Author Topic: Review: Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver  (Read 918 times)


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Review: Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver
« on: June 11, 2010, 08:58:39 PM »
Quicksilver, part 1 of The Baroque Cycle

For the purposes of this review, I'm going to consider 'Quicksilver' to be one book, although it's written as 3 books compiled into one. They all take place in the same time period and eventually overlap, so they're all one story, really. It weighs in at around 920 pages.

Like other Stephenson books, it has mathematical, scientific and cryptographic themes. 


Quicksilver takes place in an alternate history version of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, roughly 1650-1715 or so. It deals with things like the Plague, British civil war, the Royal Society, scientific inquiry, and all kinds of political intrigue. Much of it is accurate, and you'll probably learn a lot reading it. On the other hand, it has the imaginary country of Qwghlm, and a few anachronisms that make for a more interesting story.


I have trouble explaining the plot to Quicksilver, because it really doesn't have one. The best way I can explain it is that it's a fictional historical account of people living in interesting times. There's no clear-cut antagonist and no specific goals or challenges.

For example, Daniel Waterhouse. Most of the book focuses on this fictional Puritan, and his experiences and observations about the world. He went to college with Isaac Newton, and we see from his perspective as he helps Isaac with some of his experiments, and witnesses as he changes science forever with his discoveries, and eventually his feud with Leibniz over the creation of Calculus. He also has his own journeys, and we see a lot of interesting things through his eyes. But it's important to note that it's probably only interesting if you're interested in math and physics, and appreciate the work of scientists like Newton, Huygens, Hook, and Leibniz.

Another main character is Jack 'Half-Cocked' Shaftoe. He's an illiterate English Vagabond who gets mixed up in more political situations, and there's a lot more sex, violence and humor in his story. He's different from Daniel in that he takes a more active role in everything that's happening. He fights in an army, and does all kinds of other things I won't spoil.


Quicksilver has a lot of unique storytelling traits. For one, it uses some period-correct spelling, like 'politickal' and the kinds of things you see in Shakespearean English. It also uses a lot of foreign-language words when the characters are speaking that particular language. I happen to have a bit of experience with French, German and Spanish, so I had no problem understanding it, but I don't think it would be difficult for anyone else to figure out using context. It just adds flavor.

Stephenson also uses alternate forms of storytelling. Parts of it are told solely through letters. Other parts are told like scripts of a play, and other parts actually ARE plays.

Sometimes it gets a little slow, though. Stephenson uses a lot of description, and a giant cast of characters. If the story wasn't based in history, I would have found it incredibly boring. In fact, I still found that it dragged a little at times. It was hard to keep track of each Earl whatshisface and Duke of wherever.

So, is it worth reading? It depends on what you like. I rate 'Anathem' as one of the best books I've ever read. If you also like the deep mathematical and philosophical themes, then you'll probably enjoy Quicksilver. I'd probably give it a 7 or 8 out of 10.

But if the idea of academics, science and history aren't appealing to you, you might want to look elsewhere.


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Re: Review: Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver
« Reply #1 on: June 12, 2010, 10:41:21 PM »
very good review. Thanks. I want to give these a try. I think I would like them. I like the science/philosophy angle.