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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Quicksilver (The Baroque cycle; v. 1) by Neal Stephenson. New York: William Morrow, 2003. ISBN: 0380977427

Neal Stephenson is a well-known science fiction author whose previous well-received titles include Snow Crash (1992), The Diamond Age (1995) and Cryptonomicon (1999). This, his most recent book, is the first in a trio of historical novels to appear in print.

This novel holds at least one element in common with the author’s science fiction, in that science and the scientific method (although those terms apparently didn’t exist yet in that period; the term used at the time was “natural philosopher”) are among its main themes. The book, especially in the earlier portions, focuses on the period of history when the methods of scientific endeavor and discovery were just being developed, as distinct from those of alchemy, which had notably failed in achieving its stated goals.

There are many historical figures featured in the book, including John Newton, Wilhelm Leibniz, Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens, John Locke and Samuel Pepys, among others. The historical period covered is from 1655 to 1689, with some interludes from 1713. This includes the period of the Restoration (Charles II after Cromwell) through James II (Catholic) and his replacement by William and Mary. During this entire period, Louis XIV was the King of France, and he also appears in the book, though not in the Dramatis Personae listings at the back.

The main fictional character, although it takes many pages of reading before you really get this figured out, is one Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher from a Puritan family. But Eliza, from the fictional island of Qwghlm, who isn’t even introduced until a few pages into Book Two, takes on an increasingly significant role in the remainder of the book. Jack Shaftoe, the so-called King of the Vagabonds, after whom Book Two is named, is its primary character, but he is unceremoniously dumped several hundred pages later, presumably to finish out his life as a galley slave of the Barbary pirates.

If you have gathered that this book is an immensely complicated work of immense size, you are certainly on the mark. Stephenson, himself, has commented that “In my mind this work is something like 7 or 8 connected novels. These have been lumped together into three volumes because it is more convenient from a publishing standpoint, but they could just as well have been put all together in a single immense volume or separated into 7 or 8 separate volumes.” Certainly the tome published under the Quicksilver title, could easily have been published as 3 separate volumes, though I’m not sure any of them would have stood that easily on its own.

Finally, my impressions: this book is difficult to get into. For the first quite a few pages, I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth the effort. I wasn’t even sure who the main characters were for quite a while. But the further I went, the more compelling it became, until I was eventually convinced of the worth of the venture. But believe me, if you tackle this book, it won’t be a weekend adventure! It took me several weeks, and I’m a fast reader.

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