Review of Neal Stephenson: Quicksilver

(This is an Amazon review)

I purchased this book almost three years ago after reading some positive reviews. I’d never read Stephenson before, but I was drawn to the idea of a cyberpunk/historical fiction novel. I read Quicksilver while I was in college, in between my regular class work.

But, to my dismay, the reading experience was anything but easy. I ended up finishing the book, but the process was a long, hard slog. I quickly abandoned the idea of reading the two other novels of equal size.

So, about a month ago, I decided that it was time to dust off Quicksilver and give it another go.  The book is still difficult, but the book is a journey and Stephenson is an intriguing Sherpa.

Quicksilver is a story about ideas. Stephenson weaves a tale about the forces and individuals that shaped the modern world. He does this by inserting fictional characters into a historical epic; we see his characters interact with famous figures, such as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, William of Orange, et al. His fictional characters are involved in their on intrigues, but they’re largely in the story to tease out information from the real-life individuals.

There are three primary fictional characters that make the course of events of the book.

The first and arguably most important character in the story is Daniel Waterhouse. The story is told in book one: Quicksilver; it begins in Boston in 1713,with an old Daniel Waterhouse getting a message to come back to England to help settle the great Calculus dispute between Newton and Leibniz. The story quickly shifts to a series of flash backs starting at about 1661. We follow the career of Waterhouse as he goes to Cambridge and becomes involved in the Royal Society of London. Waterhouse works with early natural philosophers, John Wilkins and Robert Hooke, as they partake in all sorts of bizarre scientific experiments.

The second book, The King of the Vagabonds, sets a different tone to the story. While Stephenson earlier focused on kings and natural philosophers, the hero of this book is a vagabond called half-cocked Jack. Jack is roaming around Europe, half mad, and looking for adventures. He eventually winds up at the Siege of Vienna. Jack encounters the third important fictional character, Eliza. She was sold into slavery and became a Turkish harem. Jack rescues Eliza, and the two travel around Europe learning about finance and trade, while Eliza pursues her goal of ending slavery.

If you’ve read this far into the review don’t think that I’ve given much of anything away. Stephenson loads this 916-page book with all sorts of twists and turns in the story.

Of course, in regards to the story, a potential reader should be warned that Stephenson is fairly lax in terms of conventional storytelling. If you’re looking for a novel that carries the story from point A to point B to point C, then you’re going to be disappointed. There are important twists and turns, but they can almost seem forgotten in the sheer magnitude of the larger book.

While Stephenson is less concerned about the conventional story, he makes up for this by focusing on a series of important themes. Quicksilver, and I would say the Baroque Cycle, is concerned with major thematic issues and ideas rather than a conventional plot. Stephenson is trying to paint a picture of this time period, so he peppers the story with historical figures here and there, but they can easily be forgotten compared to the larger issues.

The most important issues of this book are the debates between contrasting forces, such as: Reformation vs. Counter-Reformation; Feudalism vs. Nation States; the birth of science vs. religion; the birth of modern finance and commerce vs. religion. All of the characters in this story represent certain sides of these arguments. Various realms and countries represent certain sides of these arguments. France, headed by Louis XIV, is represented as being the center of all things premodern; on the other hand, England develops a complex role as the birth of modernism, while struggling internally with competing forces of reaction.

If there are major flaws to Quicksilver it’s that Stephenson can get too wrapped up in all of this. I say this as someone who enjoyed the book, but it can be extremely difficult to see the forest through the trees in this. As others have noted, Stephenson seems to use 50 words where 10 would do. Stephenson’s writing sometimes stands in the way of some otherwise exciting action sequences.

It equally can get tiresome to always have different characters launch into complex philosophical debates whenever they first start speaking. Some of the dialogue in this is just cumbersome. I wouldn’t expect Isaac Newton to greet someone with, “What up dawg?”, but you can imagine him acting human, sometimes. Stephenson also has fun dropping various old English words throughout the book, while also throwing in some F-bombs and other euphemisms that wouldn’t have been used at the time. This isn’t necessarily a negative on the book, but it does show that Stephenson could have worked in a little more humane dialogue.

In general, I enjoyed the book but wish it had been a tad bit shorter. I think Stephenson could have shaved off a 100 pages to this book and largely kept the spirit intact.

Overall, as stated, I didn’t find this to be an easy read but it was rewarding. If you’re interested in history, politics, culture, science, religion, or just a good dose of toilet humor, then you should check this book out. It may get frustrating from time to do, but keep on going! It’s worth it.

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About bryanaens

I'm a recent college graduate. I studied English and journalism. I live in a nice suburb of Boston with my wonderful wife. I'm an avid reader and movie geek. I'm constantly on the lookout for new opportunities.
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