Quicksilver (Baroque Cycle Series #1)

Quicksilver (Baroque Cycle Series #1)

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by Neal Stephenson

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In this wonderfully inventive follow-up to his bestseller Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson brings to life a cast of unforgettable characters in a time of breathtaking genius and discovery, men and women whose exploits defined an age known as the Baroque.

Daniel Waterhouse possesses a brilliant scientific mind -- and yet knows that his genius is dwarfed by that

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In this wonderfully inventive follow-up to his bestseller Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson brings to life a cast of unforgettable characters in a time of breathtaking genius and discovery, men and women whose exploits defined an age known as the Baroque.

Daniel Waterhouse possesses a brilliant scientific mind -- and yet knows that his genius is dwarfed by that of his friends Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Robert Hooke. He rejects the arcane tradition of alchemy, even as it is giving birth to new ways of understanding the world.

Jack Shaftoe began his life as a London street urchin and is now a reckless wanderer in search of great fortune. The intrepid exploits of Half-Cocked Jack, King of the Vagabonds, are quickly becoming the stuff of legend throughout Europe.

Eliza is a young woman whose ingenuity is all that keeps her alive after being set adrift from the Turkish harem in which she has been imprisoned since she was a child.

Daniel, Jack, and Eliza will traverse a landscape populated by mad alchemists, Barbary pirates, and bawdy courtiers, as well as historical figures including Samuel Pepys, Ben Franklin, and other great minds of the age. Traveling from the infant American colonies to the Tower of London to the glittering courts of Louis XIV, and all manner of places in between, this magnificent historical epic brings to vivid life a time like no other, and establishes its author as one of the preeminent talents of our own age.

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Editorial Reviews

Book World
“[O]ften brilliant and occassionally astonishing ...[QUICKSILVER] has wit, ambition and ... moments of real genius.”
“Dense, witty, erudite ... and gripping ... a far more impressive literary endeavor than most so-called “serious” fiction.”
Seattle Times
“A sprawling, engrossing tale.”
Time magazine
“Genius . . . You’ll wish it were longer.”
New York Times Book Review
“[QUICKSILVER] explores the philosophical concerns of today . . . through thrillingly clever, suspenseful and amusing plot twists.”
“Sprawling, irreverent, and ultimately profound.”
Sunday Telegraph
“An astonishing achievement.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Stephenson’s new machine is a wonderment to behold. A-”
San Antonio Express-News
“[QUICKSILVER] is a rare thing: a 1,000-page book that you don’t want to end.
“[A]n awe-inspiring book, stuffed with heart-stopping action scenes ... and a treasure trove of forgotten historical lore.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
If you love a rip-roaring yarn you’ll actually learn something from...if you devoured The DaVinci Code or The Name of the Rose or An Instance of the Fingerpost...if you’ve ever marveled at the ideas of Neal Stephenson in books like Snow Crash...have we got a treat for you. Quicksilver is here.

Stephenson has resurrected one of the most extraordinary eras in human history: the late 17th and early 18th century, when modern science (then called “natural philosophy”) stirred to its feet, and made its first powerful strides; when secret codes, secret knowledge, and alchemy were the order of the day; when Protestants and Catholics warred over the true faith, and the forces of Islam laid siege to Vienna...

Here are: Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the simultaneous, disputing co-creators of calculus, and Benjamin Franklin as a boy, slick beyond his years. Here are Barbary pirates and vagabonds making their way in King Louis XIV’s court at Versailles. Here, too, are binary systems, hexadecimals, and memes.

And, for those who’ve read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, here are the forebears of some of that book’s characters. For example, “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, and a distant ancestor of U.S. marine raider Bobby Shaftoe. And, at the heart of the book, Dr. Daniel Waterhouse, generations removed from the Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse who helped Alan Turing decode Nazi ciphers in Cryptonomicon.

