on November 26, 2007
Here's the complete list to help people avoid buying something they already have:
Quicksilver, Vol. I of the Baroque Cycle
Book 1 - Quicksilver
Book 2 - The King of the Vagabonds
Book 3 - Odalisque
The Confusion, Vol. II of the Baroque Cycle
Book 4 - Bonanza
Book 5 - The Juncto
The System of the World, Vol. III of the Baroque Cycle
Book 6 - Solomon's Gold
Book 7 - Currency
Book 8 - The System of the World
on August 17, 2004
Please be advised that this review is being written with the added perspective of having already read the second installment of the Baroque Cycle. As a novel standing on its own I would not give Quicksilver 5 stars, for some of the same reasons that other reviewers have not given it five stars (lack of firm plot, etc.). I think many of those reviewers will be ultimately proven wrong. The Baroque Cycle, in reality, is one 2500-2700 page book. The plot and the intent of the author in undertaking the project become more and more evident as you continue reading. How many books do you have all figured out by the time you are a third through them anyway? and on top of that, why would you want to read a book that you could have all figured out in the first few chapters?
That said, Quicksilver in specific, and The Baroque Cycle in general, is brilliant writing. I'm lucky that there is a Neal Stephenson out there to write like this because otherwise I would have to do it myself... and I wouldn't be good at it. Stephenson writes the kind of books that I want to read. Quicksilver successfully mixes politics, science, romance, travel, intrigue and any number of other genres and in the mix gives us an exciting view into 16th century life, both for the upper classes and the lower. Like all of Stephenson's work, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of certain events in the story while reluctantly admitting that, yes, that could have actually happened. It bogs down in places with what you might take as a bit too much detail, but by now that is an intrinsic element of Stephenson's style and this book would be incomplete without it. I hated my history classes in school, but I love reading this sort of historical fiction. Why? It's written from a modern perspective and filled with wit and humor. I realized in reading Quicksilver that people 500 years ago were pretty much the same as people now, and that I can learn a lot from their lives and the triumphs and mistakes they made. On top of all that, in Quicksilver you get a fun retrospective on what was happening in the world of science, the great fire of London, the state of political affairs in Europe, etc., etc.
One of the things that I really enjoy about Neal Stephenson's work is that it takes some effort on my part to get the most out of his books. They are not just sit-back-and-read-it books. They are long enough and complex enough to warrant reading carefully and slowly, with frequent pauses for thought, and frequent re-reading. It's unfortunate that some people aren't willing to put forth the effort. If you are willing to put forth that amount of effort, you will be greatly rewarded!
on November 10, 2003
Stephenson succeeds in crafting a description of one of European history's watershed eras that encompases vast geograhies and philosphies in an equally vast number of pages. For that, unlike many other reviewers, I do not fault him. We readers are guided on a tour of the intellectual landscape in England from the time of the English Civil War through to the Glorious Revolution. Stephenson entangles us in the religious/political mayhem that ran rampant during that time. From Versailles, to Venice to the hodge-podge of flyspeck Germanic sub-principalities, we gain a feeling for the incestuous interconnectedness of the royal and noble families that were accustomed to being the only Powers That Mattered at the time. Juxtaposed against them, we are introduced to the coterie of geniuses who flourished at the time and whose scientific and philosophical endeavors reshaped the way people came to view the world.
Stephenson's voluminous description of the time, and his creation of a set of fictitious peers and contemporaries of its great thinkers allows him to explore and play with the ideas that were radically new in European culture at the time, which we contemporary readers have inherited as truths we take for granted. He does not go to pains to demonstrate how radically new some of the political theories he explores were in their historical context, and unsophisticated modern readers might have the urge to think "Well, duh... everybody knows and thinks that way... its normal." This book takes us through the struggles that unseated kings and smashed the concept of divine right, as well as through the empiricist revolution that retired the antiquated aristotelian modes of understanding the world and their alchemical/mystical offspring.
