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Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1) by…

Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1) (original 2003; edition 2004)

by Neal Stephenson

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7,176116495 (3.93)178
Title:Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1)
Authors:Neal Stephenson
Info:Harper Perennial (2004), Paperback, 960 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:pleasure, read

Work details

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (2003)

  1. 30
    Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (ateolf)
  2. 00
    An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (ehines)
    ehines: Both interesting contemporary books set amidst the scientific enlightenment, Pears is a bit more historical where Stephenson is more flashily contemporary, but fans of one certainly should look at the other.
  3. 00
    The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson (Mind_Booster_Noori)
    Mind_Booster_Noori: Neal Stephenson retelling History with his excellent writing skills...
  4. 00
    Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan (Othemts)
  5. 00
    Water Music by T. C. Boyle (lyzadanger)
    lyzadanger: Similar buffoonish, humorous treatment of English historical figures.
  6. 01
    Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (YossarianXeno)
    YossarianXeno: Both are compellingly written historical novels

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Well, I've been pleasurably wading through this slab of witty exposition for what feels like most of the year now, re-reading it, to be exact, and finding comfort in the chaos, warfare, catastrophe and upheaval of the late 1600s. Daniel Waterhouse wends his way back to England beset by pirates and recalls his formative years attending Cambridge with a young Isaac Newton. Raised by a religious extremist who believed the world would end in 1666 (obviously) and wanted Daniel to stand on the Cliffs of Dover ready to great the returned Jesus in a variety of ancient languages, Daniel's education begins as a great revolution in science and philosophy takes hold, shaking the world to its core simply by explaining it. Then we have Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, who rescues Eliza from a seraglio at the Siege Of Vienna. Together they cross Europe as Vagabonds, ready to take the world of finance by storm.
These books aren't everybody's cup of tea: too big, bloated and clever-clever. I love 'em. I eat 'em up. They're epic, picaresque, hilarious celebrations of wild intelligence at war with crazed irrationality, and you're not always sure which of them are the good guys at any given time. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
He may be over it by now (as I have not read any of his more recent work), but I’m convinced that at the time he was writing Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle (of which Quicksilver is the first volume), the first thing Neal Stephenson did every morning right after getting out of bed was to shamble into the bathroom and stand there for ten minutes, just staring bleary-eyed into mirror and bemoaning his fate that it was not Thomas Pynchon looking back at him.

If with Cryptonomicon Stephenson tried to write Gravity’s Rainbow, then the Baroque Cycle is his attempt at authoring Mason & Dixon, an exploration of modern technology and the effect it has had on the 20th century followed by a sprawling, weird, detail-obsessed historical novel. Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson was not only too late in both cases, but is also not nearly the writer Pynchon is, and therefore ended up failing rather spectacularly, producing a series of novels that, in spite of their massive bulk, seems rather flat and shallow if held up against Pynchon.

Admittedly, I am being somewhat unfair here – not every writer can be a Pynchon, and usually that is not something you’d hold against anyone. It is just that Stephenson so clearly, desperately wants to be Pynchon, making it impossible to not judge him by that standard, a standard which he just cannot measure up to. I already disliked Cryptonomicon, but that was at least was somewhat entertaining; while Quicksilver, when I first read it (shortly after it was released) was just a terrible slog to get through. I did made it to the end somehow, but didn’t touch another novel by Stephenson afterwards.

But sometimes I do get those strange urges, and a few months back I started ogling the Baroque Cycle again. Whatever the reason, after some months of futile resistance the urge became irresistible, I got myself the e-book version of Stephenson’s trilogy and started – not without some misgivings – digging into Quicksilver. And ended up surprised at how much I was enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I read the whole of the Baroque Cycle, all almost 3000 pages of it in almost exactly a month.

Which is not to say that I did not still have some problems with it. If one comes to this novel with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series fresh in one’s mind it is almost painfully obvious to what degree Quicksilver fails as a straight historical novel. Not that I’d have thought even for a moment that Stephenson attempted to write one, but his attempts at mimicking the Baroque writing style are quite grating after O’Brian’s full immersion in his chosen period (and don’t even get me start on a comparison to Mason & Dixon). Stephenson seems half-hearted by comparison, his occasional usage of old spellings seems arbitrary (for example he inexplicably keeps writing “roofs” as “rooves” but is perfectly happy to use a modern spelling for most words) and generally gives the impression of someone just wanting to show off (which I strongly suspect is the raison d’être for a lot of the extended, quite often tedious descriptions of all sorts of minutiae). But then, this is not really supposed to be a strictly historical novel – Stephenson liberally peppers his narrative with anachronisms, and the auctorial is distinctly contemporary and postmodern. Which has the rather unfortunate effect that the novel reads like it wasn’t able to take itself seriously – on the one hand, it is a serious historical novel with a plethora of period detail, on the other it seems more preoccupied with finding precursors modern concerns like programming languages and arbitrary signifiers; on the one hand it seems to want to say something important, on the other it’s just here to have some fun.

