Tuesday, November 15, 2011


This one takes some explaining.  The Baroque Cycle is a massive work by Neal Stephenson – a sort of prequel to his information-opus Cyptonomicon that focuses on several of the characters’ ancestors in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  Together, The Baroque Cycle forms one 2600 page story, though it was published as three separate novels at six-month intervals (and then later as eight smaller novels).  The first entry, Quicksilver, won the Clarke.  It finished third in the Locus voting in 2004, but the final two-thirds were both eligible in the next year, and they won as a single unit.  The first novel, Quicksilver, does start slow, so I can see why the Locus voters passed it by, though it does get quite good after 300 pages or so.  The second novel, The Confusion, is a work of genius.  The third novel overstays its welcome (after reading for thousands of pages, I found myself yelling “get on with it already!” during the home stretch).  Really, The Baroque Cycle should be seen as one work, so it is fitting that Locus grouped them together (and I’m doing the same).

So, 2600 pages, huh?  The Baroque Cycle is daunting, and at the end, it’s a fairly uneven work.  Fundamentally, it’s about the dispute between Leibniz and Newton over who invented Calculus.  This was a real fight between two genius men who were also crucial political figures in British history – part of the dispute is about science and the politics of science, but it also involves questions of scientific professionalization, struggles over the British crown, the birth of high finance, the prehistory of information technology, and the nature of God and the cosmos. 

If you groaned or gave a weary sigh during any part of that description, run away now.  Run as fast and as far from these novels as you can.  However, if you’re at least mildly intrigued by a 2600 page novel of scientific disputes and political intrigue, there’s a decent chance that you will enjoy yourself here.  Stephenson livens things up with the picaresque hero Jack Shaftoe.  In contrast to the Stephenson’s invented scientist character, Daniel Waterhouse, Jack is an uneducated clown who has wild, swashbuckling adventures across the globe.  He starts out as a mercenary and vagabond in Quicksilver, then spends most of The Confusion as a pirate.  Bridging the two stories is Eliza, a beautiful young woman who goes from harem slave to aristocrat over the decades-long story, and sponsors schemes in the criminal, political, scientific and financial world that the Cycle so masterfully jumps between (and often combines!)
We follow these three characters for most of the novel from their youths in the 1660s to 1714 (the Hannoverian succession for those keeping score at home).  Waterhouse lets Stephenson explore the scientific revolution and England’s burgeoning Royal Society, and especially its superstars, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.  He uses Jack Shaftoe to delve into the underworld and to tell a series of comic adventure stories.  Eliza takes us into the worlds of royal courts and early modern trade and finance.

As history, it’s generally accurate and rather ingenuous.  Several historical characters make cameos or play large roles, including several kings, queens, and scientists (a young Ben Franklin even pops in early on).  Stephenson has his facts straight and more than once I would look up a particularly unlikely-seeming event or meeting and find that it really did happen more or less as Stephenson described.   There is some artistic license taken – Stephenson puts a witch execution in New England a few decades after they had stopped, for instance – but that’s really where Stephenson’s genius comes in.  Yes, the main characters are his creations, and yes, there are several improbably (and impossible scenes).  At one point, Stephenson even stages a Disneyesque musical number in a Jack Shaftoe scene.  But all of these moments only serve to bring the history even more vibrantly alive.

What exactly does this all have to do with science fiction then?  Well, there are some moments that are pure fantasy (an immortal sorceror appears, and much of the plot turns on some alchemical gold – both are elements carried over from Cryptonomicon).  But, more fundamentally, these are novels about science.  They explore the implications of science by taking real discoveries and exaggerating them or carrying them to extreme ends.  Leibniz really did consider building a mechanical calculator, and is thus one of the prehistoric pioneers of the computer.  In Stephenson’s world, he gets to build his calculator.  This is science fiction at its most pure.

This is my third Stephenson review, and it should be clear by now that I’m a fan of his work, and especially his irreverent, witty, and discursive writing style.  I’m also a fan of historical settings and richly drawn worlds, so, it’s not a surprise that I loved these novels.  Stephenson’s tics are all still here – especially his tendency to run off on long tangents that can turn into academic lectures.  You either love it or hate it, and if the latter, you’re going to have a hard time with Stephenson and the hardest time of all here.

I did say that this is an uneven work.  Quicksilver takes a while to get going.  The Confusion is probably the best thing that Stephenson has ever written and one of my favorite novels.  System of the World was painful to get through at times.  It’s a nice two or three hundred page epilogue to the first two parts…stretched out to nine hundred pages (for symmetry’s sake?).  In System, for once, Stephenson’s diversions aren’t all that interesting, there’s a great deal of repetition (you will grow sick of the phrase “Trial of the Pyx”), and the characteristic long-winded descriptions just aren’t that interesting.  I’d suggest skimming the final volume if you can bring yourself to do so.  It also wouldn’t hurt to bone up on history before delving in – I gave up on Quicksilver when it first came our, but I found it a much breezier read after reading up on seventeenth-century English history for a class I was teaching. 

In summary, it’s a highly rewarding set of novels that I can’t recommend highly enough…so long as you’re interested in history, can tolerate Stephenson’s quirks, and you can hold your nose and make your way through some slow portions.  The Confusion alone is worth these obstacles though. 

Grade: A


  1. Thanks for this review and the Susanna Clarke one above. I loved this series by Stephenson. I agree that The Confusion was the best of the bunch; however, I didn't have the same experience with The System of the World as you did, but once you gave the criticism I understood it.
    I read the first two together during Christmas break and then I did not get to read the last one until the following summer. I was reveling so much in getting back into Stephenson's words and world I did not notice that the book was slow. If I had read them all together, I think that i would have noticed. Thanks again, Rhonda

  2. I have a close friend who also really enjoyed The System of the World, so I may be in the minority here. I read the series fairly quickly, and I think I was a tad worn out from the marathon of it all by System. If I'd had a break like you, I can imagine enjoying it quite a bit more.