EPS Review #168 - Quicksilver

Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1), by Neal Stephenson, Arrow, 2004, 927pp.

Stephenson's Snow Crash was a thrilling, original and funny piece of SF. He followed it with The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which had an interesting nanotech and Chinese angle, but which also showed that he was not going to be writing Snow Crash 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on in the way that William Gibson repeated his first success. It also showed increasing prolixity, which culminated in Cryptonomicon, which I mostly disliked, especially the digressions about Qwghlm. Well, I liked the multipage Proustian description of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal, which is all I really remember besides an annoying ending. Meanwhile, I thought Stephenson's earlier work, Zodiac, was funny. And since it was about water quality in Boston, something my father knows a bit about, I gave him two copies but could not induce him to read it. Such is the stigma of Science Fiction.

Quicksilver is not Science Fiction, in case any non-geeks are still reading. It's a historical novel, about Europe and America in the 1650s. The real characters include Newton, Leibnitz, Hooke, Huygens, Pepys, James II, William III and Louis XIV. OK, you can see that the list includes a lot of scientists, or natural historians. And I admit that the whole thought-framework of the book, from Daniel Waterhouse staring at the vortices in his ship's wake and wondering what the Bernoullis would make of it, to ex-harem girl Eliza doing binary computation on her hand while shorting Dutch East India Company shares in Amsterdam, is geeko-analytical.

Daniel, room-mate of Newton at Cambridge and son of a famous Puritan, has a streak of bystanding moral weakness that it is hard not to identify with. A lot happens to him (Great Fire, etc) and he bridges much of the plot, becoming an unwilling courtier. The first excellent woman in the book, the actress Tess, is his mistress, but alas does not last long. Eliza, a sort of Scheherazade, is discovered at the battle of Vienna, by the third major fictional character, the vagabond Jack Shaftoe. Once these two team up, the novel becomes a sort of bodice-ripper that I really enjoyed, and reminded me of Dumas, only a lot more explicit.

"Men and women -- ones who are not Puritans anyway -- know each other in all sorts of ways!" Regarding Eliza warmly. Eliza gave him a look that was intended to be like a giant icicle thrust through his abdomen -- but Monmouth responded with a small erotic quiver.

At one point Eliza rides bareback wearing only a cloak -- the sensation lovingly described -- on the way to rescue William of Orange from a surprise French attack while he is sand-sailing. This sort of thing kept me wide awake on many a commute.

Events are reliably more ribald and amusing when half-cocked Jack Shaftoe is involved, but we last see him chained to a pirate galley.

I do not mind when Stephenson is extremely detailed in a historical novel because I feel that I am getting my money's worth in research. Even the footnotes -- Jack grabs a line on a bowsprit and its exact name is given, a King's mistress is mentioned, so five more are named and lowly origins compared -- suited me fine.

I am ready and eager to read the other two huge volumes. I want to learn more of Newton and Leibnitz, whose characters have been on the periphery so far. Since Newton had a failed crush on Daniel he has moved in mysterious circles, and I want to see more of him. Leibnitz is more urbane and gets more air time, which is great since one usually thinks of him as merely a Newton-usurper.

There are many anachronistic words and thoughts in the text, which must be exuberantly intentional. An example of the former would be the expansion of "SNAFU" by Jack's brother. Thoughts and world-views feel modern, but then it is hard to say how people really thought in the past, and certainly these great scientists were musing over religious and scientific themes that are current today.

This book may get such a high rating from me because it has not yet ended, and ruined that high arc of story that is so fun. You may also find that the characters, except perhaps Daniel, do not have too convincing inner lives and are too good to be true. But gosh I loved it when Jack Shaftoe crashed Louis XIV's costume party.

Martin wrote: I've read Quicksilver, it was interesting, though a bit weird. Also Cryptonomicon, which was rather long-winded, as you say. I've been meaning to figure out the pack of cards code which he describes in the Appendix, but have never got around to it.

Have you read Mr Monday, Grim Tuesday ... etc. Good for children.

I replied: Those Garth Nix books look good and do not ring a bell, so thanks!

Did you read the rest of the Quicksilver trilogy? Five stars was maybe too much but hell, it made me laugh.

Martin replied: I didn't know it was a trilogy, I don't think I'll bother with the rest though. J loves the Mr Monday series, just about his favourite books. The Bartimaeus trilogy not bad either.

Paul wrote: Told you you'd like it. The second [ volume ] was the best I think but the 3rd was really good.