get to meet major characters that changed the world, and it is almost like you met them for real.~
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