Baroque Summer: Quicksilver Book One

I’m off and running with my summer reading project, Baroque Summer, during which I hope to finish all three of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle volumes, Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World.

is conveniently split into three books, so I’ll read and recap them one at a time. Book One is, confusingly or conveniently, “Quicksilver.”

We open on mysterious stranger Enoch Root in 1713 Massachusetts, who seeks out Daniel Waterhouse, a ridiculed figure he finds at the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technology, situated between Charlestown and Newtowne. Initial chapters alternate been Root meeting with Daniel and Root’s past, in which he met a young Isaac Newton. When Root gives Waterhouse a royal summons, though, Waterhouse is persuaded to return to England, and boards the Minerva, whose captain is named van Hoek.

From thence, chapters alternate between the Minerva and Daniel’s past in mid to late 1600’s England. This includes the plague, further religious strife, and burgeoning scientific investigation by those why styled themselves alchemists, and those, like Daniel, who call themselves Natural Philosophers. Daniel was the son of a vocal dissident Puritan. Many around him assume, incorrectly, that he espouses his father’s belief in predestination. From his youth, Daniel encounters many famous historical figures, such as Newton, Leibniz, and Hooke. With them, he participates in numerous experiments. He also struggles to figure out the tangled web of politics and their relation to religion. When his father figure and mentor, Wilkins, dies, Daniel is adrift and worried. He’s not much helped when his former schoolmate Roger Comstock (of the “Golden Comstocks”) offers himself as a patron. As “Quicksilver” comes to a close, Daniel realizes his path will not be simple:

His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might once have harbored about being a man of God had died with [his father], and been cremated by [his mistress]. He very much phant’sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. (330-1)

As you can see, Stephenson employs the archaic “phant-sy” a contraction of phantasy, just as “fancy” is contracted from “fantasy”. The “ph” spelling emphasizes the connection to the Phanatiques, another term for religious dissidents such as the Puritans and the Barkers.

At another point, Daniel comes across a hairpin in the shape of a caduceus, the symbol of the Roman god Mercury, which is also another name for Quicksilver. The caduceus, a rod with two snakes, has been misappropriated by the US medical establishment and correctly should be a rod with one snake, or a Rod of Asclepius, who was a healer.

If this kind of obsessive nerdishness is appealing to you, then you’ll likely enjoy Stephenson’s speculative take on the 17th century.

Is anyone reading along with me? If not, I’m going to take these books in chunks at my own pace. Next up: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, a blast from my past followed by Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for July’s meeting of Books and Bars. Then I’ll be back for book 2 of Quicksilver, “King of the Vagabonds”.

3 Responses to “Baroque Summer: Quicksilver Book One”

  1. weirleader Says:

    sadly, I’m not reading along. I picked up Quicksilver for a second go about 4 or 5 months ago, finally got to the point where the story picked up (roughly 330 pages in), and then got turned off again by where Stephenson chooses to take the story.

    While I don’t consider myself a prude, there are some things I just don’t care to read about. Perhaps I just became too attached to Eliza. It’d be sad if one offending passage ruined a great story for me, but I just lost faith that I would care to follow where the story led.

    As for Dragonflight — also a blast from me past, with lots of positive memories!

  2. girldetective Says:

    Yes, I can sort of see that Dragonrider would have positive associations, what with your pseudonym, and all. *grin* My husband claims that the next section is where it really gets good. I’ve really enjoyed my time with Daniel Waterhouse, which is up to p. 335, so I figure whatever you’re referring to with Eliza is up next? I’ll see if can handle it.

  3. weirleader Says:

    I had to laugh when you pointed out the association because after so many years using that pseudonym I’ve become so familiar with it that I didn’t even notice the connection. *sheepish grin*

    and I agree that QS gets really good — from p.333 (or perhaps 335?) I started devouring it. Daniel Waterhouse was very interesting, but never quite pulled me along the way any member of the Shaftoe clan always does.

    I enjoyed many of the depictions of science in that era, but I’m really quite curious where the history ends and the fiction begins. Some of the details seem to be wacky embellishments, and yet I can’t help but wonder if perhaps many of them were swept under the rug, so to speak.