Book review: Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
The Baroque Cycle is a huge novel consisting in three volumes, each of them well over 800 pages. It takes place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and can be viewed as an attempt to paint a broad fresco of the time, with an emphasis on the emergence of new forms of thought (the Scientific Revolution) and new economic structures (capitalism). It has an immense cast of characters, many of them taken from actual history, and covers as well an immense temporal and geographical scope: from the 1640s to 1715 the former, and from Europe to America to India to Japan the latter. It is also a sort of distant prequel to Cryptonomicon, though I know this only by reading reviews as I haven’t read (yet) Stephenson’s most famous book.
The first book of the cycle, Quicksilver, presents us in its first part the story of Daniel Waterhouse, son of Puritans and natural philosopher, told in flashbacks from the present (1715) in which old Daniel is returning to England from his dwellings in Boston to mediate in the quarrel between Newton and Leibniz. (In one of the first and best of the anachronistic winks present in the novel, Waterhouse is described as having created the “Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts”.) In the flashbacks, we are presented from young Daniel’s viewpoint to the innings of the Scientific Revolution: Daniel is mentored by John Wilkins, founder of the Royal Society, and becomes friends with Newton, Hooke, Pepys, Leibniz, and other key figures of the age. Scientific and philosophical ideas are presented in a witty and engaging way, and the plot mixes them with the political and military intrigues of the time.
The second part of the first book switches social spheres to tell us the story of Jack Shaftoe, who among his many aliases and nicknames takes pride especially in being called the King of Vagabonds. A likeable, colourful, half-crazy hero of picaresque-like tales and swashbuckling adventures (he recounts at one point being a first-hand witness of the death of d’Artagnan), Jack is serving as a mercenary in the battle of Vienna against the Turks in 1683 when he rescues young and beautiful Eliza of Qwghlm from the Sultan’s harem. After they both team up and live some adventures together, Eliza turns up to have an excellent head for business affairs, which makes her raise to a high position in the courts of Europe and end up as a double or triple agent spy, serving at the same time Louis XIV of France and William of Orange. Jack and Eliza eventually drift apart, though the feelings still lasting between them will be key to the action in the other volumes. Leibniz, Daniel Waterhouse and other natural philosophers then get mixed with the intricate and sometimes almost impossible to follow plots that Eliza gets involved in while sailing her way through the treacherous waters of the European international intrigue. Cryptography plays an important role at many points of the story here. The book ends with most plot threads unresolved, leading us directly to the sequel.
The second book, The Confusion, tells two very different stories alternating between them. On one side, Jack is now the leader of a band of galley slaves who become pirates when stealing a cache of Spanish gold. This leads to unexpected amounts of trouble as the gold has unusual properties and many of the shadowy powers pulling the strings of finance and politics are determinate to get hold of it. (One of them is none other than Isaac Newton, who has become the Master of the English Mint). Attempts to get a safe profit from the gold lead Jack and his gang to many exciting adventures all around the world, in Egypt, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Mexico. Meanwhile, Eliza continues to survive and make profits of her own in the complicated high spheres of Europe (though not without some great personal losses either) while continuing her friendship with such figures as Leibniz and Princess Caroline of Ansbach. The two tales cross a number of times and are joined satisfactorily at the end, though this ending is so abrupt that one is left especially eager for the last part of the tale.
In The System of the World, which closes the cycle, we are back in 1715 and following Daniel as he returns to England. This is the book with the most consistent and tight storyline as the three or four plot threads are kept closely interrelated. We have a mystery to unravel, of a series of murder attempts against natural philosophers; the battle of wits and arms between powerful Newton in his character of Royal Minter and vagabond Jack who has now became a coiner bent in undermining the economy; the political tension around the succession of the throne of England (will it go to the Hanoverians or the Jacobites?) and the role Eliza plays in the manoeuvres as friend to Princess Caroline, who will become the Queen if the Hanoverians win; and last by not least the philosophical dispute between suspicious, almost paranoid Newton and courtly philosopher Leibniz.