It took an extraordinary storyteller (and researcher!) to create Quicksilver, one who’s been compared with everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Tom Clancy to William Gibson to Hemingway. (Incredibly, Stephenson, an early leader of the cyberpunk movement, wrote the first draft of this book with a fountain pen!)

If you’re as captivated by this parallel universe as we think you’ll be, there’s good news. Quicksilver is the first in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, with two more books to follow: The Confusion and The System of the World.

Each story stands entirely on its own (unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings). So you don’t have to read all three. But we bet you will. Bill Camarda

Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks for Dummies, Second Edition.

The New York Times
Stephenson clearly never intended Quicksilver to be one of those meticulously accurate historical novels that capture ways of thought of times gone by. Instead, it explores the philosophical concerns of today...At its best, the novel does this through thrillingly clever, suspenseful and amusing plot twists.—Polly Shulman
The Washington Post
A book of immense ambition, learning and scope, Quicksilver is often brilliant and occasionally astonishing in its evocation of a remarkable time and place—Europe in the age of Newton, Pepys and Locke, to name just a few of the myriad characters who flock across its pages.—Elizabeth Hand
Publishers Weekly
Stephenson's very long historical novel, the first volume of a projected trilogy, finds Enoch Root, the Wandering Jew/alchemist from 1999's Cryptonomicon, arriving in 1713 Boston to collect Daniel Waterhouse and take him back to Europe. Waterhouse, an experimenter in early computational systems and an old pal of Isaac Newton, is needed to mediate the fight for precedence between Newton and scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, both of whom independently invented the calculus. Their escalating feud threatens to revert science to pre-empirical times. Root believes Waterhouse, as a close friend to both mathematicians, has the ability to calm the neurotic Newton's nerves and make peace with Leibniz. As Waterhouse sails back to Europe (and eludes capture by the pirate Blackbeard), he reminisces about Newton and the birth of England's scientific revolution during the 1600s. While the Waterhouse story line lets readers see luminaries like Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton at work, a concurrent plot line follows vagabond Jack Shaftoe (an ancestor of a Cryptonomicon character, as is Waterhouse), on his journey across 17th-century continental Europe. Jack meets Eliza, a young English woman who has escaped from a Turkish harem, where she spent her teenage years. The resourceful Eliza eventually rises and achieves revenge against the slave merchant who sold her to the Turks. Stephenson, once best known for his techno-geek SF novel Snow Crash, skillfully reimagines empiricists Newton, Hooke and Leibniz, and creatively retells the birth of the scientific revolution. He has a strong feel for history and a knack for bringing settings to life. Expect high interest in this title, as much for its size and ambition, which make it a publishing event, as for its sales potential-which is high. Agent, Liz Darhansoff. 13-city author tour. (On sale Sept. 23) FYI: The second volume in the Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, is scheduled to hit stores next April, followed by The System of the World in September 2004. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The first installment of the best-selling author's multivolume epic. Simultaneous with the HarperPerennial trade paperback. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First in a trilogy about vagabonds and alchemists in Baroque Age Europe. You should never-never-accuse Stephenson of not doing his homework, not least because it's not true, but also because he might then feel compelled to footnote, and then his already-sizable tomes will approach encyclopedic length. The meandering, dense narrative in this case proves one thing: he needs an editor. And that editor needs a machete. This is a thick knot of story that spans America and Europe during the late-17th and early-18th centuries. The first and final thirds concern the explosive leaps in scientific knowledge, impossibly complex political intrigue, and bitter Protestant-Catholic fighting that characterized Western Europe, especially England, during this time. These sections star Daniel Waterhouse, fledgling member of the Royal Society, a semi-secret cabal of cutting-edge scientists and alchemists, as well as learned individuals such as Samuel Pepys and Isaac Newton. Sandwiched in between is a roustabout adventure that hopscotches all over the continent, from the Turkish siege of Vienna to the burgeoning capitalist mecca of Amsterdam. Principal among these events are Jack Shaftoe (distant ancestor of a character from Cryptonomicon, 1999), a none-too-bright mercenary with a penchant for barely escaping hideous death, and the clever Eliza, rescued from a Turkish harem by Jack, and quickly set on a path of ambitious social-climbing among the French nobility. Stephenson mostly does away with plot and contents himself with letting his characters jape and amble about the place, engage in erudite, pages-long discussions on alchemy, slavery, or religion, running into fascinating people, and staging a smashingaction sequence every now and again to keep everyone awake. An incorrigible showoff, Stephenson doesn't know when to stop, but that's a trifle compared to his awe-inspiring ambition and cheeky sense of humor. Author tour
Time Magazine
"Genius . . . You’ll wish it were longer."

