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Quicksilver, The Baroque Cycle Volume I

by Neal Stephenson

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Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 2003

Fans of Neal Stephenson’s work often note that, despite the virtues of his books, Mr. Stephenson is still unable to write a satisfying ending. In Quicksilver, he manages to evade this criticism: this book is only the first volume in his Baroque Cycle trilogy, which further unfolds with The Confusion in April 2004. To call the Baroque Cycle a trilogy seems inaccurate, on the basis of its first volume: the book raises more questions than it answers, and the fates of none of its characters are resolved by the end.

Standing on its own, Quicksilver might be considered a failure, narratively speaking. Passing judgment on the integrity and form of the story must be reserved until the other two volumes emerge. Other judgments need not wait: Stephenson’s prose is as fluid as ever; his gift for description can draw the reader in and can untie the knotty scientific and mathematical theories around which his story revolves. Stephenson still has his observant eyes trained on the scientific-technical world, its people and its foibles.
In Quicksilver, unfortunately, the characters are automatons—motivated only by the most obvious aspects of the external world and without the rich inner lives needed to maintain the readers’ committed interest in a 900 page work of historical fiction. This problem is most pronounced in the story’s epistolary sections, narrated by one of the primary characters but seemingly concerned with the doings of the secondary characters and the need to move along the history, rather than with the narrator’s inner being.

Stephenson has always been a chronicler of ambition, of determination. In his early novels—The Big U, Zodiac, and Snow Crash—society’s greed, and the drive for academic and material success are dissected through parody and hyperbole. Beginning with The Diamond Age and continuing through Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver, Stephenson has turned serious. His idiosyncratic wit remains, but only intermittently; now Stephenson is consumed by the pursuit of larger goals.
Quicksilver is itself divided into three books. The first, “Quicksilver,” is told primarily from the point of view of Daniel Waterhouse, ancestor of Cryptonomicon’s Lawrence and Randy Waterhouse. Part of the still-incomplete framing story takes place in America and on the ocean in the early eighteenth century, but this part takes place primarily in the second half of the seventeenth century.

In Cryptonomicon, Lawrence Waterhouse builds a valve-based computer using quicksilver during the World War II. In Quicksilver, mercury represents several different ideas: it’s a symbol of alchemy, which is slowly being replaced by verifiable science; but it is also a symbol of Mercury, the messenger, who in the guise of the mysterious Enoch Root passes messages between members of the nascent scientific community in England and on the continent.

Throughout book one, the reader watches Daniel Waterhouse looking over the shoulders of giants: he rooms with Newton at Trinity College; he hobnobs with Newton, Hooke, and Wren at the Royal Society.
As a backdrop to the birth of modern science, Stephenson presents the House of Stuart and its courtiers: Drake Waterhouse, Daniel’s father, is killed by Charles II himself, and Daniel makes the acquaintance of a number of future courtiers while attending Cambridge.

Book two, “King of the Vagabonds,” is the tale of Jack Shaftoe (ancestor of Cryptonomicon’s Bobby Shaftoe), a vagabond better known as “Half-Cocked Jack.” He traipses across Europe, rescuing Eliza from the Sultan’s harem. The pair cross Europe, selling the valuables with which they absconded; Eliza finally ends up at the still-informal stock market in Amsterdam.

Stephenson also carries over another of his obsessions from Cryptonomicon, the relationship between information (quicksilver, again) and money (actual silver). Stephenson ranges over the creation of physical money, from the mining of silver to the minting of coins—essentially binding a piece of information to a piece of metal—through to clipped and counterfeit coins. Newton, Stephenson notes, eventually ran England’s mint.
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