December 8, 2008

Book Review: The Baroque Cycle

I gave an "interim book review" a while back for the first of the three volumes of this extraordinary work of fiction. The author, Neal Stephenson, has managed to create something as extraordinary as J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, as swashbuckling as George Lucas' Indiana Jones stories, and as intellectually satisfying a glimpse back in time as a Barbara Tuchman history.

I cannot readily classify The Baroque Cycle into any genre. It is perhaps most readily identified as historical fiction, given that it is set in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and many of its characters are prominent figures in world history -- Louis XIV, Sir Isaac Newton, Gotfried Liebniz, William of Orange, Samuel Pepys, Sir John Churchill, George I, his extraordinary daughter-in-law Charlotte, Thomas Newcomen, Tsar Peter the Great, and a precocious young Benjamin Franklin. The fictional characters who are the story's heroes interact with these great names of history, and all are brought to life with flaws and personalities and motives as tactile and believable as reading today's newspapers. The scope of the history is truly epic, as we see the United Kingdom go through five monarchs and a generation of war with France; we get a global travelogue as the characters hop, skip, and jump all over the world; we see the effects of age and the passage of time as the heroes of the story go on about their work.

It is an allegorical tale of the birth of the modern world. The story begins with an alchemist issuing a summons and ends with a scientist inspecting a steam engine -- symbols of how, over the course of one man's lifetime, the world changed. What began as a world ruled by tradition, religion, superstition, and hidden knowledge becomes, at the end, a new world of open societies, the creation of civil liberties, technology and science, and most of all, of a new way of understanding wealth and money.

For it is also a history book, a didactic examination of the modern system of credit, paper currency, commercial paper, banking, and insurance. Even for many people in today's world, these are mystical concepts, which seem from the outside like magic. But Stephenson takes his reader through the evolution of the modern market -- likely compressing some concepts into his story that properly belong spread out over a longer period of time -- in a manner that renders them understandable and clear. By the end, if you did not understand why things are they way they are in the world of finance, you can reconstruct the process of the new System of the World that was evolved for you in the story.

It is a potboiler action story. Portions of the books are so exciting that you'll stay up late into the night to read through them. You can no more pause a reading of the book during some portions than you could pause a car chase in an action movie. You'll thrill to the chases, narrow escapes, fights, and misadventures of the heroes.

But most of all, at least from the point of view of its characters, it is science fiction -- science fiction in the real sense of the word, an exploration of new ideas and what they can mean, what they can create in the real world. The new technologies, the emergence of nation-states not identified with individual kings or queens, the new attitudes about religion, the new order of wealth -- these are all new things to the characters of the book. They do not yet know what any of these things can do and must feel their way through the implications of a new kind of world that is being born around them.

The Baroque Cycle is available in three volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Each contains two or three "books," which may be thought of as "parts" or "acts" in the epic sweep of the story. Three fictional characters are created -- Eliza, who transforms herself from Turkish harem girl into the toast of European high society; Jack Shaftoe, an illiterate Vagabond who knows how to think big; and Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan who loses his faith and becomes a scientist. If those names sound familiar to fans of Stephenson's more famous work, Cryptonomicon, they should, as Waterhouse and Shaftoe are ancestors of characters in those books; Eliza is also an ancestor of players in that book.

The true climax of The Baroque Cycle comes about halfway through the last of the eight "books" in a London drawing room, with an intellectual duel between Newton, Leibniz, Charlotte of Hanover, and Waterhouse. This is what I mean by it being science fiction -- it is ultimatley about ideas, about concepts, about knowledge. For that reason, it feels deeply intellectually satisfying, on a level which a potboiler detective novel simply cannot. Where a potboiler presents you with a puzzle, usually on the order of complexity of a television show, The Baroque Cycle presents you with the labyrinth of human history. And in the end, rather than simply putting the pieces together, you get to see the characters master their games and the author lets you in on their strategies; and you are left not feeling robbed or cheated by finally seeing the magician's tricks, but left with a sense of tremendous possibility.

About the only drawback that I can see to The Baroque Cycle is its length. Some readers will be intimidated that each of the three volumes is about nine hundred pages long. I'm a fast reader, but it's taken me since August to complete them all between their length and the other demands on my time. But I do not think I've read fiction this good in years -- every moment spent reading these books was well-spent. If what I've gushed about here sounds good to you at all, then run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore, or get them online, either at Barnes & Noble or Amazon, and get these extraordinary books. They are unlike anything else you have ever read and you will want more, more, more of them when you are done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read Quicksilver a while back, and while it was certainly much better than most books, I really cannot say that it was worth the lengthy time investment required. If Stephenson had made it a few hundred pages shorter it would have been much more worthwhile even if some materials had to be sacrificed.