|Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1)
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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
Quicksilver is the story of Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and conflicted Puritan, pursuing knowledge in the company of the greatest minds of Baroque-era Europe, in a chaotic world where reason wars with the bloody ambitions of the mighty, and where catastrophe, natural or otherwise, can alter the political landscape overnight.
It is a chronicle of the breathtaking exploits of "Half-Cocked Jack" Shaftoe -- London street urchin turned swashbuckling adventurer and legendary King of the Vagabonds -- risking life and limb for fortune and love while slowly maddening from the pox.
And it is the tale of Eliza, rescued by Jack from a Turkish harem to become spy, confidante, and pawn of royals in order to reinvent Europe through the newborn power of finance.
A gloriously rich, entertaining, and endlessly inventive novel that brings a remarkable age and its momentous events to vivid life, Quicksilver is an extraordinary achievement from one of the most original and important literary talents of our time.
And it's just the beginning ...
- The Foundation Series for the new millenium
Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy/Series is considered one of the great science-fiction collections ever written, forming the basis of countless derivative and inspired works over the past fifty years. The Baroque Cycle will not, unfortunately, inspire fifty years of copycats, for a unique reason: it would be far too difficult to undertake with even moderate effort. This is a nine-book/ three-volume masterpiece of historical fiction that really has no peer in my experience (and please comment if you find any!)
As an aside, I could, at length, review each of the nine books and prattle on endlessly about this or that, but that's far too many reviews for what I intend to say about the Cycle as a whole. My comments apply to all books equally.
The cycle begins in the mid 17th century and spans the adulthood of one Daniel Waterhouse, a fictional contemporary of Isaac Newton. Of course, it also traces the life of one Jack Shaftoe, a fictional hero with his roots in every pirate story ever written or filmed. And then there's the mysterious Enoch Root, popping up again from the Cryptonomicon to move things along as the deux ex machina of certain story elements.
The number of interleaved story lines would be an impressive enough feat of writing, but the historical references were simply amazing. The sheer amount of research Mr. Stephenson invested for the Cycle must have been enormous. In short, Mr. Stephenson describes London before, during, and after the Great Fire of 1666 politically, sociologically, geographically, architecturally, and economically; he performs the same rigor of place-setting with Hanover and present-day Germany, Paris and present-day France, diverse parts of Egypt, Algeria, India, Mexico, South America, and Boston. This is the kind of book series that would inspire high-school students to PAY ATTENTION. For, if the students really do their homework and have a teacher partnered with them to put the book details into their proper context, you could quite possible craft an entire school year around the nine books, such is the depth and breadth of scholastic research involved in putting together such a series. It's no small achievement or idle boast: Mr. Stephenson has in some way taken his education and put it to its greatest use, as an inspiration to students.
All of this would be for naught if the stories weren't truly excellent at their core, and they are. You could boil down the Shaftoe story line to "pirate story" but that sells it short after the first book -- and there are eight more to go. What starts as a pirate story quickly become something of a precursor to spycraft and terrorism/counter-terrorism in the 17th and 18th centuries: currency manipulation, political scandals, and assassinations. I haven't even mentioned Isaac Newton versus Gottfried Leibniz in the battle for Calculus, or Isaac Newton's Alchemy, the reconstruction of London post-fire, the gold trade, the silver trade, piracy in the Atlantic and Pacific, the timber economy, the commodities exchange of northern Europe, the court at Versailles, and so on. I'm astonished as I write this.
This is well-worth the time invested to read, as a Cycle. If Mr. Stephenson ever posted his complete bibliography, or if some doctoral student ever decided to craft that two-semester, eight-course class tracing the book's scholarship, I would be among the first to delve deeply into it and re-learn my forgotten history, mathematics, and economics. Simply, this is one of the finest fiction series ever written.
- long, slow, wonderful read
I've finished the entire Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and Systems of the World).
It is, at some times, the most painful read as it moves very very slowly. But The enjoyment of this book is found in the journey, and not the destination.
It is immensely interconnected, a great historical fiction novel, and very very much work the time invested....more info
- Steer Clear of the Audio Book
2 stars for the audio book production only (4.25 for the hardcopy)
I'm a huge Stephenson Fan and thoroughly enjoyed the entire Baroque Cycle when I first read it (though certain parts were work to get through), but the abridged Quicksilver audio book was a huge let down.
First, there are just too many characters for one narrator. Preble does many of the accents well, but within each individually, it's tough to tell who's who. Every French character sounds the same, as well as English (Eliza, Jeffries, and Newton could of been the same person), pirate, etc...
Second, characters have incorrect accents for what their background is. Dappa, the escaped African slave turned writer/slave activist is done in Preble's best Blackbeard impersonation. Leibniz at 20something sounds as he should, a German, and then later in the narrative when he first meets Eliza and Jack, he speaks like every other Englishman in the story???
