Neal Stephenson is a writer from whom ideas erupt with the force of a volcano's pyroclastic flow. And with The Baroque Cycle, a trilogy that has thematic ties to his 1999 Hugo nominee Cryptonomicon, this man of ideas has tackled some of the biggest ones in history. Quicksilver is the first volume in a monumental historical saga — written by Stephenson, astonishingly enough, in longhand with a fountain pen — dramatizing, among many other things, nothing less than the invention of modern science itself. And its vast dramatis personae offers up characters like Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Robert Hooke, John Wilkins, Samuel Pepys, and more, all of whom in Stephenson's hands become living, breathing, remarkable men, not merely the kinds of stuffy icons so often found in historical novels.
This is a daunting, intimidating, demanding book. No, it is not for everyone. A number of readers have been alienated by its often encyclopedic attention to detail, its talkiness, and the little matter of its unwillingness to follow anything like a traditional plot. I think about four-fifths of SF fandom would probably throw up their hands and give up after the first 100 or so (of just over 900) of Quicksilver's pages, but then, those people are also avoiding Greg Egan, Iain M. Banks, and Peter F. Hamilton. For readers not frightened off by the challenge of an unabashedly self-indulgent (a writer of Stephenson's brilliance often can't not be self-indulgent) reading experience, The Baroque Cycle will prove to be entertaining and rewarding in direct proportion to how demanding it is. (However, the book will be much easier for readers to digest in its U.S. mass-market paperback release, which was split into three volumes.)
I found Quicksilver to possess some of the finest literary showmanship it has been my pleasure to read in many a year. I also found it to possess passages that were, to put it politely, as tedious as watching grass grow. But then, you could say the same thing about Moby-Dick. I think that when The Baroque Cycle is completed, we will be looking at a significant event in modern publishing history.
A number of people have cast doubt on whether or not to think of Stephenson's most recent work as SF at all. Stephenson himself has always been very proud of the SF label, and unlike other SF writers who have flirted with the mainstream and found it to their liking, has made no attempt to disassociate himself from the genre. I don't see how Quicksilver — at least its first section — could not be thought of as SF. To think that a story cannot be SF unless it is set in the far future, or has spaceships or robots or microchip-implanted posthumans in it, is to sell the genre pitifully short by only regarding it in its most superficial aspect. When you consider that science simply refers to the methods by which people explore the world and expand human knowledge, then a novel like Quicksilver, which despite its late-17th century setting is largely about a group of men dedicated to learning about the world through science, has as much a right to be termed SF as anything.
It isn't true that Quicksilver lacks a plot; it just lacks a conventional plot structure. The story opens in 1713 when Daniel Waterhouse, a former Puritan and natural philosopher (as scientists were then called) living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, finds his presense requested back in England, where a dispute has arisen between Newton and Leibniz over exactly who developed calculus. As Daniel undertakes his voyage, we flash back forty years to his youth, when, as a student, he watched his classmate Isaac Newton develop into the obsessive and eccentric genius he became. Newton is so absorbed by his work venturing down various roads of scientific inquiry (mathematics, light, even alchemy, an idea still taken seriously then) that he would neglect food and proper sleep if it weren't for Daniel's care. Daniel practically serves as the young genius's butler during their school days.
While he is acutely aware that he is an intellectual mediocrity alongside Newton and other natural philosophers under whom he studies — Wilkins and Hooke chief among them — Daniel nevertheless finds himself a trusted member of the inner circle that comprises the early Royal Society. Great men in English politics and science at each other's throats (Newton and Hooke would become bitter enemies) confide in Daniel, helping to guide his career to greater heights. During these early scenes, fans of palace intrigue and the unique style of wit that only seems to emerge from Britain will be in seventh heaven. Simply by describing how upper class 17th-century fops dress, Stephenson gets the kinds of laughs normally reserved for Terry Pratchett. And as far as set-pieces go, the Great Fire of London is something else.
Following this dazzling first section — comprising the novel's first 340 pages, approximately — we move into "King of the Vagabonds," which shifts the novel's focus from the lives of English high society to society's dregs. Jack Shaftoe is the vagabond of the title, an orphan whose earliest career involved dangling from the legs of men sentenced to hang in order to quicken their deaths. As an adult he wanders the continent, eventually falling in with an army battling the Turks at Vienna. Here he rescues Eliza, who had been sold as a concubine to a Turkish prince. Jack and Eliza travel together for a time, until they reach Amsterdam. Here, Eliza proves to have a strong mind for business and money management, and she remains in Amsterdam — quickly turning into a European financial center thanks to the Dutch East India Company — while Jack (who is slowly losing his mind from syphilis) continues to France.
The change in the book's point of view in this section is interesting, although in the end it's the part of the book that could have benefited most from editing. There is a lot of enjoyable and compelling reading here, but readers are likely to be split 50/50 on just how interesting they find the subject of the early history of European banking. It's probably not possible for a book this massive to go its whole length without a few longueurs, and this is where you'll find them in Quicksilver. But the characters remain vivid, and there's just as much wit here as in the book's first section, even if, in some of the scenes between Jack and Eliza, Stephenson goes into overkill on the reparteé.
The final section of the book, "Odalisque," brings Daniel's and Eliza's story threads together. Daniel has re-established contact with Newton, whose studies are veering away from the purely scientific into the metaphysical following his completion of the Principia Mathematica, while on the continent Leibniz has finally published his calculus. Eliza's reputation as a financial wizard, meanwhile, has brought her into contact with some of the most powerful people from Holland, England, and France. She finds herself ensconced at Versailles, managing the finances of virtually everyone there, which gives her unprecedented contact with people who would ordinarily be off limits to one of her lowborn class. Meanwhile, she has become a confidant first of the Duke of Monmouth (whose rebellion in England against James II fails miserably), then of William of Orange (whose succeeds), and of Leibniz, to whom she writes of her escapades in cipher.
It's Stephenson's goal with this trilogy to capture one of the pivotal periods not merely in European history, but one which ultimately shapes the course of the world. In the field of science, there were of course Newton's discoveries, as well as the first formal instance of politics and science going hand in hand with the Royal Society. The financial markets of Europe at this time set the stage for the stock exchanges that propel economies the world over today. Readers used to a clean, linear story might well wonder what the point of the whole book is, and so it's important to understand the way in which The Baroque Cycle is meant as a metahistory.
This is a challenging book, to be sure, but that is what SF, and great fiction overall, is meant to be: the sort of work that stimulates discussion, debate, and further study, in addition to whatever escapist or entertainment value you might derive from it. I found Quicksilver to be captivating, frustrating, stimulating, funny, and bewildering in equal measure. When Stephenson went off on some narrative path I didn't quite follow, I was intrigued enough to dig up actual references to learn more about the real people, times, and places he was discussing, and that in turn made the book more rewarding than it would have been. I learned a lot reading Quicksilver, and got a hankering to learn more, which is more than most novels give me. This is a book that took me a long time to read, not simply because of its length, but because I would read a section, do a little Googling on some of the subjects Stephenson was discussing, then go back and re-read the section again. That I wanted to do this is a powerful compliment.
History is not simply one story, but hundreds, thousands, millions of stories woven together into a vast collage that collectively makes up the human experience. Neal Stephenson has pulled together several pieces from that collage for his book, and anyone who wants to unravel the result will find much to appreciate. Quicksilver is an important literary accomplishment, and the saga as a whole will be too.
Followed by The Confusion.