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Baroque Cycle Series, #1
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Baroque Cycle v. 1: Quicksilver

Book 1: Quicksilver

Those who assume hypotheses as first principles of their speculations . . .may indeed form an ingenious romance, but a romance it will still be.

—Roger Cotes, preface to Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, second edition, 1713

Boston Common October 12, 1713, 10:33:52 a.m.

Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman's head. The crowd on the Common stop praying and sobbing for just as long as Jack Ketch stands there, elbows locked, for all the world like a carpenter heaving a ridge-beam into place. The rope clutches a disk of blue New England sky. The Puritans gaze at it and, to all appearances, think. Enoch the Red reins in his borrowed horse as it nears the edge of the crowd, and sees that the executioner's purpose is not to let them inspect his knotwork, but to give them all a narrow—and, to a Puritan, tantalizing—glimpse of the portal through which they all must pass one day.

Boston's a dollop of hills in a spoon of marshes. The road up the spoon-handle is barred by a wall, with the usual gallows outside of it, and victims, or parts of them, strung up or nailed to the city gates. Enoch has just come that way, and reckoned he had seen the last of such things—that thenceforth it would all be churches and taverns. But the dead men outside the gate were common robbers, killed for earthly crimes. What is happening now in the Common is of a more Sacramental nature. .

The noose lies on the woman's grey head like a crown. The executioner pushes it down. Her head forces it open like an infant's dilating the birth canal. When it finds the widest part it drops suddenly onto her shoulders. Her knees pimple the front of her apron and her skirts telescope into the platform as she makes to collapse. The executioner hugs her with one arm, like a dancing-master, to keep her upright, and adjusts the knot while an official reads the death warrant. This is as bland as a lease. The crowd scratches and shuffles. There are none of the diversions of a London hanging: no catcalls, jugglers, or pickpockets. Down at the other end of the Common, a squadron of lobsterbacks drills and marches round the base of a hummock with a stone powder-house planted in its top. An Irish sergeant bellows—bored but indignant—in a voice that carries forever on the wind, like the smell of smoke. .

He's not come to watch witch-hangings, but now that Enoch's blundered into one it would be bad form to leave. There is a drum-roll, and then a sudden awkward silence. He judges it very far from the worst hanging he's ever seen—no kicking or writhing, no breaking of ropes or unraveling of knots—all in all, an unusually competent piece of work. .

He hadn't really known what to expect of America. But people here seem to do things—hangings included—with a blunt, blank efficiency that's admirable and disappointing at the same time. Like jumping fish, they go about difficult matters with bloodless ease. As if they were all born knowing things that other people must absorb, along with faery-tales and superstitions, from their families and villages. Maybe it is because most of them came over on ships. .

As they are cutting the limp witch down, a gust tumbles over the Common from the North. On Sir Isaac Newton's temperature scale, where freezing is zero and the heat of the human body is twelve, it is probably four or five. If Herr Fahrenheit were here with one of his new quicksilver-filled, sealed-tube thermometers, he would probably observe something in the fifties. But this sort of wind, coming as it does from the North, in the autumn, is more chilling than any mere instrument can tell. It reminds everyone here that, if they don't want to be dead in a few months' time, they have firewood to stack and chinks to caulk. The wind is noticed by a hoarse preacher at the base of the gallows, who takes it to be Satan himself, come to carry the witch's soul to hell, and who is not slow to share this opinion with his flock. The preacher is staring Enoch in the eye as he testifies. .