This is not an adventure story, though there are a few adventureous tales woven into it. This is a novel of ideas, and as such, it does a spectacular job, just like each of Stephenson's earlier books.
on February 16, 2004
Neal Stephenson's understanding and creativity are simply mind-blowing and in Quicksilver he has crafted another masterpiece. This book rocks! Like Umberto Eco's famous book (and movie) about a medieval monestary "The Name of the Rose," Quicksilver attempts to get inside of the history of ideas, as well as the history of religions, empires, culture and people, with a multi-genre story highlighting the major events and trends, as well as the tiny, every-day details of the historical period in which it is set. This is all accomplished within the framework of a compelling story/drama/adventure. (Actually, Eco's book the "Island of the Day Before" is probably a better comparison since the period in which it is set, the early 17th Century is closer to Quicksilver which is set in the late 17th and early 18th Century.)
Stephenson's literary pretentions are fairly minimal, and as a result, his work may lack some of the stylistic richness of Eco, or some of the other famous writers of historical fiction. But he makes up for this and more with the awe-inspiring historical breadth and conceptual scope, the complexity of the plot, the action, the humor and, most of all, the insight. He possesses the rare skill to create an adventure tale tying together the ideological and religious schisms of the age, the ambitions of the leading persons, the politics and court intrigues, the geneology of European royalty and their struggles for succession and power, the economics, the trade, the industry, the social relations, the architecture, the infrastructure, the travel, the transportation, the geography, the warfare, the legal systems, the culture, the theater, the literature, the agriculture, the hygene, the sanitation (the smell), the medical practices, the social mores, sexual practices and of course, since this is Neal Stephenson, the SCIENCE, ENGINEERING and TECHNOLOGY of the era.
While most prominent writers are competent stylists and many can claim historical knowledge, few can boast an ability to really understand the mathematical and scientific content and the significance of such important figures as Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Huygens, Hooke, and many others. Among the few writers that share Stepheson's ability to grasp such eclectic but important matters as the mathematics of navigation, the mechanics of sailing ships, the chemistry of early gun-powder, the basic principles of cryptography, 17th Century optics, etc., Stephenson is unique in his ability to make these ideas accessible and interesting to laymen readers and alone in his talent to weave it all into a kick-a$# roller coaster of a story.
Quicksilver explores the people, ideas and advances that paved the way for our modern age of information and globalization; the beginnings of our financial, banking and currency systems, capital markets like the Amsterdam and London Stock Exchanges; the first national libraries, the first multinational corporations like the Dutch East India Company and Lloyd's of London; the sprouts of such ideas as freedom of religion, speech, commerce and consciousness. The continued colonization of the Americas and the exploration of the world's oceans. Amidst all of these (mostly) positive developments that we think of as "progress," Stephenson is keen to remind us of the hard reality of the wide-spread slave trade, the forced labor, the constant brutality of religious and political oppression, witch-hunts, hangings, burnings, inquisitions, pirates, banditry, the ever present scourge of disease - bubonic plague, smallpox, syphilis and a ghastly array of other medical conditions and the equally horrific primitive medicine; as well as the warfare, pillage and famine.
The cast of characters, real and fictional, is a rainbow of the most prominent scientists and philosophers of the age, the most powerful Kings, Queens, Dukes, Courtiers, as well as simple tradesmen, actresses, students, farmers, sailors, pirates, landless-peasants (vagabonds), slaves, British, Dutch, French, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Russians, Turks, Africans, Jews, Armenians, Gypsies and more. Delightful cameos from real historical persons such as Newton, Ben Franklin, Blackbeard, Louis the 14th, Jan Sobieski, William of Orange, Oliver Cromwell's decapitated head, Samuel Pepys, Spinoza, John Churchill - Duke of Marlborough, ancestor of Winston, and countless more. The story sails and gallops around the globe from colonial Boston to London to Paris to Amsterdam to Vienna to Venice to Morrocco to Algieria from palace to castle to salon to saloon to inn to village to church to market to fair to ship to canal to river to ocean to city to mountain to mine. There are battles, sword fights, conspiracies, chases (on horse, on ship) as well as long discourses on the origins of calculus and cryptography as well as the era's revolutionary advances in physics, astronomy, biology, etc. It's just plain cool.
