Stephenson tries to make science ‘hip’ – in Zodiac, it was the imminent peril facing the world because of pollution; in the cyberpunk classic Snow Crash, he addressed linguistics and virtual reality. In Cryptonomicon, as the name might suggest, it was cryptography. He employs a similar formula here, using all manner of crude expository devices and unconvincing dialogue to drag the reader through the lives and times of such characters as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Louis XIV. This could be a nice idea, if it worked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Quicksilver reads like those modern revisions of the Bible. An over-long tale that goes nowhere, all in contemporary lingo, delivered from the mouths of walking parables. These 17th century dudes are keeping it real in the name of Natural Philosophy. Stephenson has trouble disguising his own voice throughout, which wasn’t so painful in his earlier, shorter, works, but after about 400 pages of what feels like a monotonous, self-righteous engineer prating on about his many areas of interest, it gets old fast.
His characters constantly discuss matters of great importance. This routinely takes the form of one cardboard character lecturing, two or three paragraphs at a time, while the other punctuates with thoughtful, leading questions. His characterization of females is exceedingly bad. Eliza, an English girl, kidnapped and sold into a Turkish Harem (where she memorized the entire Karma Sutra) bounces around the story, becoming exceedingly successful at everything she does and engaging in badly-written sexual liaisons with most of the people she meets, usually to prove some point or to keep the story moving. His male characters are just plain boring and barely worth mentioning.
The historically-based plot is badly paced, and at the end of the book – over 900 pages later – the badly-drawn characters vanish, without resolution or conclusion.
I think that it’s fair to say that this book should really be labelled as a failed experiment, shelved, and forgotten about.