Enoch feels the heightened, chafing self-consciousness that is the precursor to fear. What's to prevent them from trying and hanging him as a witch? .

How must he look to these people? A man of indefinable age but evidently broad experience, with silver hair queued down to the small of his back, a copper-red beard, pale gray eyes, and skin weathered and marred like a blacksmith's ox-hide apron. Dressed in a long traveling-cloak, a walking-staff and an outmoded rapier strapped 'longside the saddle of a notably fine black horse. Two pistols in his waistband, prominent enough that Indians, highwaymen, and French raiders can clearly see them from ambuscades (he'd like to move them out of view, but reaching for them at this moment seems like a bad idea). Saddlebags (should they be searched) filled with instruments, asks of quicksilver and stranger matters—some, as they'd learn, quite dangerous—books in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin pocked with the occult symbols of Alchemists and Kabalists. Things could go badly for him in Boston. .

But the crowd takes the preacher's ranting not as a call to arms but a signal to turn and disperse, muttering. The redcoats discharge their muskets with deep hissing booms, like handfuls of sand hurled against a kettledrum. Enoch dismounts into the midst of the colonists. He sweeps the robe round him, concealing the pistols, pulls the hood back from his head, and amounts to just another weary pilgrim. He does not meet any man's eye but scans their faces sidelong, and is surprised by a general lack of self-righteousness. .

"God willing," one man says, "that'll be the last one." .

"Do you mean, sir, the last witch?" Enoch asks.

"I mean, sir, the last hanging."

Flowing like water round the bases of the steep hills, they migrate across a burying ground on the south edge of the common, already full of lost Englishmen, and follow the witch's corpse down the street. The houses are mostly of wood, and so are the churches. Spaniards would have built a single great cathedral here, of stone, with gold on the inside, but the colonists cannot agree on anything and so it is more like Amsterdam: small churches on every block, some barely distinguishable from barns, each no doubt preaching that all of the others have it wrong. But at least they can muster a consensus to kill a witch. She is borne into a new burying ground, which for some reason they have situated hard by the granary. Enoch is at a loss to know whether this juxtaposition—that is, storing their Dead, and their Staff of Life, in the same place—is some sort of Message from the city's elders, or simple bad taste.

Enoch, who has seen more than one city burn, recognizes the scars of a great fire along this main street. Houses and churches are being rebuilt with brick or stone. He comes to what must be the greatest intersection in the town, where this road from the city gate crosses a very broad street that runs straight down to salt water, and continues on a long wharf that projects far out into the harbor, thrusting across a ruined rampart of stones and logs: the rubble of a disused sea-wall. The long wharf is ridged with barracks. It reaches far enough out into the harbor that one of the Navy's very largest men-of-war is able to moor at its end. Turning his head the other way he sees artillery mounted up on a hillside, and blue-coated gunners tending to a vatlike mortar, ready to lob iron bombs onto the decks of any French or Spanish galleons that might trespass on the bay.

So, drawing a mental line from the dead criminals at the city gate, to the powderhouse on the Common, to the witch-gallows, and finally to the harbor defenses, he has got one Cartesian number-line—what Leibniz would call the Ordinate—plotted out: he understands what people are afraid of in Boston, and how the churchmen and the generals keep the place in hand. But it remains to be seen what can be plotted in the space above and below. The hills of Boston are skirted by endless flat marshes that fade, slow as twilight, into Harbor or River, providing blank empty planes on which men with ropes and rulers can construct whatever strange curves they phant'sy.