If I have one complaint, it is that this book is too big and heavy to carry around so I have no chance to read on the train to work or during lunch or coffee breaks (the origins of the global coffee trade and the start of cafe society are duly - and humorously recorded in Quicksilver). Many other reviewers found it long-winded but even the slowest parts and longest descriptions are full of little nuggets of humor and historical insight. Judging from earlier reviews, many of Stephenson's computer geek devotees are mad that Neal wrote a book with no passages on coding or futuristic techie concepts. They don't seem to share Stephenson's fascination with this period of history. Pay no attention to their fan-boy belly-aching. They sound like Trekkies outraged about some minor plot inconsistency. To switch metaphors and fan-bases, Stephenson is no George Lucas and Quicksilver is no prequel disappointment. He is on top of his game, picking up where Cryptonomicon left off. Those who appreciated his talent and brilliance in his earlier books should love Quicksilver and look forward with baited breath to the release of the next two books in the series. I encourage first timers to ignore the loud complaints of self-proclaimed Neal Stephenson purists (or, more aptly, Puritans denouncing this cyber-punk heresy) and go give it a read.
on December 4, 2005
Stephenson is one of the most skilled, imaginative, ambitious and thought-provoking Americans writing today. Don't be put off by the naysayers. Yes, this book is long in parts. Yes, you can get lost in the myriad of characters and plot twists. But very few writers entertain and educate the way stephenson can. His knowledge of history and science is staggering. His mastery of language, dialogue and plot seems effortless. There are philosophical debates, pirate battles, hangings, political intrigues, love and sex, and the sheer beauty of language.
If you want a mindless yarn, go read Dan Brown or John Grisham. If you want to feel the thrill of great fiction, read Stepehenson.
on September 3, 2007
Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy/Series is considered one of the great science-fiction collections ever written, forming the basis of countless derivative and inspired works over the past fifty years. The Baroque Cycle will not, unfortunately, inspire fifty years of copycats, for a unique reason: it would be far too difficult to undertake with even moderate effort. This is a nine-book/ three-volume masterpiece of historical fiction that really has no peer in my experience (and please comment if you find any!)
As an aside, I could, at length, review each of the nine books and prattle on endlessly about this or that, but that's far too many reviews for what I intend to say about the Cycle as a whole. My comments apply to all books equally.
The cycle begins in the mid 17th century and spans the adulthood of one Daniel Waterhouse, a fictional contemporary of Isaac Newton. Of course, it also traces the life of one Jack Shaftoe, a fictional hero with his roots in every pirate story ever written or filmed. And then there's the mysterious Enoch Root, popping up again from the Cryptonomicon to move things along as the deux ex machina of certain story elements.
The number of interleaved story lines would be an impressive enough feat of writing, but the historical references were simply amazing. The sheer amount of research Mr. Stephenson invested for the Cycle must have been enormous. In short, Mr. Stephenson describes London before, during, and after the Great Fire of 1666 politically, sociologically, geographically, architecturally, and economically; he performs the same rigor of place-setting with Hanover and present-day Germany, Paris and present-day France, diverse parts of Egypt, Algeria, India, Mexico, South America, and Boston. This is the kind of book series that would inspire high-school students to PAY ATTENTION. For, if the students really do their homework and have a teacher partnered with them to put the book details into their proper context, you could quite possible craft an entire school year around the nine books, such is the depth and breadth of scholastic research involved in putting together such a series. It's no small achievement or idle boast: Mr. Stephenson has in some way taken his education and put it to its greatest use, as an inspiration to students.
All of this would be for naught if the stories weren't truly excellent at their core, and they are. You could boil down the Shaftoe story line to "pirate story" but that sells it short after the first book -- and there are eight more to go. What starts as a pirate story quickly become something of a precursor to spycraft and terrorism/counter-terrorism in the 17th and 18th centuries: currency manipulation, political scandals, and assassinations. I haven't even mentioned Isaac Newton versus Gottfried Leibniz in the battle for Calculus, or Isaac Newton's Alchemy, the reconstruction of London post-fire, the gold trade, the silver trade, piracy in the Atlantic and Pacific, the timber economy, the commodities exchange of northern Europe, the court at Versailles, and so on. I'm astonished as I write this.
This is well-worth the time invested to read, as a Cycle. If Mr. Stephenson ever posted his complete bibliography, or if some doctoral student ever decided to craft that two-semester, eight-course class tracing the book's scholarship, I would be among the first to delve deeply into it and re-learn my forgotten history, mathematics, and economics. Simply, this is one of the finest fiction series ever written.
on February 9, 2005
The book being reviewed here is one of three books which are from the Baroque Cycle Trilogy by Neal Stephenson. Since there does not yet appear to be one title under which I can post my review, I have triplicated this review and placed the same review under all three titles. The sequence is Quicksilver, The Confusion, and the System of the World.