Though an immense attention is given to accurate historical details, the novel does not feel at all like a realistic account of the Baroque period. This is because Stephenson’s characters often talk and think in a very self-conscious way, making explicit the role they are playing in the grand scheme of history. Witness, for example, this dialogue between a Tory and a Whig in the third volume:
”The question is, shall we be ruled by Money and the Mob –which are one and the same to me, as neither serves any fixed principle- or by one who serves a higher good? That is the point of Royalty, Roger.
Roger paused. “ ‘Tis an attractive prospect,” he said. “And I do understand, Henry. We are at a fork in the road just now. One way takes us to a wholly new way of managing human affairs. It is a system I have helped, in my small way, to develop: the Royal Society, the Bank of England, Recoinage, the Whigs, and the Hanoverian Succession are all elements of it. The other way leads us to Versailles, and the rather different scheme that the King of France has got going there."
It is most unlikely that any real person in 1715 could have thought in this way. It is even more unlikely that Rev. John Wilkins, after Leinbiz discusses with him the binary numeric system and also shows him the mechanical calculator he has built, could have been so prescient as to say: “I believe that binary arithemetickal engines will be of enormous significance”. Or that Leibniz and Waterhouse could have tried to actually build an “binary arithmethickal engine” that follows the Laws of Thought, using punch cards like Babbage would do 150 years later (they call it a Logick Mill). Stephenson has them do this, because he obviously sees the informatic revolution of the 20th century as the natural culmination of the scientific revolution of the 17th, and wants to make it the case that this was already foreshadowed in the beginning. He writes not history as it was, but as it should have been. Which is often not only more entretaining, but also more educating to the reader. I feel I have learnt more from this novel that from many nonfiction books, precisely due to the simplifications and liberties Stephenson takes with historical realism in order to get his larger points across.
(A very different kind of non-realism is provided by the mysterious character of Enoch Root, a shadowy alchemist who appears and disappears from the plot at key moments and may or may not possess the secret of immortality. I mention this because of its potential interest to Cryptonomicon readers, as I understand the same character appears in that book as well.)
The main downside of the novel is of course its length; and also its style, full of long descriptive paragraphs and chaotic complexity in the plot, especially in the first volume. I don’t think as some reviews I’ve read that the novel was “badly needing an editor” because the length and the style are an intrinsic part of the world Stephenson wants to build here; but the task of entering this world for the casual reader can prove daunting. I would say that there are five factors you must consider in order to decide whether to invest money and time (a lot of time) in reading these books:
1) You are a geek.
2) You are deeply interested in the origins of modern science and the philosophical changes that accompained them.
3) You are deeply interested in the origins of modern economic structures such as banking, stock markets, financial enterprises of various kinds, and standarised coinage.
4) You enjoy action-packed swashbuckling adventures, pirates-and-swordfights style.
5) You are very patient and don’t mind reading long books even if there isn’t a clear linear plot to follow.
The first condition is the only sine qua non one. Stephenson is a geek writing for geeks, in the sense of people who love the play of ideas, concepts and abstract structures. (In fact, the novel can be read as making the case that the Royal Society memebers were the geeks of the 17th century.) The remaining four conditions are not all necessary, but if you satisfy less than two of them this novel will be too long and boring for you, no matter how much of a geek you are. In my own case, I am not very patient and I am only mildly interested in economical matters; sometimes Stephenson managed to hold my interest in those parts and those of complicated political intrigues, and sometimes he didn’t and I found myself aching to turn pages without reading them. Overall I enjoyed the novel a lot, especially the last two volumes, and am likely to reread it at some point to get a clearer view of how the plots weave together when viewed in hindsight. If you satisfy more than two of conditions 2)-5), then I recommend you to buy these books, and I guarantee that you will enjoy them hugely.