In the opening chapter of his 1999 work Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson wrote, “Let’s set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume…”. At the time one could easily have dismissed that comment as a typically Stephensonian, offhand “but that’s another story” narrative device. It turns out, however, that the author had something much grander in mind: The Baroque Cycle, all two thousand five hundred thirty-four pages of it, delves into that issue, and many others.
The Baroque Cycle is a dense, intricate, epic tale of Science versus Alchemy, with healthy doses of political intrique and high finance, spanning the years 1655 to 1714. An historical fiction, it places fictitious characters side-by-side with real-life historical figures: e.g. Sir Isaac Newton, King Louis XIV, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, to name just a few. It is split up across three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World—but as the author himself says, don’t call it a trilogy. The three volumes are a publisher’s convenience. The Cycle really consists of eight books, divided fairly evenly across the three volumes.
So how is Stephenson’s magnum opus? It’s fun, and entertaining; the science is interesting, and the action is exciting and hilarious. As is typical of his work, Stephenson does an excellent job of maintaining the perspectives of the main characters, as each chapter is told from the viewpoint and with the voice of whichever character it centers on, rather than some omniscient third person. It’s a terrifically complex tale, filled with deep philosophical discussions, a broad historical scope, and (at least early on) more than a few references to the Cryptonomicon of John Wilkins, a (fictitious) work which of course figures prominently in Stephenson’s previous, eponymous novel. And in a much-needed first, each volume contains detailed, well-rendered, hugely helpful maps on each of the endpapers.
If you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson, I can’t imagine any reason why you would not want to read The Baroque Cycle. But even as a fan, I find myself questioning whether it was worth it for me not to read any other books during what turned out to be a solid seven-month stretch (broken up over a 15-month period due to the gaps between publishing dates).
To be honest, its drawbacks may well be entirely the fault of this reader, and not the author. I found the political intrigue somewhat confusing at first, primarily because of all the multiple titles held by the nobility that are used interchangeably with their names. And for someone who never needed to go much beyond Economics 101, some of the wheeling and dealing was obscure to me. I began to be concerned that somewhere in the second or third volume I would find myself hopelessly lost. Fortunately that never happened, but I still found myself thinking that when I finished I would need to go back and read it all again—this time with bookmarks stuck into all the pages containing family trees of the royal houses. But this is not likely to happen for a long while.
Suffice to say it’s not Stephenson’s best work, although it contains some of his best ideas, best characters, best scenes, and best writing. If you have the time (and time it will require) it’s worth a read. But unlike Cryptonomicon, which I was sorely tempted to restart immediately after having finished it, the notion of ever re-reading The Baroque Cycle is one that will require years to fade from being daunting.
Having finished it all, I am now taking a break of a few (or perhaps several) days before starting something new. I have a good reason for this. When I finished Quicksilver, I delved straightaway into O’Brian’s Master and Commander, and found it took me about a hundred pages to put Stephenson’s writing style out of my mind and get the feel for another author’s very different prose. Caveat lector.
Note: spoilers may follow.
Quicksilver is the first volume of the Cycle and contains three books within its hefty 927 pages. The title itself can be construed as a metaphor for the multiple layers and themes of the novel, for “quicksilver” contains a wealth of connotations. As a noun it is the element mercury, “a heavy silver-white poisonous metallic element that is liquid at ordinary temperatures and is used especially in scientific instruments.” Mercury is used in many of the experiments conducted by the Natural Philosophers in the novel, and even is consumed as a tonic against syphillis by several characters (though it does them little good). As an adjective, quicksilver means “mercurial, characterized by rapid and unpredictable changeableness of mood,” which describes this novel quite well. It especially has a tendency to careen from ribald comedy to dreadful tragedy within the space of a few sentences.
Book One (Quicksilver) introduces one of the main characters, Daniel Waterhouse, college schoolmate of Isaac Newton, and covers perhaps a dozen years (all told in flashback) culminating at about the time that Newton and Leibniz invented “the calculus.” Book Two (King of the Vagabonds) backtracks in time to introduce the other leads, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza. She is an escaped harem slave turned financial player, and winds up the Countess of Zeur, a pawn (perhaps) in the royal court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Books One and Two tell wholly divergent stories (excepting the appearances of a few common characters), while Book Three (Odalisque) proceeds with both, leaping in chapters from Daniel to Jack to Eliza, with the implication that their fortunes will soon be closely intertwined.
If some of those names seem vaguely familiar to readers of Cryptonomicon, they should be. The Waterhouse and Shaftoe families are central to both works. One could consider Cryptonomicon to be, perhaps, a 20th Century “prequel” to the Baroque Cycle. (One character, Enoch Root, is apparently ageless and appears in both eras, making it quite obvious that each story takes place in the same Universe.)
What I pondered most while reading this tome are the close similarities between the 17th Century players and their 20th Century descendants. Jack Shaftoe, also known as “Half-Cocked Jack” both due to a physical impediment and as an allusion to his rash behaviour, is a wild-eyed vagabond and privateer; if he’d lived during World War Two he might have wound up as a crazy, gung-ho Marine just like his scion, Bobby Shaftoe. And both Daniel and Lawrence Waterhouse are mathematician/scientists who come from a long line of itinerant Protestant preachers (as is, not coincidentally, Stephenson himself).
