Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle
by Neal Stephenson
Review by John Berlyne
William Morrow & Company Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0380977427
Date: 31 October 2003 List Price £15.76 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
It can be frustrating for readers when a favorite novelist takes a long time between books. Its four years or so since Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon - his last fictional outing - blew our minds and whilst other writers have been churning work out by the bucket load, Stephenson has been hiding away, all the while preparing something very, very special for us. Now Quicksilver has arrived, and it's time for Stephenson to blow our minds all over again. This new novel is a truly awe inspiring historical epic, the depth and complexity of which made my jaw drop whilst reading it. That Stephenson was able to write this in only four years is an amazing feat, for Quicksilver is the kind of book that would constitute the lifetime work of lesser authors.
While not exactly a prequel or sequel to Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver is very much umbilically linked to it. Whereas Cryptonomicon was concerned with WWII code breaking and present day data havens, Quicksilver, with its setting of 17th century Europe and its unfolding tale of alchemy, natural philosophy and political intrigue, has many parallels with its predecessor. Not least of these is the genealogy involved. Readers of Cryptonomicon (and I must add here that one in no way needs to have read that novel in order to fully enjoy this one) will recognize the names of Waterhouse and Shaftoe and of the mysterious Enoch Root.
Quicksilver covers a time of extraordinary events -- France is the dominant world power, the Sun King at the height of his brilliance; all over Europe, natural philosophy is the rage, for this is the time of Newton, Leibniz, Huygens and Hooke, all of whom appear in this novel as life-like as if they were standing right next to you. In England, we move through the reigns of Charles II, James II and into the invasion of the Prince of Orange and we experience the Great Fire, bubonic plague and the birth of modern commerce. All these events are captured and seen through the eyes of Stephenson's main protagonists.
In the first of the three sections that make up Quicksilver, one of Daniel Waterhouse's earliest memories is seeing the head of Charles I hit the sawdust. The son of a leading puritan agititator, Daniel lives through the Interregnum to be sent up to Cambridge. There he meets Isaac Newton, an aloof pale-faced enigma whom Daniel, a bright intellect himself, can only exist alongside and never hope to better. Their long association follows them from university into the Royal Society, already established as a gathering point for the eccentric quacks of the day. But Quicksilver deftly allows the reader to see that without the insatiable curiosity of these men, much of what we today take for granted would perhaps not have come to light. Stephenson clearly defines how these natural philosophers created the Age of Reason, how their enquiring minds show us that though there is genius in finding the answers, there is equal, perhaps greater genius in asking the questions. Gradually the quackery is cleared away to reveal the truth that lies beneath, but Stephenson also notes that in any age, the advances made are contextual, that observations and discoveries are bound by the (superstitious or religious) belief systems and politics of the time. Whilst on the one hand Hooke is scratching away at his Micrographia, other RS fellows are devising experiments to prove or disprove the alchemical qualities of unicorn horn!
Inevitably, (largely through the necessity of finding patrons) Daniel's involvement with the Royal Society brings him into contact with the trappings of court. With his monochrome puritan background, it is fascinating to watch through his eyes as color returns to England to the point where upper class life becomes gaudy and wasteful and fashions ridiculous. One memorable scene has Daniel standing atop Gresham College overlooking London as it rebuilds itself following the fire. Stephenson beautifully depicts a filmic, almost time-lapse effect that is not just a visual feast, but incorporates the contemporary sounds and smells of how it must have been. And the author does this throughout this epic tome, creating a work of such sensory richness that it is as close to real time travel as we'll ever get. I don't think I've ever experienced a history novel so vividly. It's a stunning effect.
Book two switches to the lower echelons of this society. We're now in the company of Jack Shaftoe, a professional rogue and vagabond of tremendous spirit and no little guile. We learn of Jack's origins in the thieves den of London's docksides and later catch up with him as an itinerant soldier following various campaigns in mainland Europe, purely for the purposes of gathering up what loot he can from the various battlefields and conquered towns. Jack eventually finds himself in Vienna, the setting for a number of infamous sieges opposing the Turks. There, in a scene of glorious comedy (one of many of which Jack seems unable to resist,) he rescues Eliza from a harem and together they travel west once more. Eliza, it turns out, possesses great guile of her own and Jack eventually falls out of the story in a tragic-comic, but wonderfully heroic fashion, to leave us to concentrate wholly on Eliza's rise through society. And what a rise! Eliza, a native of Qwghlm (see Cryptonomicon) is gifted with coquettish charm, financial acumen par excellence, exotic allure and much else besides. In book three, she glides upwards against great odds, becoming involved in the intrigues and secrets that fuel the courts of Europe, and eventually becoming a countess, a spy, a mother, a political pawn, a cryptographer and much else besides.
Quicksilver is a hefty read and one that requires some lengthy digestion from the reader. Overall, I can honestly say that it is an astounding piece of writing, and one that confirms Stephenson's status as a giant of the genre. Quite where it fits into the genre, I cannot say. In a recent interview, Ray Bradbury described SF as "the art of telling things that can really happen because they exist physically", and fantasy as being "about things that can't happen, that you make happen anyway" -- Stephenson's novel conforms to neither of these conventions, yet both are relevant to it. Quicksilver truly transcends the genre in it's exploration of science and its alternative, yet not alternative historical setting. Much of this is helped by Stephenson's style of writing which makes few concessions to period. Indeed his narrative is stuffed full of the buzz words and phrases of modern as well as contemporary vernacular. The effect is not at all anachronistic, as one might think. Instead it provides an accessibility to the novel that make characters and setting utterly vibrant and totally real. Likewise the concepts and ideas at work in Quicksilver flow as effortlessly as mercury itself. Indeed this central image and metaphor is ever present and is explored on every level. It is so insistent an image and so artful depicted that it securely underpins the entire proceedings without ever overwhelming them.
Throughout Quicksilver, there are myriad delights for the reader. You can really just take your pick -- there are sophisticated epigrams (my favorite was Daniel's wry observation that "fame's a weed, but repute is a slow-growing oak"); moments of great fear and tension; touches of Richard Lester style slapstick; long philosophical discourses on the topics that concerned the great minds of the day; glimpses into sumptuous royal lifestyles; wars, wars and more wars-- Stephenson has pretty much covered everything, and done so with such panache and with a touch of genius to rival some of the characters he writes about. This is a novel that you will never forget reading, one that will stay with you long after you turn the last of its many pages. It is simply stunning and stunningly complicated.
Very highly recommended.