Jamie's Reviews > Quicksilver

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
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Feb 25, 09

Read in January, 2008

I think it's official: I hate Neil Stephenson. I hated his so called cyberpunk classic Snow Crash --a fact that sets me apart from most of the nerdegalian-- and I really hated Quicksilver.

Quicksilver is kind of hard to classify, if you in fact insist on classifying it. It's kind of historical fiction in that it's set in the 17th and 18th century and follows the rise of empiricism and science. It features real people from that period, like Isaac Newton, Gotfried Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Robert Hook, King Louis XIV, and others. But the "fiction" part of "historical fiction" comes into play because the main characters --an aspiring natural philosopher (read: scientist) named Daniel Waterhouse, a former concubine turned finance tycoon named Eliza, and a charming vagabond named Jack Shaftoe-- never really existed and were fabricated for the sake of the book, which traces the activities of these three main characters as they live through the era.

The main problem I have with Quicksilver was that it was largely plotless. I kept waiting for something to happen or some plot to coalesce out of the noise, but it didn't. The characters are really just there to give Stephenson an excuse to carry on about the development of science as a discipline, the ephemeral nature of money, and pirates --sometimes all three in the same passage. There's no narrative, just a seemingly endless burbling of scenes --the damn thing is nearly 1,000 pages long, and I READ the paper version of this one. I actually kind of liked the some of the parts with struggling scientist Daniel Waterhouse the best, because the history of science interests me, but even these moments of engagement were covered up by obscure details and diversions that were like overgrown plants in a sprawling garden.

In fact, the whole book is bloated with details about experiments, geneologies, dissertations on stock markets, battles, family histories, and other verbal flotsam that it made it downright hard to read the book and impossible to enjoy. I get the impression that Stephenson gorged himself on research for the book, and then decided to use it all --every last syllable-- no matter what hellacious effect it has on the narrative or the goal of actually telling an interesting story. Quicksilver may be more entertaining than a high school textbook on the same topics, but only marginally.

And the thing is that it's only the first THIRD of a trilogy, plus a tie-in to Stpehnons's book Cryptonomicon. What's worse is that I went ahead and picked up the other books in hardback, though I did so at a thrift store and only set myself back a total of like three bucks. I think I'm just gonna eat that cost and not even think about picking them up, given how much I disliked Quicksilver. Life is too short.
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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I am currently reading this book, and 250 pages into it I, too, keep waiting for a plot to emerge. It was good to read your review and be assured that I´m not missing anything if I don´t finish this beast of a book.

Bcoghill Coghill Love all of the "stuff" packed into this novel. So what if the plot is hard figure out. The "plot" of real life is not particularly liniar either.
I don't think all novels have to be story books.

message 3: by Anna (last edited Apr 15, 2009 08:42AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Anna I think the same as you about this book. Completely plotless with bunch of facts not connected with each other. My Master degree thesis has more plot than this book.

Miriam It is a bit bloated and plotless isn't it? I could do without some of the bloat but I'm really enjoying all the miscellanea he throws out. I agree that the Waterhouse section is the best though - Shaftoe and Eliza don't really work for me - I'm hoping the last part shifts back to Daniel.

Bcoghill Coghill I grew to enjoy Shaftoe & Eliza as the trilogy moved along.

message 6: by Dan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dan Lowe I'd argue that the plot is the endeavor itself, and the characters (and therefore reader) are only experiencing what little they can given the possible perspective of the era. I guess I thought of it as a thousand-page vignette, where I didn't expect any of it to conclude given that there were two more books left in the series, and given that the development of human knowledge/application of knowledge is itself an open-ended plot.

Susanne Dan wrote: "I'd argue that the plot is the endeavor itself, and the characters (and therefore reader) are only experiencing what little they can given the possible perspective of the era."


