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9 February, 2006

Review: 'The Baroque Cycle' (Neal Stephenson, 2003-4)

Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite authors, so I bought the first volume of his Baroque Cycle, 'Quicksilver' within a fortnight of its publication in paperback (I rarely buy hardback novels).  Unfortunately, it didn't grab me to the same extent as his earlier, cyberpunk, novels, and the dense references to a historical period of which I knew little were somewhat off-putting.  In short, I thought it hard work, even boring.

On the strength of Stephenson's earlier books, I bought the second volume, 'The Confusion' a little after that was released in paperback, but I wasn't quite so eager to start that, and it languished in my 'to read' pile for eight months. I didn't begin it until visiting my mother in December, a period of enforced separation from work & my computer and an opportunity to address something I (then) thought 'heavy'.
That made all the difference. I think I must have read 'Quicksilver' a few pages at a time in the minutes between going to bed (tired) and putting out the light; it didn't really receive my full attention, at a time of night when my mind wasn't exactly receptive, and I wasn't reading enough per 'sitting' to be drawn into the 17th Century world. 'The Confusion' did receive my full attention, whilst I was fully awake, and I was able to devote whole hours to it.

And I loved it. Stephenson's command of language and wordplay was just right, incorporating elements of 18th Century (yes, the century had turned) English in a way accessible to 21st Century readers, yet demonstrating the 18th Century meanings of certain words – I've gained a richer understanding of my own language. The characters seemed to come alive much more than in 'Quicksilver', and I began to care about them, whether heroes, anti-heroes or villains.

Though sold in three volumes, one could divide the 2616-page Baroque Cycle into about a dozen episodes, each containing overlapping threads. Some of these episodes, particularly those focusing on courtly European politics, were rather dry, but others were thrilling action yarns, incorporating street battles in world capitals, acts of maritime piracy and capture of mediaeval fortresses. Some of the set-pieces were as delicious as the opening pages of Stephenson's 'Snow Crash', though a little more subtle than that novel's ninja pizza delivery man.

As soon as I returned to Lancaster, I ordered the final volume, 'The System Of The World'. I finished it this 'morning' (at 03:20...), but I wish I hadn't. More, please!

Most of the lead characters in the Cycle were fictional. Some were ancestors of characters in Stephenson's previous novel 'Cryptonomicon', which was set in the 1940s and the present day. However, more so than in 'Cryptonomicon', several secondary characters were genuine historical figures, and it was fascinating to view Sir Isaac Newton, Louis XIV of France and Gottfried von Liebniz, amongst others, as people, in the context of their contemporary environments.

So far as I can tell (I'm no expert on the period), the books were well-researched. A lot of the events were fictional, but cleverly fit between factual ones. Some placed historical characters hundreds of miles from their recorded locations on certain dates, but in a way that made it clear they were travelling incognito, or that their activities credibly wouldn't have entered the historical record. In some cases, the known actions of genuine people in documented situations were used, but the wider context of the narrative absorbed them well, by introducing rather different interpretations of historical fact.

It was also fascinating to follow social change not in terms of the usual historical indices (monarchs and battles), but by following the motivators: the flows of money and information, including one of Stephenson's recurring themes, cryptography.

I definitely recommend reading the three volumes in reasonably rapid succession, as the events of one had consequences in the next, and it could be difficult to remember the past actions of certain characters, or even recognise a couple of characters at all, if they'd been out of the narrative for a while. The framing narrative of 'Quicksilver', in which Daniel Waterhouse travels from Boston, Mass., back to England, was continued in 'The System Of The World' i.e. all 815 pages of 'The Confusion' were interposed before the original timeline was continued.

Despite a less than promising start: highly recommended.

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