Enoch knows where to find the Origin of this coordinate system, because he has talked to ship's masters who have visited Boston. He goes down to where the long wharf grips the shore. Among fine stone sea-merchants' houses, there is a brick-red door with a bunch of grapes dangling above it. Enoch goes through that door and finds himself in a good tavern. Men with swords and expensive clothes turn round to look at him. Slavers, merchants of rum and molasses and tea and tobacco, and captains of the ships that carry those things. It could be any place in the world, for the same tavern is in London, Cadiz, Smyrna and Manila, and the same men are in it. None of them cares, supposing they even know, that witches are being hanged five minutes' walk away. He is much more comfortable in here than out there; but he has not come to be comfortable. The particular sea-captain he's looking for—van Hoek—is not here. He backs out before the tavern keeper can tempt him.

Back in America and among Puritans, he enters into narrower streets, and heads north, leading his horse over a rickety wooden bridge thrown over a little mill-creek. Flotillas of shavings from some carpenter's block-plane sail down the stream like ships going off to war. Underneath them the weak current nudges turds and bits of slaughtered animals down towards the harbor. It smells accordingly. No denying there is a tallow chandlery not far upwind, where beast-grease not fit for eating is made into candles and soap.

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Quicksilver (Baroque Cycle Series, Parts 1-3) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 124 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thusfar all the 'complaints' regarding this book are that it's too long, the dialog is too stiff, and that there's no plot. History doesn't have a plot. Life doesn't have a plot. This book is a portrait of what life was like in the 1600's. It's not a neatly packaged story with a clear beginning and ending. Think of the Baroque Cycle books as a history lesson with personality. If you don't like history, or don't care about how aspects of our lives came to pass, then this isn't the book for you. As for the 'passivity' of the characters in the story... in order to maintain the historical integrity of real world events the *fictional characters* kinda need to be passive. Daniel Waterhouse doesn't do anything of consequence because Daniel Waterhouse didn't really exist... what would you have him do? Invent something? Cure something? Kill someone? Daniel Waterhouse is the camera-man through which we can watch Neal Stephenson's retelling of real-world history. If you want pure fiction, look elsewhere. This is a masterfully disguised history lesson.
Golfer76 More than 1 year ago
Although this is fictional and staged during one of the greatest periods of scienctific discovery, it is not science fiction. The many historical characters act and perform as they did in their exciting times. Questioning everything, from science to religion to financial systems to governmental forms, the delightfully real and fictional characters live each day to learn, educating the reader at the same time. Lest this 1000 page volume 1 of the Baroque Trilogy sound daunting, rest assured that the creative inclusion of lovable scoundrels keep you laughing and wondering what mess is around the next corner. A sure bet for avid readers with scientific, financial, historical, or philosophical interests.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a Stephenson fan, I opened this book with high hopes. Alas, they were quickly dashed. He shovels up mountainous descriptions of landscapes and architecture and period costumery, religious and political and scientific intrigues, but all to no purpose in advancing the action. A second flaw is that he pastes much of this description into dialogue form, making conversations between the characters stilted and artificial. Stephenson is undeniably brilliant; but he needs to cut more and write tighter. What might have been a decent 400-page story unfortunately balloons to 900+ pages.
Victoria Sazani More than 1 year ago
this and its two sequels are the a great way to escape into a past that might have been with a touch here and there of 'hmmm' and a lot more hilarity. Go Neal Go
Thermnd More than 1 year ago
I'm floored! At my age, I'm learning new vocabulary, more about the 1600's than I can believe, and can put down my Nook. Neal Stephenson will have my attention while I read all he has written. I recommend this book to all my friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very detailed work that accurately depicts life in 17th century Europe and North America. At times hard to follow as there seems to be no central story line other than following a variety of characters through a series of events. Regardless, Stephenson has put tremendous care and vividness to this book and time period.
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RBHolb More than 1 year ago
I will admit, the book starts slowly and it took me some time to get into it.  Once I did, I was hooked.  This book was the first time I was so engrossed in my reading that I missed my stop on the bus.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read, although dense to get through, but incredibly accurate in its portrayal of society and life in Europe the 17th and 18th century.
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Mndgy More than 1 year ago
The author brings to life what may well be the most important decades of western civilisation
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A must read!
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