Quicksilver is separated into three parts, each with a different protagonist, each of which seems to also work as some kind of allegory – Daniel Waterhouse who is the protagonist of the first book, is a Man of Science, Jack Shaftoe, protagonist of the second, is a rogue and classical picaro, and Eliza (not sure we ever learn her second name), protagonist of the third book and a genius of financial manipulation. Personally, I rather liked the first books but I suspect that was mostly because I already had an interest in the history of science of that period, but most readers (and that would include me) tend to prefer the second, because it is there that Stephenson changes from trying to write serious literature (which, seriously, he is just no good at) to spinning a yarn of colourful adventure (which, it turns out, he is really good at). “King of te Vagabonds,” the Jack Shaftoe part of the novel is an inordinate amount of fun, taking our morally doubtful hero from Vienna to the Netherlands to Paris in a series of increasingly wild and improbable adventures in the true picaresque manner and lets the reader forget about the ponderous, slow-moving first part with several hundred pages of glorious entertainment.

Unfortunately, Stephenson then goes and ruins it all (well, part of it, anyway) with the third part where things just fall apart – for some reason, he decided to not tell his tale straight any more but instead approaches all the important events in his narrative at an oblique angle, only telling of them indirectly and second-hand, which gets really annoying after a while and again slows the novel’s speed down to a crawl.

I’m really not someone who scolds novel for being pretentious – usually, I find that it is just a convenient (and extremely flimsy) excuse for lazy readers to not have to read novels that are difficult or challenging in any way and which might possibly ask of them to think about what they are reading, or even only just pay attention to it. With Quicksilver, however, I think the shoe fits – this is a wonderful adventure novel (almost) ruined by its pretensions to be something more. Thankfully, Neal Stephenson seems to have realized where his true talents lie, and things improve steadily over the next two volumes.
1 vote Larou | Jul 20, 2015 |
It was very good. I loved the way the stories weave together and the amount of detail. I found it hard to put down for most of the book. There were parts that I found a bit tedious, but they were a small part of the story. By the end I was exhausted and need a break before starting the next volume. ( )
  grandpahobo | Mar 22, 2015 |
Excerpt: "What I do not understand is why you pretend to be interested in what happens to me. In the Hague, you saw me as a pretty girl who could skate, and would therefore catch Monmouth's eye, and make Mary unhappy, and create strife in William's house. And it all came to pass just as you intended. But what can I do for you now?"

"Live a beautiful and interesting life-and from time to time, talk to me."

Eliza laughed out loud, lustily, drawing glares from women who never laughed that way, or at all. "You want me to be your spy."

No mademoiselle, I want you to be my friend." D'Avaux said this simply, and almost sadly, and it caught Eliza up short.

End Excerpt.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the book.

This is divided in three parts and the style of the author is to relate the story within conversation back and forth between characters. The first character in part one is Daniel Waterhouse, a scientist, part two Jack Shaftoe, a vagabonding adventurer, and three back to Daniel with intervals of Eliza, Jack's woman for a time in part two. The middle about Jack is the the most interesting. Which was good because I was starting to get bored towards the end of part 1.

Overall not as good as I hoped. But book two starts off with the further adventures of Jack whose story ended with a cliff hanger in part two of vol one. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
A gloriously dense book, everything time it reminded me of something I learned in history class made reading the textbook even more worth it. I'm pretty sure I know Newton, Leibniz, lots of nobility. I'm looking forward to reading the other books but, even thought I'm a relatively fast reader, I can only read this when I'm fully awake which goes against my normal bedtime reading, so I go over my library's due date. What's interesting is that this is usually the sort of book I don't like, I have a really bad mind for names and relations and don't like looking up the dramatis personae too much. But, this book was still very amazing without looking up every character, that's how I know I love stepehensons books, they capture a world with a core of a few characters and a dearth of others

I couldn't give this enough stars ( )
  Lorem | Feb 26, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Neal Stephensonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gold, LisaFamily Treessecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kim, Jane S.Illustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aquan, RichardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sarkar, ShubhaniDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Springer, NickCartographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Those who assume hypotheses as first principles of their speculations ... may indeed form an ingenious romance, but a romance it will still be.

— Roger Cotes,

Preface to Sir Isaac Newton's

Principia Mathematica,

second edition, 1713
There is, doubtless, as much skill in pourtraying a Dunghill, as in describing the finest Palace, since the Excellence of Things lyes in the Performance; and Art as well as Nature must have some extraordinary Shape or Quality if it come up to the pitch of Human Fancy, especially to please in this Fickle, Uncertain Age.
Memoirs of the Right Villanous John Hall, 1708
In all times kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealosies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms; and continual spies upon their neighbors; which is a posture of war.
— Hobbes, Leviathan
To the woman upstairs
First words
Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman's head.
"Crying loudly is childish, in that it reflects a belief, on the crier's part, that someone is around to hear the noise, and come a-running to make it all better. Crying in silence, as Daniel does this morning, is the mark of the mature sufferer who no longer nurses, nor is nursed by, any such comfortable delusions."
"'As I'm now beginning to understand–you are something of a virtuoso when it comes to manipulating men's mental states,' Monmouth said.
'You make it sound ever so much more difficult than it really is,' Eliza answered. 'Mostly I just sit quietly and let the men manipulate themselves.'"
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This is the first volume of the three-volume edition. Please don't combine with the first volume of the eight-volume edition with the same title.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060593083, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:46 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Quicksilver is the story of Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and conflicted Puritan, pursuing knowledgein 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, confidate, and pawn of royals in order to reinvent Europe through the newborn power of finance" --Cover, p. 4.… (more)

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