Quicksilver: Information overload

fantasy book reviews audiobook Neal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. QuicksilverQuicksilver by Neal Stephenson

[The audiobook contains Book 1 of the print edition of the Quicksilver omnibus. Book 2 is King of the Vagabonds. Book 3 is Odalisque.]

I’m a scientist by profession and I love history. Thus, I’m fascinated by the history of science, especially the era of Isaac Newton et al. So, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver should be just my thing and I was fully expecting to love this book (it’s been on my list for years), but I’m sad to say that I was disappointed in this first installment of The Baroque Cycle, though I still have high hopes for the remaining books.

Quicksilver is well-researched and well-written and chock full of plenty of stuff I love to read about: 17th and 18th century scholars and politicians exploring the way the world works. What an exciting time to be alive! Neal Stephenson successfully captures the feeling of the Baroque world — its architecture, fashion, nobility, plagues, and lack of waste management. He’s done his research, so he clearly and enthusiastically informs us about such diverse topics as alchemy, astronomy, botany, calculus, coinage, cryptography, the Dutch Wars, economics, free will, Galilean invariance, geometry, heresy, international relations, Judaism, kinematics, logic, microscopy, natural philosophy, optics, politics, the Reformation, the Restoration, relativity, sailing, sea warfare, slavery, taxonomy, weaponry, and zoology… I could go on. Quicksilver will get you half way through a liberal arts education in only 335 pages.

This is quite an accomplishment, but it’s also a problem. I love historical fiction, but great historical fiction uses the context of an exciting plot, engaging characters, and some sort of tension in the form of mystery and/or romance. Quicksilver has none of that. It’s purely what I’ll call (for lack of a better term) “historical science fiction.” Daniel Waterhouse, the character whose eyes we see through (mostly in flashbacks), has no personality, passion, or purpose. In Quicksilver, he exists to look over the shoulders of the men who are the real subjects of the book: the members of the Royal Society.

These men are fascinating, yes, but if the purpose of Quicksilver is to relay a huge amount of information about them in an interesting way, I’d rather read a non-fiction account. Then at least I’d know which of the numerous anecdotes about Isaac Newton (et al.) are factual. I can think of no reason to read this history as a fictional account if it contains none of the elements of an entertaining novel.

As an example, I’ll contrast Quicksilver with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I read all 20½ of those novels and was completely enthralled. Not only did I learn a lot about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, but I was also thoroughly entertained by the fictional stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. That is excellent historical fiction.

Quicksilver was funny in places (such as when the Royal Society members talk about time, kidney stones, and opiates during one of their meetings) — and engrossing a couple of times (such as when Daniel Waterhouse and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz discuss cognition, free will, and artificial intelligence), and though I enjoy learning about the invention of clocks, calculators, and coffee, Quicksilver is mostly information overload without a story to back it up.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version, which was beautifully read by Simon Prebble (always a treat). Due to its length, Brilliance Audio has split Quicksilver into its three sections: “Quicksilver,” “King of the Vagabonds,” and “Odalisque.” The next audiobook, then, is called King of the Vagabonds, and it shifts focus to a London street urchin who becomes an adventurer. Now that sounds like fun! I’m going to read King of the Vagabonds and hope that the introduction of some non-academic characters will give this saga some life!

~Kat Hooper

Quicksilver by Neal StephensonWas the 17th century Europe’s most interesting historical period? I’d never thought of it that way before, but after reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver – which combines Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque into one massive tome – I think the century might be on to something.

The first third of the novel, entitled (and released as) Quicksilver, follows Daniel Waterhouse, a young man who journeys to London and discovers the birth of the Royal Society, a collection of natural philosophers doing their best to organize a scientific revolution in London. This premise is an important one for Stephenson as it allows the author time to expound upon the birth of modern science, the nature of fleas, and a rivalry between two of Europe’s greatest thinkers: Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton. The rivalry here begins when both Leibniz and Newton claim to have invented calculus. Though the subject lends itself to infodumps, which some will find trying, I enjoyed the personality that Stephenson puts into historical figures. There’s more to them than portraits and bullet points in textbooks.

Some readers will find that Stephenson spends too much time expounding and not enough time adventuring in the first third of the novel, an imbalance that he immediately corrects in the second section of the novel, King of the Vagabonds. King of the Vagabonds follows Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe as he journeys, vagabond style, from the Battle of Vienna to Amsterdam to France. Jack is Stephenson’s swashbuckling, joke cracking, blockbuster anti-hero. He’s not afraid to get into a sword fight and it would take little prodding to convince him to tick off the King of France.

Jack is also in love with Eliza, a young woman he rescues from a harem. Eliza happens to be fluent in just about every European language, and she has a keen mind for mathematics and business. It does not take long for her to wind up in Amsterdam, where Stephenson introduces the stock exchange, astronomers, and the emerging tension between the Sun King, Louis XIV, and William of Orange. Before long, Eliza winds up in the middle of the shadowy side of Baroque politics, but she fortunately figures out a way to leverage her mathematical skills and friends to her advantage. Eliza and Daniel are given the majority of the final third section of the book, Odalisque.

It would be difficult to understate how ambitious a book Quicksilver is. I can only imagine how much time Stephenson devoted to researching Quicksilver, but if I were forced to make an estimate I would start with the amount of time I spent reading about it while reading Quicksilver and then multiply. Suffice it to say that I was grateful that I started reading this series after Wikipedia or else I would have had to sign out a set of encyclopedias from the library.

Quicksilver can be an intimidating read because of its length and its steep learning curve. Further, it is just the first novel in the BAROQUE CYCLE, meaning that it asks the reader to commit to thousands of pages of reading. Stephenson does not do his readers many favors in terms of plot either. The action can be uneven and unpredictable. However, by the time I’d finished this brick, I was determined to continue. Stephenson fans should enjoy this novel, but it helps to have an interest in history, science, and finance.

~Ryan Skardal

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I loved these books, but you make a good point. It’s as if Stephenson was determined to somehow squeeze every single bit of research he did into these books. On the other hand, I remember that the first book is the most confusing in terms of story – it does pick up once you meet Shaftoe. These books are high on my “to be reread if I ever have nothing new to read”.

  2. I’m reading King of the Vagabonds right now (introduces Shaftoe). It is MUCH better. There’s a story.

  3. This review sums up the book awesomely, particularly that it doesn’t try to disguise that it’s research interwoven with fiction–a real treat for those who like to be educated while entertained. I would only add that the “sci-fi” elements of the book are not to be found in any futuristic tech or anachronistic gadgets, but in Stephenson’s digging around to find the roots of the current scientific and economic system which paved the way for such tech–like this web page! Keep the great reviews coming, Ryan!

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