Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

by Robert A. Parker

Volume One of the Baroque Cycle (2003). This is an amazing, literate, and intelligent historical novel. It is literate because of its style, even occasional poetic passages, and because of its concerns with the philosophy and morality of its time. It is intelligent because it vividly recreates the culture, the mores, and the history of Europe in the second half of the 17th century.

Its setting centers on London, but also includes Vienna, the cities of central Germany, Paris, Versailles, and major cities of the Netherlands. It covers the end of the brief Catholic monarchy in London, the rival French monarchy, very ambitious under Louis XIV, and the intriguing royal courts in both capitals. And 80 percent of the novel’s characters are persons of history.

Thus, significant, supporting roles are given to Isaac Newton and the German philosopher Leibniz, who contribute to the intellectual history of the era, while other participants are Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, Robert Hooke, and Christian Huygens. Plus French king Louis XIV who hates the British, and William of Orange as he plots to become King of England.

But this is a work of fiction, even as it is a deep, philosophical, literary exploration of this moment of history. And the main character is the fictional Daniel Waterhouse, who graduates from Cambridge and becomes the secretary of the Royal (Scientific) Society of London, where he meets Newton and the other scientists and intellectuals of the era.

And yet a 916-page novel, almost by definition, requires more than one hero, and after Daniel dominates the first third of the novel we are introduced to Jack Shaftoe, an adventurous Vagabond who has no connection to Waterhouse. And admittedly, this change is confusing. Why has this character been introduced? Well, perhaps it is to expose us to more history, as he encounters Eliza, the book’s heroine, in a tunnel the Turks have built under Vienna to blow up its fortifications. And the second part of the book follows Jack and Eliza as they flee together across central Europe, encountering German intellectuals such as Leibniz, to the Netherlands, where they encounter more scientific and political heroes of history. Whereupon, in final section of the novel, they separate, and in Paris Eliza is made the Countess de la Zeur and dominates the concluding section—along with the return of Daniel Waterhouse.

But to go back to Waterhouse and the start of this novel. We meet him as an elderly man in Massachusetts in 1713. It is an intriguing opening, as he receives a mysterious message from a Princess Caroline, whom we will meet at the end of the novel when, years earlier, she is six-years-old. An old friend Enoch Root from England delivers this message to Daniel, which sends him off on a dangerous sea voyage back to London—a voyage that alternates with Daniel’s early life at Cambridge, where he meets many historic youths who will later ply a major role in science and in history. Indeed, this switching back and forth in time adds confusion, for we do not know if the emphasis of the novel will be on the events of Daniel’s youth, or what he is going back to.

As the second part begins, however, we see where the novel’s divisions lie. It has begun with Daniel’s youth in the 1660s and his Royal Society years the 1670s, when he also experiences the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Now, we continue with Jack Shaftoe’s trek across Europe with Eliza in the 1680s; and then the final third ends in the late 1680s with Daniel Waterhouse’s adventures in London as a Protestant king is restored, and then with Eliza’s adventures as the ambitious French king invades the German states.

The final chapters of this novel are somewhat disappointing, for three reasons. First, the author frequently resorts to long letters that do not dramatize the action but summarize it, no doubt because he needs to cover a lot of ground as he bring us up to date on the history of the times. This is climaxed by an especially long letter from Eliza that summarizes her adventures in giving birth, a private event that has no repercussions, at least in this novel.

And, second, this is followed by an unexploded bomb of a finale, when Daniel’s friends plot to arrange an operation on him for kidney stones. We know he survives, because he is living in Massachusetts many years later; and so this operation has no apparent significance except to offer at the end a cliff-hanger moment that leaves us in false suspense.

And, third, the most frustrating aspect of this novel is that it has no real ending, that it simply leads into the follow-up sequels of The Baroque Cycle. It is particularly frustrating because there is no outcome to the original set-up chapter, of Daniel being called back to England, and to agreeing to risk his life on a sea voyage. What added to my own frustration is that I did not understand, on first reading, the reason for Daniel’s return: as a go-between to help reconcile the dispute between Leibniz and Isaac Newton, and their followers, over the invention of calculus—a dispute that is holding back the development of scientific thought in Europe.

But despite all this, I found this novel to be amazing, mainly because of its vivid historic content. I was continually impressed by the details, all of them so pertinent to the story. Details about the geography, the means of travel, the rural life of the poor, and the contrasting wealth and dirt of the cities. Also details about the rivalry among countries, among monarchs, among cities, among various court factions. And explorations in depth of European culture, with the contrasts among philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and the different social strata.

The richness of this novel is magnified by the philosophic, religious, and human contrasts it offers. Such contrasts include Protestant vs. Catholic, religion vs. science, England vs. France, power vs. conscience, status quo vs. revolution, free will vs. predestination, fresh ideas vs. conformity, free communication vs. cryptography, tradition vs. innovation, corruption vs. integrity, etc., etc.

Stephenson had to have done a tremendous amount of research, but the real accomplishment was to have the concentration to hold all of it in his memory bank until it was appropriate to use. And then, finally, weaving it naturally into his story, usually through the observations of his characters, although at times in those letters, a method that I became tired of.

There are some memorable scenes in this novel, although the Plague and the Great Fire have more a vivid presence than a dramatic effect. The most memorable scene for me was the rescue by Eliza and friends of William of Orange as he indulges in his usual morning ride along a Netherlands beach. Also vivid is Jack’s rescue of Eliza in the tunnel under Vienna. On the other hand, when Daniel is memorably imprisoned in the Tower of London, his rescue by Jack’s brother Bob seems quite arbitrary and coincidental.

What I do not accept from the critics is any categorizing this work as a science fiction novel, even if it did earn an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Perhaps past Stephenson works were science fiction, but for me this work is completely historic. Yes, a modern sensibility wrote it, which undoubtedly is why I enjoyed it. But this work explores the past, and internally it belongs to the past.

Steven Poole in The Guardian calls Quicksilver a “great fantastical boiling pot of theories about science, money, war and much else, by turns broadly picaresque and microscopically technical, sometimes over-dense and sometimes too sketchy, flawed but unarguably magnificent.” I would agree with everything except the suggestion of fantasy.

I have held this novel on my shelves for a long while, in part hesitating to start a 900-page novel and in part waiting to find the successor novels in the trilogy. Now, I wish I had fond those novels, so much have I enjoyed this one. And also because it leaves so much uncertainty about the future fate of Daniel, Eliza, and Jack.

We leave Jack, for example, as a prisoner in a pirate galley. Has he exited the book completely? One suspects Daniel will become the main protagonist, in part because some critics have seen in this work a commentary on contemporary culture; and at the core of Newton’s and Leibniz’ researches into numbers is the germ of what will become our computer age. And we must remember that his mission is apparently to be to reconcile those two figures. On the other hand, Eliza has become so adept at politics and numbers, perhaps she will emerge as the more significant character, especially because of her continuing emergence as a financial power-broker. In any event, I look forward to continuing this saga. (September, 2014)