Book Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (book 1 of the Baroque Cycle)

I’ve begun reading The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.  In quote I found on Wikipedia, Stephenson describes the Baroque Cycle thusly:

“Why Baroque? Because it is set in the Baroque, and it is baroque. Why Cycle? Because I am trying to avoid the T-word (“trilogy”). 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. So to slap the word “trilogy” on it would be to saddle it with a designation that is essentially bogus. Having said that, I know everyone’s going to call it a trilogy anyway. “

I figure with the author’s intentions so clear that it will be okay for me to read and review each book individually rather than laboring through the entire volume at once.  Not that there’s much labor involved in Quicksilver (2003) which is a joy to read.  Ostensibly a science fiction novel, the first book of the first volume (which share the same name) is more of literary journey through the scientific and political thought of early modern Europe.  The protagonist of novel is the somewhat Forrest Gump-like character Daniel Waterhouse who seems to interact with all the great thinkers of the time (and at one point he even is responsible for naming the city of New York).  The son of the charismatic Dissenter Drake Waterhouse, Daniel grows conflicted as he’s drawn to natural philosophy especially due to his friendship with Isaac Newton at Cambridge University.

The book begins with the arrival of the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root (the one clear sci-fi/fantasy element) in Boston in 1713.  Enoch is there to convince Daniel to return to England to help resolve a controversy.  The chapters then alternate between Daniel’s voyage and flashbacks to his coming of age.  The trip home is rough as Daniel’s ship encounters Edward Teach and numerous pirate ships, and the captain of Daniel’s ship tries increasingly comical ways of evading them (such as disguising Daniel as the captain).

Daniel’s life growing up is tougher still.  From his studies at Cambridge where he meets the strange genius Isaac Newton and becomes his assistant.  Daniel survives the plague of 1665 and the London fire of 1666 (which kills the obstinate Drake).  He joins the Royal Society and rubs shoulders with the likes of Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, Henry Oldenburg and Samuel Pepys and participates in many scientific experiments. As Daniel is increasingly drawn into the intrigue of English society constantly at war and ready to turn against itself.  He discovers that his heritage from a Dissenting family and his experience in natural philosophy put him in a unique position and as the book ends he is beginning to play that part.

That’s a short summary that does injustice to a lengthy book in a longer volume.  Quicksilver isn’t about the plot though as it deviates into the joy of discovery, political intrigue (gossip?), satire, and stories of historical events from a new perspective.  It’s a great book, and I look forward to reading the other 7.

One thought on “Book Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (book 1 of the Baroque Cycle)

  1. I also read this one fairly recently, and am taking a break before getting into the second part. I liked it, though I have to say I enjoyed Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond books even better–more action and intrigue, but just as dense. Guess I need to get started on the second one soon.


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