I read voraciously of both fiction, non-fiction and that in-between category of historic fiction in which one can learn considerably about the age but still enjoy the plot of an ideal narrative, or, in the case of the Baroque Cycle, an intertwining of several narratives. In the last say, three years, I have read literally hundreds of books and I can unequivocally name the three most influential works (apart from "Postcards of Nursing," the one I wrote myself, of course,) during that period. They are the 20 Aubrey/Maturin historic novels of Patrick O'Brian, "Shantaram," by Gregory David Roberts, and the three books in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.
I find it hard to critique Stephenson's work. His writing and research genius is so far beyond my poor abilities that if I come across an aspect of his writing which gives me pause, I have to look to my own deficiencies rather than his. But nowhere did I find the book to be condescending. And the subtle (and not so subtle) humor was superb.
And the characters: Ah the characters. When I had finished the books, I felt I *knew* Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, and Wren. Half-Cocked Jack and Dappa were real to me. Eliza lived and breathed.
Also, I began to discover that I was beginning to understand the international monetary system and the trappings of power surrounding it. I began to appreciate the conventions of letter-writing, the mind set when years might go by between a correspondence and its reply. I felt I understood something of the tangled tapestries of royal affairs in the 18th century. I was transported. Utterly. Words fail me.
Each book in the trilogy was better written than its predecessor, and the first one was superb. When I was reading O'Brian's novels, and was on say, novel #5 in the series, I was in heaven, knowing that I had 15 and a half (so to speak) more novels to go. When I was finally finished with 20, I started grasping at straws. I went to see the movie which, to my delight, showed me something of the ship HMS Surprise, but to my extreme disappointment, miscast Maturin so badly that it robbed the film of its portrayal of one of the most complex characters in literature. I read the unfinished #21. Not enough. It was only when I came across Quicksilver that I began to let go of the O'Brian characters and came to "invest" in Stephenson's.
And yet, by the time I was halfway through the "System of the World," the final of the three books, I began anticipatory grieving. I knew I might not see these folks again in such a personal light. They had become my friends. The fact that I had already read Cryptonomicon, a work by Stephenson based in part on one of the descendants of Dr. Waterhouse, was not a consolation. I miss those folks. I will probably read the books again in a year or two, but until then, since O'Brian is dead, and since probably Roberts will not top his first novel, I will have to wait for another of Stephenson's books. By the way, and this is not a spoiler, the resolution of the Baroque Cycle is thoroughly complete and intensely satisfying. It's just too bad it's over.
on June 7, 2013
Quicksilver is the first volume in a really, really long historical novel about the creation of modern science, modern commerce, modern politics and the enlightenment. It is written in an arch, faux 17th century voice (similar to the one used by John Barth in his classic "The Sot Weed Factor." Reading it will take you a lot of time, no matter how quickly you read! So, should you invest your hard earned minutes of leisure bedding down with Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle? (I'll cut to the chase - I loved it so much that I read the entire series twice)
Do you like adventure stories about piracy?
Ever wonder about the plague, the London fire of 1666, and the debauchery of the Restoration?
Do you like stories about counterfeiting? How about ones starring Isaac Newton as a master of disguise?
Do you like crazed conspiracy tales filled with bodice ripping, massive amounts of gold, the King of France, and a man with bizarrely mutilated genitalia?
Do you care about the philosophy of science, but also enjoy really ridiculous puns based on imaginary languages?
Do you like harem girls who turn into world-straddling giants of commerce?
Did you enjoy Cryptonomicon, and wonder what the ancestors of those characters might have been like?
Have you ever wondered about whether the big fight about "who invented calculus" actually may have been really important?
Do you like reading about the people who created the modern world?
Did you ever wonder whether Leibniz might have been the most important thinker in the history of mankind?
Then, you should read this book. Actually, if you love a ripping yarn that (incidentally, mind you) teaches you all about the above mentioned things, then you should read Quicksilver (and its sequels, which are even better). Highly recommended for the self-selecting people who probably realize that they should read it.
on October 29, 2003
This book is not for everyone. It is an historical novel. Not an historical mystery, not an historical romance, not time-travel or aliens in ancient days. Just straight history, up-close and personal, if well-written. If knowing how people lived in other times is uninteresting to you, buy another book. Don't buy it just becasue you liked one of Stephenson's other books -- it's rather different than everythings he's done. If you want SF, go buy The Diamond Age.
