BooksOfTheMoon

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I was wondering as I was reading this, how I was going to review it. Even as I’m typing this, I have no idea. Quicksilver is a meandering labyrinth of a novel, covering the early years of the Royal Society, the aftermath of the English civil war and turmoil in Europe.

It took me a long time to get into it. I really only persevered because I had read and enjoyed Cryponomicon (albeit many years ago) and wanted to give Stephenson the benefit of the doubt. It was really only after the end of the first “book” when Eliza turned up, that I finally sat up and found a character that I cared about, which is nearly four hundred pages in!

The first book covers the early years of the Royal Society, with our (fictional) protagonist Daniel Waterhouse hanging around such luminaries as Newton (with whom he shares an apartment), Hooke, Wilkins, Leibniz and Oldenburg. We see the Society grow along with Daniel, but we also have a separate timeline that sees an older Daniel being persuaded back to England from the New World (where he appears to be working on something like a difference engine, or possibly analytical engine). We see Daniel get on the boat and have a few adventures, but never see the end of that voyage (presumably being held back for later volumes?).

Book two follows the Vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, the young woman he rescues from Turkish slavery (who’s from an imaginary set of islands near Scotland). Jack isn’t very interesting to me, but Eliza is. She soon discovers the concept of money markets and investment, and establishes herself, first in Amsterdam, then in France as what we could call an investment banker. Oh, and she’s spying for William of Orange.

There’s a lot here about the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Daniel is a puritan and after admitting to himself that he’s never going to shine in the Royal Society alongside Newton, Hooke et al, he dives into court politics and ousting the Catholic Stuarts. William of Orange is a major player, as is Louis XIV, and their manoeuvring decimates Europe. As a non-believer and someone not brought up in the Christian tradition, I find all the energy spent over that split to be wasteful and tedious. The intrigue can be interesting in its own right (and Stephenson is good at writing that intrigue), but knowing its driving force just makes me sigh.

Stephenson calls the Baroque Cycle (of which this is the first volume) science fiction, but if it is, it’s incredibly subtle. Yes, the book has a lot of (proto-) science, maybe a prototype computing engine of some kind, and (if you read other, related works) possibly an immortal, but just reading this on its own, it’s pretty solid historical fiction.

For most of the way through, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pick up the sequels, but, gods help me, I got sucked in towards the end, and it’s pretty likely now that I will read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410683
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 2014

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