Quicksilver, 2003, Morrow, 927 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97742-7
The Confusion, 2004, Morrow, 815 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-052386-7
The System of the World, 2004, 892 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-052387-5
For years, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle stared at me from my “to read” shelves, daring me to take the time necessary to get through its dense 2,600 pages without losing track of the plot, losing patience or losing myself in endless Wikipedia lookups. As a Stephenson fan dating back to Snow Crash, I had purchased the entire C$120 behemoth upon publication and then lost courage every time I even thought about starting the adventure. The first crack in my resistance came in early 2009 when I read Stephenson’s subsequent Anathem during a particularly dull long weekend in an even duller city. The second happened in summer 2009 when I managed to finish David Foster Wallace’s interminable Infinite Jest. The last occurred in late 2009, when I finished my year-long Hunter S. Thompson reading project and started looking for another challenge. To celebrate the beginning of 2010, I vowed to clear that Baroque Cycle off my shelves.
Cut to: Eight weeks later.
It’s a good thing I read about two or three books in parallel, depending on location. Even at a pace of about fifty pages per day, The Baroque Cycle is a hefty undertaking. The hardcover books are too cumbersome to carry on public transportation; even casual home use wears them down over weeks. These are not books that can be read in bed without special accommodations for weight and heft. But then again, it’s tough to explain the origins of the modern world in only three books.
Because what Stephenson attempts here is nothing less than an exploration of the roots of contemporary society. Taking place roughly between 1660 and 1720, The Baroque Cycle covers a period in which many of the foundations of our world are laid down. Things as simple as science, mathematics and currency weren’t obvious at first: they had to be developed, harmonized and often bitterly argued over before being accepted. What Stephenson tries to do here is to take us through a period rich in intrigue, discoveries and innovation. To complain that The Baroque Cycle is filled with anachronisms, that it’s a historical novel that keeps making reference to modern ideas is to miss the point that the book wouldn’t exist without its unstated future: It’s all about finding out where the system of our world comes from.
It’s no accident if The Baroque Cycle also connects on a fundamental level to Stephenson’s previous Cryptonomicon. Not only do we get early passing references to a then-new book of the same name, but many of the main characters of the trilogy are meant to be distant ancestors of their WW2/modern counterparts in Stephenson’s earlier novel. There’s nerd Daniel Waterhouse, action hero Jack Shaftoe, and, surprise-surprise, possibly-immortal (and constant plot device) Enoch Root. The events of the third volume lead to those of Cryptonomicon, with several plot devices set up in a way that make Stephenson’s 1999 book look even more profound. As with Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle is keenly interested in economics, technology and cryptography. As with half of Cryptonomicon, it’s basically a historical novel for nerds… and I say that in the fondest sense, because its focus (and attitude) is so refreshingly about topics seldom discussed in mainstream historical fiction.
Reading The Baroque Cycle, we get a sense of the heady cognitive rush as new natural principles are discovered and codified. We get an idea of the war of ideas as new infrastructures are put in place and looked at doubtfully by sceptics. We appreciate the risks that threatened early adopters, except that they were trying currency and political systems rather than technological gizmos. We get to see the familiar structures of our world slowly taking over the medieval chaos of What Came Before. As Stephenson’s trio of characters each see their own part of the world (and for a story that would be complex enough just in Europe, The Baroque Cycle does eventually circle the entire globe), we piece together a dense tapestry of interactions between a bundle of new ideas. They meet many historical figures, and in turn act upon events as they occur. They witness fires, revolutions and discoveries. They’re stuck in palace intrigue, busy with far-away travels, stuck in wars and swashbuckling their lives away. Considering the unfathomable genealogy of Europe’s ruling class at the time, using words like “epic” to describe The Baroque Cycle is, for once, being a bit modest. Even the characters are bigger-than-nature: Not only do significant historical figures get speaking parts (from Newton to Leibniz to Louis XIV to Samuel Pepys to many others), but our fictional protagonists themselves are extraordinary figures.
And yet –for it is time to stop speaking in superlatives-, there’s no denying that 2,600 pages is a lengthy slog. It’s an open question as to whether it’s best to already have a seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century history degree in order to fully appreciate The Baroque Cycle, or if it’s better to be awed by events as they come along. But for readers with a preference for casual reading, making it to the end of the trilogy means being pummelled by pages and pages of historical minutia, certainly entertaining to a particular audience but a bit of a drag for others. Yet, at other times (usually when Jack Shaftoe is stuck in another impossible situation), the book becomes almost hypnotically readable, with narrative payoffs big enough to make anyone wave their fists in the air in pure glee. The language isn’t nearly as difficult as you may expect from a trilogy set in the Baroque era: the writing, despite a slightly-different vocabulary, feels very contemporary, with a number of linguistic anachronisms (one of them played for laughs as “sounding better in Armenian”) and ironic commentary slipped in-between declarative sentences. Most of the novel is told in the usual focused-third-person POV, but there are occasional digressions in epistolary passages, or theatre-style script-writing. It does nothing to accelerate the pacing of the book, but it does make it easier to follow.
If the trilogy is too long, I suspect that no one will agree as to what deserved to be cut, and if the resulting cuts wouldn’t fatally damage the result. It’s best to read it like a butterfly, spending more time over the interesting sequences while flitting over that seems less interesting. Sure; a lot of fascinating details will disappear that way, but at least you will be able to read the series in less time than it takes to get an undergraduate degree in history.
For genre readers used to the intricacies of science-fiction, the cycle is a unique case study. There’s no denying that it comes from a mindset heavily influenced by science-fiction, and that it is aimed at readers of the same persuasion. Aside from a few overt SF/alternate-history elements that get heavier play in the third volume (unusual gold; long-lived Enoch Root; a few fictional countries; at least one unexplainably science-fictional resurrection), it’s delightfully nerdy in how it stops to explain facets of its universe (sometimes dryly, sometimes not; a sequence in the second volume uses a dinner party entertainment to vulgarize new ideas regarding trade and currency) and unapologetic in its focus on science and economics. It’s, perhaps too bluntly, a historical novel for those who were too busy playing with computers to pay attention in history class –and that’s assuming your history classes even mentioned the Baroque era. It even pushes readers into thinking about the future and consider: Will future historians look at today’s era and see such fundamental changes? What’s almost certain is that there are enough maddening loose ends (most of them related to Enoch Root) to justify a follow-up that will take the events of The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon a bit farther, probably exploring the future of currency.
And while you may blame a certain amount of modified Stockholm reader’s syndrome for my odd affection for the series (if it’s going to hold me hostage for eight weeks, it may start sounding far more reasonable than the rest of the world), it’s probably more exact to give credit to the nerd attitude. While I frequently wished for scissors and a more aggressive editor throughout my entire time with The Baroque Cycle, I emerge from it triumphant, grateful, slightly more educated and quite a bit awed by the entire thing. No one can get through Anathem without understanding on a deep cellular level that Stephenson is a genius; but I could have had that realization a few years earlier had I been more prompt in reading The Baroque Cycle.