On the other hand Quicksilver isn't the names-and-dates history of Mrs. Blather's 9th-grade history class either. It is a total-immersion trip through the late 17th century, when the modern was born out of the decay of the medieval, as seen through the eyes of several ficticious characters placed at strategic places the swirl of things.
Daniel Waterhouse is a Puritan, son of Cromwell's ideologue. He's seen one King executed, sees another die of over-doctoring, and serves a third in order to protect his people against him. Along the way he befriends Newton, Hooke, Liebnitz and Huygens and becomes a central, if passive, figure in the emergence of Science out of Alchemy.
Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe is the King of Vagabonds who travels through King Louis XIV's Europe, main in the company of the stunning and brilliant Eliza, an escaped slave.
Eliza herself befriends (or be-enemies) nearly every important person in Europe, in her climb from slave to Duchess. On her way she betrays the most powerful man in Europe and helps crown his enemy King of England, among other things.
All of which is well and good, but the real protagonist of the book is the Times. By the time you are done, you will understand the politics that caused Charles I to be beheaded, why Loius XIV was the enemy of the future, why Charles II was a good King, and why his son James II lost his throne to upstarts named WIlliam & Mary. You will experience what life was like in the 17th Century (an excess of rats, nobles, churchmen, excrement and war) and why many like Waterhouse wanted things so desperately to change. And why they did.
Quicksilver seems to me an appreciation by Stephenson to those that founded a world based on freedom of thought and the rights of the individual, when Kings ruled abolute and that wasn't the way to bet.
on December 27, 2006
This book has languished on my "to read" shelf for a couple of years and now I am angry with myself for not having started it sooner. It is a baroque masterpiece.
It is baroque in that it is set in that period of European history when the arts and sciences were flourishing like never before. It is baroque in that it is complex, highly convoluted and ornamented with a myriad of frills. Not all of them add to the story line but they all add to the flavor and that flavor is exquisite.
This purports to be the story of Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan Englishman drawn to the study of natural philosophy, what we would call rational science today. He is a bright fellow but suffers from being active at the same time as such luminaries as Isaac Newton, Christian Huygens, Robert Hooke, Leibniz and others. He is also a Puritan in an England suffering under the Crypto-Catholic reign of Charles II and the open Catholic, James II. William of Orange is defending the Lowlands against the aggressions of Louis XIV, the Sun King. All of these figures and more are woven together with great artistry to tell a story.
What is the Story? Well...that is the difficult part. The book opens in the early 18th century. A member of the Royal Society has been dispatched to Boston to bring Waterhouse back in an attempt to patch things up between Newton and Leibniz. Waterhouse agrees to do so and sets sail. The first third of the book alternates between the beginnings of his journey and memories of his younger years in the heydays of the 17th century.
The middle third of the book drops Waterhouse altogether. It tells the story of an English Vagabond who manages to rescue a well educated female slave from the Turks at the siege of Vienna. He is able to do little about his beautiful booty because of the pox and the loss of his member. Still, the two form a relationship as they head west to the Netherlands. He is her aide and protector and she is the brains with the financial acumen. She rises in court society and gets involved with the intrigues of the French and Dutch courts.
The final third brings together Waterhouse and the lovely Eliza, the rescued concubine. England is on the Eve of its "Glorious Revolution" in which the Dutch house of Orange takes over. Daniel is glad to see this and has helped to bring it about but is tired of the whole affair. He has notions of moving to Boston but does not expect to live long enough to do so since he has a bladder stone which is slowly killing him. As the book ends, he is being subjected to the surgery that might remove the stone and give him another chance at life.
Never once in the second or third sections of the book do we ever learn anything about Daniel's trip back to England late in life. We are even fuzzier on the reasoning. We get the sense that the entire book has been written to set us up for what is to come. I, for one, cannot wait.
This book will definitely not appeal to everyone. I suspect that the more knowledgeable one is about the history of that era, both political and scientific, the more the book will make sense. It is full of trivial facts, archaic spellings and words usages but these are not overdone. They add to the scenery, not detract from it. It is a magnificent read for those with the fortitude to attempt it.