Lastly, whomever did the editing for the abridged version was a hack. Some of the most enjoyable scenes are cut or summarized, same with some important character introductions. How can you have an integral character appear halfway through the story without the chapter that properly introduces him or her? I own over 40 audio books and this one ranks very low on the list ... the production just seemed rushed....more info
- an adventure epic for geeks and lovers of historical fiction
This epic story is an amazing blend of ideas from the history of science and adventure. The tempo of the writing is more like an adventure story. "Quicksilver" is probably most appealing to geeks and those who enjoy historical fiction. When you really like something it's natural to think everyone else will love it too, but they won't. Quicksilver and the rest of the trilogy make for a longgggg read, but it sure doesn't feel like it. Long and enjoyable like Lord of the Rings on film, sweeping in scope, a real epic. Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. If you've never read one of his books I'd reccommend "Cryptonomicon" or "Snow Crash" to read first. ...more info
- A missed opportunity
One can understand the wish of the author to provide the framework showing the primitive circumstances within which the great minds of western civilisation had to live and work. The book suffers however from an overabundance of superfluous detail ( some of which as far my country is concerned is factually incorrect)and in parts almost becomes a tourist guide to 17th century Europe. In other parts it falls into "best-sellerish" plots, and thereby misses the opportunity to demonstrate how these great minds actually arrived at the discovereis that in many instances changed history.I will certainly not puchase volumes two and three. For those interested in Leibniz I can recommend "the courtier and the Heretic" by Matthew Steward (Norton) ...more info
- Only for some readers
I couldn't finish this book. I forced myself to finish the first third of the book about Waterhouse and Newton. The second third, about Half-cocked Jack and Elisa, was significantly better. But when it deviated back to complicated politics, I had to put it down for good.
I admit I might not have exemplary reading comprehension skills, but this book is very hard to read. You must know a lot about math and science, a lot about European history and politics and must be able read deeply into nuanced dialog to be able to understand this novel. I understood about 40% of the Waterhouse book and 60% of the Jack book. Stephenson's writing is good and witty, but also pretty difficult and long-winded at times.
This book is not for everyone. Anyway, read the diversity of reviews on this book and you'll be able to tell if this book is for you.
- Long, but I really loved it.
Heh. I can well imagine that this book might be too much for some folks. It's really long, and very densely written. Any temptation to skim sections means that you miss some brilliant pun or trivia explanation.
It's a wonderful work of historical fiction. It added some dynamic images to some of the biographical and historical reading that I've done about the period. Sometimes Stephenson may sacrifice a little bit of strict accuracy for the wicked joke, but who can fault him for that as a reader? A lot of people here have faulted the book for being confusing, but I have to say that I did not once need to consult the list of characters at the back of the book. Each of the sections are so well-written that the characters are distinct, even given the prodigious number of characters.
Believe it or not, even after 927 pages of really really small type, I'm anxious to read the next one. The Perennial edition comes bound with a character list, an interview with Stephenson, and some information about Real Character. These additions are good ones, and worth the time to read.
Highly recommended. However, if you cannot tolerate long books and obscure bad puns, then this probably is not the book for you. A must-read for Stephenson fans....more info
- Longwinded and overly tedious, but still fascinating
So I guess I may be a Stephenson fanboy. I started out with his more traditional science fiction books and really enjoyed them. However, even with Diamond Age, you could see Stephenson's tendency towards long discourses that may or may not relate entirely to the story at hand.
I found this book to be overly long and full of various discourses that went meandering about, sometimes with only a tenuous connection to the main plot. For all that, I found the story to be incredibly intriguing, if not all that engaging. I admit it took me a very long time to finish this book because I had to set it down so many times and read another book.
I kept coming back to it though and I am glad I did as I feel like it was a challenging book to work through, but rewarding in the end. I really like the way that Stephenson applied the scientific lens to a lot of the events portrayed in the book. My only real issue is that I am often not sure how much of the detail is true and how much of it is made up. That of course is my problem and not his as he is writing a fictional story. The fact that he can blur the lines so well is a bonus to me.
So in the end, while I found the book to be very difficult to read, I also found it to be informative. I would find it hard to recommend to another reader without some disclaimers, but for all that I give it a 4. So like I said, I may be a bit of a fanboy....more info
- The best book(s) I have ever read
Even though it took six months to read through Quicksilver, Confusion and The System of the World, it was a joyous and enlightening six monthes. I am now almost finished with Cryptonomicon, which is really like a sequel to the Baroque Cycle.
Quicksilver is really just as good as the others. It is so great that I am probably going to re read the entire cycle and just make it a Neal Stephenson year.
