The first of three equally long volumes of historical fiction by Neal Stephenson, who is better known for his speculative fiction. This is a prequel of sorts to Cryptonomicon, featuring the distant ancestors of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe characters.
Quicksilver primarily takes place in late 17th century Europe, the baroque era where giants such as Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, and Huygens brought about a new understanding of the world. Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan scholar, moves among them, knowing that he is not a good enough Natural Philosopher to be their equal, while he also moves through the courts of King Charles II and James II. Jack Shaftoe, who styles himself the King of the Vagabonds, moves in far less reputable circles. The two men do not meet, but they are both tied to the remarkable Eliza, who rises from being a Turkish harem slave to becoming both a French countess and a Dutch duchess, by working as a double agent for the Dutch against the French.
It’s an engaging tale, conveying a good deal of the intellectual and political ferment of the times. However, both Daniel and Eliza seem anachronistic to me, like characters transplanted from the twentieth century. Stephenson works in a variety of styles ranging from straight narrative, to short plays, to long epistolatory chapters. He throws in other anachronistic touches too, such as Leibniz referring to the growing incidence of ‘canal rage’ amongst the gondoliers of Venice.
At 900 pages, it’s far too long. Stephenson’s editor should have reined him in. I would have enjoyed it more at half the length.