9 May 2004

Review: Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson (4/5)

I (finally) finished Quicksilver last week. Here's a review, and some additional links for reference:

Neal Stephenson

He has written only a small number of books but, collectively, they cover a significant territory of history and styles. The early Snow Crash is labeled cyberpunk; Cryptonomicon is historical novel; Quicksilver is more of the same, and has links to the universe laid out in Cryptonomicon, but with even greater breadth: it is the first book of three being published under the moniker The Baroque Cycle.

Quicksilver, Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

916 pages, consisting of three "books," each broken up into chapters of varying length, chapter titles provide locations and dates (from 1655 to 1713). Most chapters are written with an omniscient narrator, notable exceptions include a faux-play performed in affected prose by the several of the main characters (and there are many) of the book, and lengthy excerpts from various missives encrypted based on the I Ching.


The development of modern science, the development of modern economic markets, information theory in a pre-information age, the effects these all had on the ossified political structures of the day, finding your "place" in the world and adaptation.


Although each of the three books in Quicksilver involves many fictional and historical characters, each focuses primarily on one of the three major main characters. Daniel Waterhouse in book one, Jack Shaftoe in book two, and Eliza in book three. Throughout Quicksilver, these characters meet most every significant individual who lived in Europe, usually at the point in time when they accomplish their most significant acts. (These coincidences, although often a fun literary trope, run a little forced at times and are the only significant flaws.)

Stephenson provides an only slightly useful character list (dramatis personae) at the back of the book (pages 917 through 927). It also explains the often confusing use of multiple names for royalty?e.g. multiple titles, family name, or given name.

Daniel Waterhouse ("Quicksilver") -- Descendant of members of a fictitious, though historically accurate, puritan sect in England called Barkers. He grows up taught to expect the apocalypse in 1666, rooms with Isaac Newton at Cambridge, hates alchemists, was a member of The Royal Society, and moves to Boston after some political upheaval occurs at the end of the novel.

Jack Shaftoe ("The King of the Vagabonds") -- We trace his difficult, and wildly adventurous life, from beginning to (presumed) end. Early on, he makes a comically grim and profitable living providing a more expedient death to those criminals condemned to an otherwise slow hanging. Later, fighting Turks in Vienna he rescues Eliza from a harem, and they begin a series of adventures across Europe. After they part ways, Jack spirals into excessively poor business choices and syphilitic dementia.

Eliza ("Odalisque") -- Born on a fictional island off the English coast called, improbably, Qwghlm. Eliza begins life as grimly as Jack (captured by pirates, raped, sold to a harem) but after her liberation by Jack, she becomes one of the most influential women in Europe (making a fortune in the burgeoning Dutch stock market, managing accounts for the French royals at Versailles, spying on those royals, ingratiating herself to both the English and French courts). Throughout, she converses regularly with such members of The Royal Society as Newton, Leibniz, and Christiaan Huygens.

So, what's it about?

As one of three novels, this is more difficult to explain than, say, The Lord of the Rings or Dune. The story is not a story but is instead a collection of themes and characters. As a three-pound novel, it sits very comfortably with, say, Gravity?s Rainbow or Infinite Jest (minus the extreme verbal virtuosity of both). The story has a density and internal consistency because it layers the themes, characters, and events. Where will it go from here?

[ posted by sstrader on 9 May 2004 at 4:57:15 PM in Language & Literature ]