I think these books are better than Cryptonomicon, I think they are genius. I think it is related to the fact he wrote the books in long hand and perhaps that makes the work better.
Who knows? But I just wanted to put it down how much I loved all of these books...more info
- Just . . .Can't . . . Do . . .It!
I have loved all of Neal Stephenson's other works, including his most recent Anathem, but prior to Anatham I attempted three, I repeat THREE TIMES to engage in Quicksilver & I just can't stay focused past the first handful of chapters. Every time I hope that I may 'cause there's soooooo much to look forward to in terms of sheer quantity of material, but nonetheless, unsuccessful....more info
- A fun way to experience history
Reading this book made me fall in love with 17th and 18th century Europe, a period in history which I previously had little interest in. This book is a fun and exciting way to walk along the streets of Renaissance Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Vienna. I found the descriptions of the Netherlands to be amusing and very clever--at one point a character stores thousands of pounds of lead in his house, and the neighbors begin to notice because his house starts sinking into the ground and bringing the neighborhood with it!
With that said, I think Stephenson has something against writing a male character who is not a bumbling, head-in-the-clouds caricature. I don't know if he has an inferiority complex himself around women or what, but I wouldn't mind seeing a male character who was both intelligent and socially competent. I've read his other books and this seems to be a common trend. Also, squeamish readers should be aware of the graphic violence both in this book and the second one in the series, in particular sexual maiming against some of the characters.
I also enjoyed seeing him give a reading in person in Seattle. He wrote the first draft with pen and paper!...more info
- Not Cryptonomicon.
After reading Cryptonomicon I wanted to read the Baroque Cycle. I thought I would be engaged from the start, so I waited until the three books were published before getting Quicksilver.
It is not doing it for me. I am on page 635 and it is like reading Don Quixote.
I won't read the rest of the Baroque Cycle after (or if) I finish this one....more info
- Even better on the second reading - It is dense but worth the effort!
Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is one of the most ambitious series of historical fiction in recent years and he does an excellent job of bridging the distance between 17th century and today by focusing on putting the ideas and persons in the context of their time. Having read through the voluminous series when it came out, I was a little hesitant to re-read the three books (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) but my curiousity won out. I'm glad it did. There is so much information packed into the series that the second reading really made me appreciate the ideas and historical personalities invovlved.
I also noticed something that had slipped by me the first time. Daniel Waterhouse, rather than just being a neutral participant in the storyline, really came out as a catalyst for all the events in the book. Even more, his transformation from a person scared into inaction by the fear of others' disapproval into a man capable of exerting his will to make the world a better place is absolutely central to the storyline and I'm sad to say that I missed it the first time. This slow transformation permeates all three books and I think it must something very personal to Mr. Stephenson.
The other arguement for a second reading is that the events are so complex and the historical descriptions of warfare, economics and natural philosophy are often so detailed that catching everything after only one reading is difficult. I think of this as a strength of the book rather than a weakness, although some people probably do not appreciate the density of background material in the books.
The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon form an interwoven historical narrative and I think that they will stand as a great literary achievement. I do wish he'd intersperse more of his shorter novels (Snow Crash (Bantam Spectra Book) and The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (Bantam Spectra Book)) alongside his large works (Baroque Cycle,Cryptonomicon, Anathem) but I'll happily read anything Neal Stephenson writes since he has a gift for conveying complex ideas in an exciting and compelling way.
3000 pages in the trilogy, and I still was sad to see it finish! Yes, wordy....yes, sometimes obscure....so what?! That's why one reads Stephenson. I learned more about European history than I ever did in school, plus metallurgy, international finance, pirates, etc...etc... while at the same time was engrossed in all the characters. This will be a classic....more info
- Read to treat insomnia
This had all the makings of a book I should have loved. The time period was interesting and the author is talented. I love reading about historical figures. But after falling asleep again and again while reading this enormous tome, I had to admit that it had failed.
And as I would like to feel as witty, superior, and knowledgeable as the author, my need for a book to have a point eclipsed my vanity. I can't pretend to be in on the joke.
Reading this book is like wading through cement. Each character is more boring than the next, and it's bogged down with long uninterrupted paragraphs of stilted dialog and narrated trivia. Show, don't tell, has no meaning in this book.
I wish it were otherwise, but it's truly horrid....more info
- The start of it all...
In Quicksilver, Stephenson provides an extremely well-researched and compelling account of the development of the modern world, as a biproduct of the philosophical, religious, and social changes which took place in the post-Rennaissance world.
For those of you who only read books in order to discover interesting bits of trivia, I pose the question: Why would you read a thousand page book just for trivia? Nevertheless, QS weaves in all kind of interesting facts about London before it burnt down, the development of natural philosophy (now lovingly referred to as science), and the interplay of commerce as a driving force, both politically and intellectually.
