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Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 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.
Top customer reviews
It would be a great mistake to miss out on this one. Having read several of his earlier, also entertaining works, Quicksilver has moved Stephenson to the top of my reading list. The Confusion and The System of the World follow (and I hope more of Jack, who I feared was done, and of Eliza, the indefatigable). I begin at once.
Much like Cryptonomicon, there is a lavish dedication to historical detail and a good bit of science.
It is enjoyable, but not in quite the same way as Cryptonomicon was. Quicksilver is more leisurely in pace, and the storylines do not appear as intricately interwoven (yet - I have not yet finished the book). It doesn't grab you like Cryptonomicon... it doesn't urge you to keep coming back for more asap.
The themes shifted a little more than half way through the book. Stephenson basically ended one story line that I was following with great interest. He started concentrating more and more on high finance and court intrigue, and on one character who I disliked. I groaned each time one of those chapters came up and trudged through, but those chapters came to dominate the entire last half of the book. At 91% through the book I couldn't stand it anymore and put the book down. I will not finish. What a disappointment. My 1 star to the second half reflects partly my dislike of politics and finance, but mostly my dislike of the character highlighted in those chapters, who seemed to be judgmental, self centered, and righteous.
I'm not giving up on the series - I enjoyed Cryptonomicon. I will pick up the other books in the Baroque Cycle, in the hopes that he returns to the spirit of the first half of the book. Neal, if you're reading this, please give us more Waterhouse, Root, and Shaftoe. More discovery of knowledge and more swashbuckling. Thanks.