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.
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.
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.
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.