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Quicksilver: Volume I of The Baroque Cycle
Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 944 pages

Quicksilver
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Interview: Neal Stephenson
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Diamond Age
Neal Stephenson Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alex Lightman

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Neal Stephenson is the author of science fiction with historically significant impact, so it's fitting that he has devoted his peak years to historical fiction with scientific impact. Stephenson's latest offering is Quicksilver, Volume I of The Baroque Cycle. Volume II, The Confusion is already complete, and, as of Oct. 2003, was preparing to wind down his publicity tour to complete the third and final volume, The System of The World.

Stephenson is the author of two classics of science fiction (Snow Crash and The Diamond Age) and two works of pseudo-science fiction. (In chronological order: Zodiac took cyberpunk off the streets and into polluted city waterways. Snow Crash was an instant classic science fiction that fueled a boom in virtual reality software investment and made delivery people seem cool. The Diamond Age is the archetypal work on nanotechnology and the explosive growth of Shanghai, as well as the inspiration for tablet-based accelerated learning. Cryptonomicon is deals with enciphering and deciphering in World War II, cycling up to modern privacy and security.) While I don't remember much about Stephenson's earlier characters (other than the name Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash) I don't think I will ever forget any of the main characters in Quicksilver. They live!

Novels are supposed to be character-driven, and the characters inhabiting Quicksilver feel as real as any historical figures. The focus shifts around between the ageless alchemist Enoch the Red, genius without compare and alchemist/religious fanatic Isaac Newton, puritan (and Newtonian roommate) Daniel Waterhouse, polymath lonely Wilhelm Leibniz, "Half-cocked" Jack Shaftoe (yes, that is an anatomical reference), Eliza the virgin slave turned duchess/countess/spy, Royal Society standout Robert Hooke, and sexy beast William of Orange are the most vivid and memorable characters. Of these, Waterhouse is the dullest, and it is with him that we are unfortunately stuck. Shaftoe is the most interesting, but he goes missing hundreds of pages before the conclusion, and, after a tantalizing glimpse of Isaac Newton as a boy (with special effects reminiscent of Little Man Tate), we see him as a prick. World smartest man, sure, but a prick all the same.

Quicksilver is anything but quick: it is 1,000 pages with sections of extreme novelistic density. In one section, written like a play and entitled A Scene at the Exchange, Daniel Waterhouse says, "Here, m'lord, fresh from Cambridge, as promised, I give you Books I and II... have a care, some would consider it a valuable document." Waterhouse is talking with other historical personages, Apthorp and Ravenscarr.

Apthorp asks, "My word, is that the cornerstone of a building or a manuscript?
Ravenscarr opines: Err! To judge by weight, it is the former.
Apthorp: Whatever it is, it is too long, too long!
Waterhouse: It explains the System of the World.
Apthorp: Some sharp editor needs to step in and take the wretch in hand!
This exchange occurs on page 720 and by this time most readers will conclude that this is Stephenson mocking himself about Quicksilver, rather than Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton.

Reviews should indicate whether a work is work spending money and, especially in the case of a 20 to 50 hour read-time to complete. The answer with Quicksilver is yes and no. One way to put it is if you think Michael Crichton's best book is Timeline, and wished it was 10 to 20 times as long, then you will love Quicksilver (which I am tempted to call Slowstone since it takes so long to get anywhere, and stones are always popping up).

Reasons to read Quicksilver:
You are a Stephenson completist. (Definition: noun. A person who obsessively gathers the complete collection of a particular set of items (such as a musician's recordings or an author's books).
You liked The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and wondered if anyone could have come up with a mechanical computer even earlier than Charles Babbage. (The answer in Quicksilver is yes: Leibniz does so in the 1600s.)
You want to understand how the British could go from Civil War, the London Fire, and bubonic plague to achieve world mastery in part through science and coffee house commerce.
You like beautifully written, sassy, ironic dialogue and long meandering travels, sort of like The Fellowship of the Ring without the fantasy elements.
You want to understand English, American, French, European, or science history as if you were actually there talking with the key players.
You are a frickin' genius and have actually lived in or studied the capitals of Europe as well as Cambridge, so you can get all the sly insider references.

Reasons not to read Quicksilver:
You don't have weeks to get through a book, especially when it's actually 1,000 pages out of a 4,000 page historical series (counting Volumes II, III, and Cryptonomicon, with which it shares the descendants of major characters)
You need to have a dramatic arc or a sense of a story starting somewhere and going somewhere, or even an ending. (Spoiler: The book ends with Daniel Waterstone about to get a stone cut out of his bladder. Sorry, but that is not an ending, even for Volume I of III, especially since you know Waterhouse survives.) I thought the ending of The Diamond Age was bad (the main character goes for a swim as a war fought by an army trained to emulate her goes on), Quicksilver's is worse. It better pay off!
You are easily bored with writer's who simply make many long lists of things. For instance, the section on what Daniel Waterhouse seeks in Robert Hooke's living room/laboratory/warehouse is as exciting as a report by a student to New York's Museum of Natural History.
You've read Snow Crash and/or The Diamond Age and think this is about science fiction or alternate history. Sorry. You're better off reading Charles Stross' Singularity Sky for the cutting edge.
You don't have a spectacular vocabulary and get frustrated looking up words.

Since SF Site is a resource for science fiction readers, I will conclude by saying that Quicksilver's primary value is to show the authentic roots of science fiction: an alchemical concoction of bits of science and pseudoscientific vocabulary arranged according to stories of people who are present at nodal power points of the systems that run worlds, and who sometimes can change the future through their words, deeds, and descendants. Quicksilver is wonderful because it shows how smart, imaginative people are the ones who created the world we live in, which is optimized for readers of science fiction to continue changing the world in their own image.

Copyright © 2003 Alex Lightman

Alex Lightman (http://www.alexlightman.com) is the CEO of MIT-spin off Charmed Technology (http://www.charmed.com). He is the author of about 100 articles in this millennium and the book Brave New Unwired World: The Digital Big Bang and the Infinite Internet. His next book, The Future Engine: How Science Fiction Advances Business and Government will be published in spring, 2003. Lightman is also the first Cal-(IT)2 with the University of California (http://www.calit2.net) and the leading speaker on 4G, the next generation of wireless communication. His fashion shows with wearable computers are widely plagiarized by leading conferences world-wide.


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