Neal Stephenson – The Baroque Cycle

baroque

Neal Stephenson is usually categorised as a science fiction author, on the basis of his two early books – Snow Crash and Diamond Age, though the bulk of his work is more philosophy than sf. He wrote The Big U, a sort of lampoon of university life and Zodiac, an eco-warrior novel, before Snow Crash. Subsequent to Diamond Age, he has written, among other fiction and articles, In the Beginning was the Command Line, a treatise on computer Operating Systems, Cryptonomicon, a dramatised and fictionalised history of cryptology, and The Baroque Cycle, a dramatised and fictionalised history of 17th century science. His subsequent work has included sf, a co-authored fantasy and a cyber-thriller, so he does not lack variety.

The Baroque Cycle is a 3000 page supernovel in three volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World. (Subsequent editions sub-divided the whole oeuvre into more volumes)

In summary, Neal Stephenson writes extremely well. He understands how to deliver a fast-paced narrative. Like Umberto Eco, he does have a habit of delivering big chunks of research. But the story never falters while the lesson is delivered, and the research is never bungled as far as I have been able to determine.

Although I guess each of the books in the Baroque Cycle – Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World could be read as free-standing novels, the trilogy only makes sense as a 3000 page work.

There is so much in the books that I hardly know where to start. Among the fictional characters are Jack, a vagabond; Eliza, a courtesan; Daniel Waterhouse, who seems to be immortal. The real historical figures (whose behaviour is obviously fictionalised to an extent) include Isaac Newton, Leibniz, The Duke of Marlborough, half the crown heads in Europe at the time, many aristocrats, and the vast majority of the pantheon of early scientists.

The Great Fire of London, the formation of the Royal Society, the Jacobite turmoil over the British crown, Alchemy, Slavery, Newcomen’s Steam Engine, the Spanish treasure galleons, the birth of banking and currency, the French court, conditions in the near East, India and Mexico, developments in science and cryptology, the Holland of William of Orange, the Siege of Vienna, sewer design, mining, refining, weapons technology, Olde London. You are spared nothing in the background to this lengthy, often incomprehensible, always fascinating, behemoth of a story. It was not always compelling, but I never felt the urge to ditch it.

Quite frequently, I felt that I did not know what was going on. Usually my curiosity was satisfied in due course. There were periods of directionlessness and inconsequentiality which slowed the whole thing up. There were so many characters that one could lose track. Quicksilver had a handy appendix. The others lacked the reference material.

My chief criticism of the entire work was the language. A very few words and expressions were picked on and rendered in archaic form, occasionally speech was in period character, but the effect was spoiled by near-universal use of modern vernacular, not only in narrative, but in speech. It jarred with me. I longed for consistency.

My chief plaudit is that Neal Stephenson really knows how to write a gripping narrative, and there were several episodes which read beautifully. I particularly enjoyed the numerous battle scenes, and the details of the English penal system.

It is an ambitious masterpiece, only very slightly flawed.

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