Personally, I LOVE how crammed full of miscellanea the book is, and once I stopped expecting a plot and just went along for the ride, I started having a wonderful time. Understandable, though, that it's not to everyone's taste. :)

Eric Johnson And what an awesome journey! If you're looking for a neat little mystery, posed and solved, I can see this series might not be for you. If you love fascinating minutiae, interesting digressions, and a kick ass tale you wish would never end this is the real deal.

message 9: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Baughman I found the book to very entertaining.

message 10: by Cailan (new) - added it

Cailan I started this and didn't finish (made it about 3/4, i think), largely because I had many of the same impressions as you. What kept me going that far, however, was that Shaftoe and Waterhouse are named for characters taken from an earlier Neil Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon, which I thought was absolutely awesome. It starts off as slow as Quiksilver, but really picks up the pace, plot, and level of interesting as you progress... with tons of random details on the development of computers, codemaking, pattern theory, etc.

message 11: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Thank you! I agree completely. I really enjoyed "The Diamond Age" and didn't mind "Snow Crash" but this did absolutely nothing for me. As an historian, I was bored to tears with the masturbatory way he kept flinging minutae at the reader. Sure. You're clever. You can do research. We get it. Now write something interesting, please. I gave up about 2/3 of the way through it, and have no desire to pick it up again.

message 12: by Sam (new) - rated it 1 star

Sam I've enjoyed some of his other work, but I agree with your take on this particular book. Very frustrating read.

message 13: by Sarah (new) - rated it 1 star

Sarah This is my second attempt and I'm over it! I thought I should give it another go after all I've never not finished a book once I've begun reading. I am so bored nothing is happening! The first book I have never finished.

message 14: by Jeff (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jeff The plot is certainly there, but it's an altogether different speed than most readers are accustomed. What Stephenson has is poise. He's comfortable taking his time with the characters. I appreciate how real they become when we spend so much time watching them do their crazy experiments.

message 15: by Sean (new) - added it

Sean Forget the plot if it's hard to find this book is the same as reading the Britannica if there were some fictional characters plopped in. There's so much praise for this author so I picked it up and I finished because I feel I shouldn't comment unless I finished and this is the first bestseller that I threw in the trash.

message 16: by Mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mark Hebwood Ha ha brilliant. I just left the same review you did. Mine is phrased differently but check it out - our thinking on this one is eerily similar. Nice one.

Robert Pizzi Having just finished Quicksilver (and really liking it, despite it taking 8 months to read) I really can't imagine why someone would trudge through it hating it the whole way. I usually put down a book I am not liking, especially halfway through...

message 18: by Mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mark Hebwood Robert, that is actually a really good point. My mate read it and loved it so I guess I wanted to be in a reasonable position to say something about it. When we were discussing it, at least he couldn't say "ah but it gets better after you stopped reading it". But it was a high price to pay :-)

Robert Pizzi I was along for thr atmospheric ride until I found myself swept up with the characters in the last few hundred pages. the reader geta excellently trolled through the use of letters... I loved that twist at the end!

Gnarly Authenticity . I'd be more interested in reading an annotated bibliography of the library he must have read to write this than the actual book itself.

message 21: by Mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mark Hebwood Robert wrote: "I was along for thr atmospheric ride until I found myself swept up with the characters in the last few hundred pages. the reader geta excellently trolled through the use of letters... I loved that ..."

I get that, actually. There's also no doubt that Neal is a clever chap. Have you picked up the other books in the series?

message 22: by Mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mark Hebwood Gnarly Authenticity wrote: "I'd be more interested in reading an annotated bibliography of the library he must have read to write this than the actual book itself."

Yes that will be quite a bibliography. Astounding Neal was able to amass all this knowledge about the 17th Century and still find time to write 3000 pages about it...

Robert Pizzi Mark - (sorry to just be getting back to you on this haha) I actually picked up the whole trilogy in hard cover for $6 total (!!!) at a library sale. I needed to give myself a big break after Quicksilver, though, as I'm sure you can understand. It will probably what I start to tackle next - I might try and read it as I read some other lighter novels to break up the monotony a bit.

message 24: by Mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mark Hebwood Dude you're the MAN! I envy you the joy of looking forward to reading two massive tomes of something you really enjoy. I think the best books are those which feel as if we lost a friend when we finish them. But if we know that our friend will still be around for a few years (in Neal's case...) - this is the best! Plus I believe there is Cryptonomicon, which does not form part of the series but is sort of related. Keep in touch and let me know what you think of the other books, and also what "light" reading you're going to do. My mate read loads of books on the 17th Century while he was reading Quicksilver - once you open that door, there's no going back... :-)
Kindest - Mark

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