Quicksilver. Book One of the Baroque Cycle
Neal Stephenson, 2003, William Morrow Publisher
Gosh, what a mess. Stephenson dishes out nine hundred and forty-four pages of rambling story that take us hither and yon, romping around in and through history, and spares us no detail on the mechanics of … well, anything, really, whether it’s monetary systems, or European palace intrigue. It’s unfocused and goes off on countless side roads, from only some of which it beats its way back through the undergrowth.
And yet, it’s a fun ride. Stephenson’s greatest gift is also his greatest detriment. He loves storytelling, and this part of the telling reminds him of another story, which, half-way through, reminds him of another … and so on. Individually, these stories vary in quality between highly amusing and awfully contrived; woven together, they form a tapestry that is both fun and tremendously tiring. Really, with the aid of a good editor, this could have been a great book. It makes real some of the early characters (charicatures, perhaps) of early modern science and medicine and it paints a picture of European politics that feels plausible. As a historical novel, it provides context for many famous people, all the while winking and nodding anachronisms for the benefit of the science fiction fans who make up much of Stephenson’s fan base.
The Baroque Cycle is aptly named. In all, Quicksilver is probably best compared to one of Mad King Ludwig’s crazy baroque castles — there are individual pieces of it that are appealing, attractive, or fascinating, but as a whole it’s overwhelming and leaves you with a sense of squandered wealth.