Quicksilver

by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Series: Baroque Cycle #1
Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-380-97742-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 927

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With Cryptonomicon, Stephenson made his first move from present-day or near-future science fiction into a type of historical fiction about science. Cryptonomicon was about evenly divided between a present-day, technology-based thriller and a historical novel about cryptography during World War II. Quicksilver, a huge, sprawling volume that is only the first third of an even larger, even more sprawling trilogy, takes the general approach of the historical part of Cryptonomicon and applies it to the foundation of the Royal Society in post-Restoration England in the 1600s.

As with Cryptonomicon, Stephenson embeds a fictional family into the middle of the historical period, entangles one of them in the most interesting parts, and uses them as the viewpoint. It's even the same fictional family: the Waterhouses, who are Puritans and avid supporters of Cromwell. Daniel Waterhouse was raised by his father to believe the world will end for certain in 1666, befriends Isaac Newton in his youth, falls into the orbit of the fledgling Royal Society, is cast somewhat adrift when the world doesn't end, and ends up deeply involved in both scientific and political events of the day as a sort of perpetual assistant and sounding board to better-known scientists. He's the viewpoint character for the first and part of the third sections of the book.

The middle section of the book leaves England and goes to the continent, following the adventures of vagabond Jack Shaftoe. Near the beginning of this section, he rescues a woman named Eliza from a Turkish harem during the Battle of Vienna. The two of them wander about Europe, separately or together, and Eliza becomes a friend and confidant of Leibniz (who also shows up in the Daniel Waterhouse sections), a trader in Dutch financial markets and financial advisor to royalty, and a spy for William of Orange (the William of William and Mary).

As you can tell, this is a huge book. It covers history from just after the Restoration (with plenty of flashbacks to Cromwell) through the Glorious Revolution, from perspectives in England, the Netherlands, and France. It also follows the early history and the (probably partly fictional) politics and experiments of the Royal Society from its official foundation, including huge numbers of detailed descriptions of early experiments and calculations. As with all of his other books, Stephenson's love for weird facts and trivia shines through nearly every page; unlike his other books, except maybe Cryptonomicon, he writes with no apparent length constraint. The result smothers the sense of plot in endless detail and frequently bogs down into boring research dumping.

I loved Cryptonomicon, so I have some tolerance for sprawling research-heavy novels. I wanted to like Quicksilver. But unfortunately, this book has serious structural problems. There's just too much stuff here. Stephenson's love of detail could turn a tiny corner of history into material for a novel. Turning that research and writing style loose on Newton and Leibniz and the controversy over calculus, the politics of the Interregnum and Restoration, the politics leading up to the Glorious Revolution, Hooke's experiments, the entirety of the early Royal Society, the politics of the court of Louis XIV, and the Dutch trading economic system all in a single book is overwhelming. The characters lose out. They become mostly passive observers of all of the material Stephenson wants to highlight, drifting from one interesting bit to another with occasionally dramatic but pointless forays into major events.

The first third of the book is particularly bad. I suspect it's scared away many readers, particularly in the paperback publication where it's a separate book. Stephenson opens with a framing device of Enoch Root (itinerant immortal pseudo-narrator and deus ex machina) seeking out Danial Waterhouse in Massachusetts in 1713, well after the events of the entire book, and convincing him to return to England. During that journey (featuring infodumping about pirates), we get the story of Daniel's early life, friendship with Newton, and involvement in the Royal Society in a sort of extended flashback that becomes a separate narrative thread. Many of the bits here are interesting in isolation, but it's so long that they blur together and become tediously boring, particularly since Daniel has no agency throughout. He tags along after Newton and later the Royal Society, observing whatever they're doing, with occasional side trips to goldsmiths (must show the origins of the banking system) and brushes with royalty. The overwhelming impression one gets from the accounts of the Royal Society is that the lot of them are completely insane. I have some interest in the history of science, but there are only so many dissections of live dogs and optical experiments on one's own eye that I can take.

Initially, the second part of the book is a breath of fresh air. Jack Shaftoe is way more interesting than Daniel Waterhouse at first, mostly because he does something instead of just be the perpetual lab assistant. I finally was enjoying this book through his rescue of Eliza and some of their initial wanderings. It's the sort of crazy, over-the-top adventuring that Stephenson writes with a sense of humor and occasionally decent banter. Unfortunately, it becomes more apparent over time that he doesn't really understand how to write Eliza, particularly in dialogue with other characters, and he keeps falling back on the same few points of characterization. Jack, meanwhile, has syphilis and spends the last part of this section going slowly insane, which works about as well for me as every other book I've read with surrealistic descriptions of people going insane written by writers not known for the poetry of their sentences.

Oh, and there's also the worst sex scene that I think I've ever read. It at least is so over-the-top ridiculous that it becomes funny.

I'm fascinated by Stephenson's research-packed writing style when it's properly focused through the lens of a plot, but I think he has some major limitations as a writer that undermined this book. The primary one is that he can only write two characters well: the introspective science or mathematical genius who thinks at an angle to the rest of the world, and the adventurer with nothing to lose who takes crazy risks while following a strange but consistent moral code. His previous books worked because they're built around those two characters. He partly does the same thing here, but Daniel Waterhouse, for most of the book, doesn't get to make enough decisions to be effective as the first type of character. Eliza, who is neither of those two characters, felt like a collection of stereotypes and one-line character notes. This sort of sprawling historical story needs vibrant and powerful characters to both keep the reader's interest and to take action that leads to a strong plot. Quicksilver doesn't have them, therefore mostly doesn't have a plot, and therefore lacks any momentum to pull the reader through the endless descriptions.

All that being said, I also have to note that the third section of the book is a substantial improvement on the first two. Both Eliza and Daniel get wrapped up in the prelude to the Glorious Revolution, and events start happening at a much faster rate. Eliza's story shifts to an epistolary structure, with which Stephenson does a significantly better job and is able to add some character definition. The pacing is still on the slow side, but one finally starts feeling like the neat bits are in service of the plot, or at least form ornamentation around a coherent structure, rather than being the entire point of the book.

Stephenson also manages an adequate ending for the first book of a trilogy, or would have if he'd not shot himself in the foot in the first third of the book. He builds up some dramatic tension around Daniel to form the climax and a bit of a cliff-hanger ending, except it's completely defused by the fact we've already seen Daniel 25 years later in the flashback structure of the first third. Worse, that structure disappears after the first third and hence is apparently entirely pointless, accomplishing nothing structural in the book other than defusing all of the tension from the ending. It's the most glaring of many examples that made me think Stephenson didn't really know how to structure this work.

I'll probably read the rest of this series since all the books in it have won awards, I still am curious about the research details Stephenson dug up, and there are occasional moments of it I enjoyed. It's dropped much lower in priority, though, and I can't recommend it to anyone else. Even if you loved Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver sprawls, and Stephenson's skill with interesting anecdotes isn't enough to rescue it. If the whole book had been like the last third, it might be worth recommending. As is, you can read at least three better books in the time it takes to make it through this one.

Followed by The Confusion.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-04-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21