Quicksilver: Information overload without a story to back it up

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

[This 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!


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

View all posts by Kat Hooper

2 comments

  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.

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