Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Book review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Last book read on vacation (916 pp.)/finished at home 8/27/07 (maybe 8/28/07).

I don’t even know where to start on this one. This is a massive book, set, variously in Massachusetts in the early 1700s, England in the mid- to late- 1600s, and Germany, France, Holland and Northern Africa in the late 1600s. It is ostensibly an historical fiction, dealing with Natural Philosophy (the beginnings of science), the complicated British and Continental politics of the time and the establishment of a financial system. But there is also anti-slavery commentary, alchemy, a fair amount of sex and, if I’m not mistaken, there may be a time-traveler or some other ageless magical being. This book is a real chimera.

The cast of characters is enormous and includes both real people (Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, a preadolescent Ben Franklin, John Locke, Nell Gwyn, Christiaan Huygens, King Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York) and fictional personages. Three of the fictional folk are the characters around whom this book revolves: Daniel Waterhouse (erstwhile scientist, courtier, Puritan and associate of important people), Jack Shaftoe (syphilitic beggar/soldier/adventurer) and Eliza (former concubine in a Turkish harem and, after her rescue by Jack, spy and financier). Daniel has the greatest amount of pages and Jack has the least, which is too bad since I found Jack to be the most entertaining by a long shot.

Daniel is deeply involved with the Natural Philosophers and the alchemists (and when Stephenson started reproducing Newton’s geometric proofs I started skipping ahead a few pages) and also with the intrigues surrounding Charles II (again, as I am not well-versed in 17th century British political history, I did some skipping ahead here too). Eventually, long after Jack has liberated her from the Turkish harem, Eliza becomes entangled in the Duke of York’s personal and political machinations (skip, skip). Jack is a rake and a scoundrel, a soldier and a Vagabond, and he is slowly going insane from the “French pox.” I didn’t skip any pages while Jack’s story was on the front burner, but Stephenson abandons him on a Turkish slave ship, possibly soon to be dead, about two-thirds of the way through the book.

Daniel and Eliza’s lives do end up intertwining towards the end, and I would assume that their connection will continue, as Quicksilver is only Volume One of The Baroque Cycle. I would hope that Jack would reappear too as otherwise his character got pretty short shrift. Unfortunately, as I have no doubt that the next two books in this Cycle, The Confusion and The System of the World, are as immense and convoluted as this first one, I just don’t think I’m going to be able to find out for myself. Sorry, Jack.

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