What I found particularly compelling about QS and the entire Cycle in general, is that it provided a very interesting perspective on the world as it exists in 2006, as a result of the changes made in, before, and in the years after 1666. The changes which took place then, like it or not, are what made the world what it is today. Although it is probably possible to say that about many other epochs, if stated indirectly enough, the development of the new "system of the world" which began in QS provided a large amount of fodder for my contemplations on the state of the world, in which we live, today....more info
- Neal knows how to do it
I read the reviews before I started this one since I wanted to see if it would be worth the time. I was a little worried by some of the reviews, but actually found that it exceeded my expectations. Stephenson keeps it interesting, despite what people have said about the letter-writing and political intrigue going on in the second half of the book.
I have started reading The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2), and actually had to put it down. From the reviews, it sounded like most people liked The Confusion better, but so far, I have to say I like Quicksilver better (I'm only about half way through The Confusion, though).
As with all of Stephenson's books, this one is exceptionally well written, with an epic storyline and the great descriptions I got used to in Cryptonomicon. I can't believe that Stephenson wrote the whole thing by hand before typing it up (or having someone type it for him)....more info
- I just dont get it
I recently bought Quicksilver, lured by the reviews on the back of the book, the awards and plaudits, and the possibility of getting stuck into a good epic across a number of novels.
Not to be, however. This is a sprawling novel that does not want to go anywhere quickly (if at all!). A complex morass of characters, some interesting, others boring (and the central character falling onto the latter category...) make this the defining part of the novel. However, while the characters are well developed and described, surely the objective here is to tell a story?! After about 600 pages you are asking yourself why? Where is this going? What is it trying to achieve? Whats the plot? (And conclude that the author and editor have lost the plot, pun intended). Some of the storylines are quite interesting (e.g. Shaftoe and Eliza), but just when a sense of momentum is achieved, the author jumps to a different time/place (thinks Pulp Fiction) and leaves you feeling let down....
I suspect that enjoyment of this requires a large amount of time, determination and general enthusaism for the history of the early sciences and/or 17th century.
Unless you satisfy these criteria, I would suggest avoiding....more info
- 100 years from now will be seen as a timeless masterpiece
Stephenson is one of the most skilled, imaginative, ambitious and thought-provoking Americans writing today. Don't be put off by the naysayers. Yes, this book is long in parts. Yes, you can get lost in the myriad of characters and plot twists. But very few writers entertain and educate the way stephenson can. His knowledge of history and science is staggering. His mastery of language, dialogue and plot seems effortless. There are philosophical debates, pirate battles, hangings, political intrigues, love and sex, and the sheer beauty of language.
If you want a mindless yarn, go read Dan Brown or John Grisham. If you want to feel the thrill of great fiction, read Stepehenson....more info
- Sigh...Ignorance and Humor at else's expense
While reading certain passages did give me a laugh, I have to say that it is largley Anglo-centric and Stephenson introduces numerous historical inaccuracies in an attempt to seem humorous and well-educated. He often does this at the expense of other countries in a "subtle" way. While one may argue that this is a work of fiction, this is certainly not a worthy excuse since the author's intent is clearly to place fictional characters in a factual historical context. While someone strongly knowledgable of history may leave with a good laugh at the inaccuracies, most readers will leave with a poor substitute for real knowledge, possible reinforcing previously held erroneous beliefs. This is not to say that the book is not often entertaining....more info
- It has its moments....
I have just finished Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and to be honest, I am shocked to see how highly other reviews have rated this book. Among my friends, four of us started Quicksilver, and I was the only one to finish that book, or the rest of the series. Looking back - I wouldn't recommend this book (or the other two) to any of them. Sure, there are short passages that are very well done, but to me, The Baroque Cycle smells more like a vanity project than anything else.
The series reads like a history of the time period instead of an actual novel, although to its discredit most history books I've read are much more interesting. Stephenson has the habit of beginning sections by referring to the character by pronouns only, until five pages in when he uses their name. I realize that this is supposed to immerse the reader in the description, but instead it only served to con-fuse the characters in my mind.
Quicksilver is clearly the weakest out of the three books, which in other series might mean (and as I had hoped for since I'm a fan of Stephenson's other novels) you would have a lot to look forward to in the following two books. But, sorry, they only get marginally better.
I feel the major point is this - Stephenson has fallen in love with the subtlety of his writing style, and these three books, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, are subtle to the point of being unreadable. They have minor redeeming moments, but when considering all the painfully boring writing that surrounds them, this book is not worth reading.
I was SO disappointed by this book. I love Stephenson's science fiction (The Diamond Age blew me away) but I just could not get through this random assembly of historic nuggets masked as a novel. Impossible to finish. ...more info