Let’s start with scope. This book is volume one of The Baroque Cycle which continues in The Confusion and The System of the World. As a whole, these three volumes consist of eight “books”—the first three of which are included in Quicksilver. Are you confused yet? (Just wait for the second volume—Stephenson alternates chapter by chapter between the two books in that volume!) The work as a whole is approximately 3,000 pages long.
The plot is as sprawling and complicated as you might expect. The story takes place in New England, (Old) England, and all across the rest of Europe. Stephenson wields a cast of character which take ten pages in the back of the book to list. Major players include both historical figures (Newton) and inventions (Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza).
The range of topics is immense. You’ll learn about alchemy, vivisection, gall stones, cryptography, world finance, religion, hanging, and court politics—as these things existed in the later 1600s.
I’ll be honest—I barely kept my head above water throughout this volume. It would have helped me immensely to know more about the history of that era before jumping into Quicksilver. There were pages clearly set up to be “a-ha” moments that were somewhat lost on me.
In the end, I kept reading because there’s something compelling about the way Stephenson writes. He incorporates belly-laugh humour into his novels like no one else. It was also interesting to experience 17th Century Europe through his prose. This well-researched book makes you feel like you’re a part of the era.
The details are fascinating. At one point a character muses about how the word “shop” is changing. What used to refer to the businesses which lined the street (i.e. the cheese shop) is transforming from a noun to a verb in certain circles. Now we don’t “go to a shop,” we “go shopping.”
As dense as these 1,000 pages were, I picked up volume two as soon as I finished the last page of Quicksilver. The intellectual workout continues!
—Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).