It made me think: three hundred years, and nothing has changed in these families. It left my disbelief unsuspended for a while, until I thought of an example closer to home. I work in computers. My dad is a professor (emeritus) of computer science, which at the time of his degrees was a discipline of electrical engineering. His father was a mechanical engineer. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a chemical engineer, and his father was an horologist, owning a clock and watch shop. That’s four generations of scientist-engineers. I guess there’s something to be said for a family having a bias toward occupational similarity (even though if I go further back in my genealogy, farming becomes much more prevalent).
Unfortunately, all I had to say when I finished The Confusion was “The story begun in Quicksilver continues, as Stephenson sets us up for what’s sure to be a whirlwind finale.” Is that an oblique way of saying it’s convoluted and long-winded and seems to just be biding its time until the third volume could begin?
At the least, Neal has done an interesting thing, structurally, with volume two. Its two books, Bonanza and The Juncto, take place concurrently over a period of several years, although in locations across a continent, or around the world, from each other. So rather than force a major chronological leap backwards as we finish one book and begin the next, he has interleaved the two, chapter by chapter. As Stephenson puts it, he hopes “that being thus con-fused shall render them the less confusing to the Reader.” It solves the issue, even if it is, in a sense, a contrived problem—it’s not as if the two books have significantly different styles, and their mildly differing themes are purely the result of their different players, locations, and events.
Otherwise, the novel begins to suffer from Stephenson’s logorrhea during this volume. Perhaps it sounds like I’m complaining. Perhaps I am. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy The Baroque Cycle. I surely did. There is no question about that.
Yet I was nearly halfway through The System of the World, in fact a solid four-hundred-plus pages into it, when I took a week off of work. A full eight days in a row, spent not taking the train home from work every day, and thus not reading my usual ten or twenty pages during the ride. And on the eighth day, as I was packing my bag to return to work, I picked up The System and realised that, not only had I not read a single word of it during the break, I hadn’t missed it at all. It was interesting enough that I would doggedly continue to carry and read it day after day, rather than abandon it entirely—yet not nearly interesting enough to keep from putting it away after every train ride. Noting too that I’d already spent over two months on it, I buckled down and finished it off in a few weeks.
That bothers me. This volume is the first thing I’ve read by Stephenson that took half its length to get up to speed. And I feel as if each volume in the Cycle takes twice as long as its predecessor to get rolling. I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Neal could have trimmed things down and gotten the job done in, say, 1500 pages. Or even 2000.
But no. He couldn’t. Because there are so many things that he has to shoehorn/weave into the story, interlocking little details that build into a rambling, convoluted, Stephensonian whole.
For one thing, there are many elements and events that, as in nearly every one of his novels, seem to be there solely as Neal’s pipe dreams. Such as:
- The grand, face-to-face philosophick showdown between Leibniz and Newton—The Monads vs. The Machine—a hypothetical “what if history had let this happen and we’re the fly on the wall” fantasy. Of course, the whole thing fizzles out, as the Masters only agree to disagree.
- The duel fought, not with swords or pistols, but with cannon at 200 paces. How typical of Neal to take that logical—and absurd—next step.
- Jack Shaftoe’s wild ride through the sky, sliding down a rope strung between the Fire Monument and the Tower of London.
Most of these are plausible enough, and entertaining notions. But I just can’t suspend my disbelief at times, and have to wonder about some things:
- Jack’s afore-mentioned aerial stunt from tower to tower. I’m highly skeptical that the rope technology of 1714 was up to the task of making a line that could stretch from (not even near) the top of the 202-foot-high Monument across a space of (much nearer) 800 yards without sagging to the ground under its own weight, much less that of Jack.
- Speaking of the tower stunt, I also doubt the state-of-the-art of rocketry in the early 18th century was as accurate as the task required.
- And finally, the way things all fall together at the Trial of the Pyx, one of two simultaneous Grand Finales. Daniel Waterhouse, Doctor of Philosophy and holder of one of the keys that provide access to the Necessaries of the Trial, is named as proxy for Sir Isaac Newton in his defence. Daniel has conspired a great number of things since his return to Europe from Boston, and his greatest conspiracy will be to doctor the contents of the Pyx so that Isaac will pass his trial. At the Trial there are two Juries, each of twelve men, that are also in a sense Expert Witnesses as they conduct the assay of the gold in the Mint’s guineas. Somehow, it works out that the foreman of the Citizens’ Jury is the same man with whom Daniel rode into town several months previous, and in the interim was co-founder (with Daniel et alia) of a club investigating mysterious explosions in the city. (The fact that he is a skilled prestidigitator, which had been established early in his introduction, is oh-so-convenient for the ploy involved.) Meanwhile, the foreman of the Goldsmiths’ Jury is none other than Daniel’s nephew! (And he’s really a Banker, and only a Goldsmith by family legacy… and the reason for his election as foreman is in honour of his valourous defence of his Bank against the Crown during—ahem—one of Daniel’s other intrigues.) Yet even amid the incessantly gossipy world of interregnal London, no one takes notice of these connections. We’re to believe that Daniel is so milquetoast that he is, even after having served as a Lord Regent, capable of flying quite low under the radar.
I could continue to pick The Baroque Cycle apart at length, but maybe I should just leave it alone. Truth be told, I guess I’m a little bitter about spending so much time reading a novel that starts quite promisingly, squanders some of its potential through long-windedness, and after a couple of good surprises galumphs to an utterly predictable ending. Neal Stephenson is an ingenious author, one of my absolute favourites, and I wanted to enjoy The Baroque Cycle much more than I did. For those who have not yet delved into any of Neal’s work, I highly recommend Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, or The Diamond Age instead.