¤ "Quicksilver"¤ (The Baroque Cycle, Vol.1)¤ by Neal Stephenson¤ 960 pages, $15.95¤ Hardcover released September 2003¤ Paperback released September 2004
Steamboat Springs If you're sitting in a coffee shop, library or other public reading venue working your way through Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver," you might have the following conversation:
Friend (excited and curious): "Hi. What are you reading?"
You: "A 1,000-page book about Europe and the American colonies in the late 1600s. It talks about physics, currency development, German philosophy and elemental chemistry. It's fascinating."
Friend (with eyes glazed over): "Oh. I'll, uh, see you later."
Surprisingly, your friend would be missing out.
Quicksilver" is fascinating and hilarious -- as much so as riding a runaway ostrich through the Battle of Vienna in 1683 while simultaneously saving a mysterious woman from slavery in a Turkish harem. Those deeds are executed by roaming vagabond Jack Shaftoe, who has a nickname that can't be printed in this review. Shaftoe and the woman, Eliza, become central characters in the book, as do Isaac Newton, Louis XIV and a Russian whaler who chucks a mean harpoon.
The first volume in Stephenson's historical fiction trilogy "The Baroque Cycle," "Quicksilver" follows several intertwining plots and characters through such events as the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, the Bloody Assizes and the Glorious Revolution. It does so with irreverence, insight and intelligent ideas. For example, when stumbling upon yet another public hanging in colonial Boston Commons, is it socially proper to skip out early, before the event's climax, or does one have to sit through the entire ordeal?
Or when aboard a creaky, leaky ship in the middle of the stormy Atlantic, is it accurate to compare the likely shipwreck to an opera, with peace and harmony in the first act descending into death and destruction in the final? Can that comparison then be projected onto a religious worldview of the time, beginning with paradise in Eden and slowly falling into sinful anarchy ever since?
These are the sort of questions Stephenson addresses, all while mixing in healthy doses of adventure, romance, alchemy and science. Initially known for techno-thriller novels in the "postcyberpunk" genre, Stephenson makes the beginnings of a scientific worldview, as opposed to a religious one, a significant theme of his "The Baroque Cycle."
These are the sort of books that may take a little work to get into. Stephenson doesn't lay things out right away, and he is prone to philosophical, theoretical and scientific tangents. Have faith and keep plugging away -- the books are gems, with scenes, characters and writing you don't find very often. The series continues and concludes with "The Confusion" and "The System of the World," respectively.
If you like your history mixed with a bit of sheer lunacy, this is a trilogy that will keep you hooked for many cold and cozy winter nights.