on November 30, 2003
I thoroughly enjoyed the book once I accepted that it is primarily about systems and concepts, not people and events. I call it "math fiction" (as opposed to science fiction). Some of the systems he writes about are: the logic behind all those beheadings and imprisonments, the reasons for seemingly pointless invasions and alliances, Dutch vs. French business practices and why Amsterdam businessmen were so rich, the difference between different religious factions in England, motivations behind French court etiquette, why fashion exists, how to make hangings less painful, etc. He continually asks why and how rather than who what when, and in that sense he gives a math perspective to history.
Nowhere else have I read such careful (and enlightening) descriptions of capitalist systems such as money-minting, banks, stock exchanges, and the selling and transport of goods. Stephenson shares with us not just the intrigues and excesses of the nobility of 17th century Europe but also his analysis of the systems that made all that wealth (and war) possible.
More importantly, he reveals the day-to-day work of Royal Society scientists. In describing the failed experiments, fires, smells, persecutions, and other dramas of their quest for knowledge he gives a human face to the development of science. And he shows how one might think mathematically and scientifically to solve problems in the real world.
Is it great fiction? No. Stephenson needs editing, but no one is capable of quite keeping up with him enough to dare shorten what he has to say. Is he an interesting author? Absolutely! Think of the book as an extended, wide-ranging dinner conversation. You won't get a word in edgewise, but exhausted as you are at the end, you'll be up all night thinking.
on January 6, 2004
I had a fantastic time reading Stephenson's latest book. Yes, I found it an extremely long read, but every page contained a wonderful nugget which made the journey worth the effort.
Here are two examples of Stephenson's unique ability to whip up a powerful brew of humor, science, and history:
"Penn did not take his gaze away from the window, but squinted as if trying to hold back a mighty volume of flatulence, and shifted his focal point to a thousand miles in the distance. But this was coastal Holland and there was nothing out that window save the Curvature of the World"
"... I am seated near a window that looks out over a canal, and two gondoliers, who nearly collided a minute ago, are screaming murderous threats at each other... The Venetians have even given it a name: 'Canal Rage'."
Which isn't to say that the book doesn't have its share of flaws - I'll talk about the two major ones here. First, if you've read Stephenson before, you are undoubtedly aware of his tendency to use 1000 words to do where 100 would have worked just fine. So, sometimes you begin to think "where was the editor?", but most of the time he is able to pull all the threads (long as they are) together into a cohesive, compelling whole. But overall, the extreme length ends up being a plus.
The other major flaw stems from Stephenson's seemingly bottomless reservoir of creativity: this book contains not one, not two, but three lead characters. But, you say, you can't have more than one lead character, no? Exactly! All three main characters are compelling in their own way, and you want to keep watching each one grow and change. As was the case with Cryptonomicon, Stephenson could easily have written an entire book just about the character Shaftoe.
The Big Question: should you invest the time to read this book (don't worry about the dollar cost - it's inconsequential relative the number of hours you'll invest reading it)? If your answer to any of the following questions is "yes", give it a try:
1) You've read a work by Umberto Ecco and liked it
2) You enjoyed physics class in high school or college
3) You can code
4) You dig binary
5) You always wondered who Newton, Hooke, and Leibniz really were
6) You see tangents as but the arcs of greater circles
Go ahead, take the plunge into QuickSilver!
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 February 12, 2007
I finished Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, today, and I really have no idea whether I liked it or not.
And I am closer to an answer about whether I liked it or not than I am to being able to answer what the heck it was about.
Neal Stephenson has a writing style that I really enjoy. He has a certain quirky sense of humor that fits my own to a T, and that makes his books fun to read.
But if there were a thread of plot in Quicksilver, I pretty much missed it.
The best way I can sum it up is that is the biography of a fictional person who lived in interesting times. The book covers everything from pirate warfare to the roots of science to intrigue at the British court. But that's a lot to stuff into a book that seemed to have no real idea of where it was going, or why.
Last year, I chewed my way through the dense yet enjoyable Cryptonomicon, and the Baroque Cycle is at least tangentially related. The main character in Quicksilver is a distant ancestor of one of the main characters in Cryptonomicon, and the next book in the Baroque Cycle apparently deals with the ancestor of yet another.
But it's hard to enjoy a book when you're always wondering when you'll come to the point.
At times, I am suspicious that the entire point of the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon is not actually to tell a story at all, but rather to give a deep insight as to the origins and meaning of one of our most taken-for-granted accomplishments, the modern computer. If that is the case, this is a lofty and vast task that Stephenson has taken on, and he's done it well. In terms of plain storytelling, though, I'd say his success is marginal.
I think it is safe to say that I liked Quicksilver. But whether I am going to invest the time and money to buy the other seven (!!) books in the series... well, it isn't looking great right now. Though I did love Shaftoe, so I might give the second one a chance, if I see it in a good used book store.
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 February 21, 2006
Beware, this edition only contains one third of the original first volume of the Baroque Cycle. Spend an extra few dollars and get three times as many words!
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.