The Baroque Cycle
Quicksilver | The Confusion |
The System of the World
I'M REMINDED OF THE film Wonder Boys. An aging
author, played by Michael Douglas, sits down to his
typewriter, to his manuscript, and begins a new page. He
types the page number, "261"—then, glancing down at
the previous page for reference, he appends the digit "1."
He's working on a novel of such outrageous proportions that,
as one of the author's students complains, it even includes
genealogies of its horses.
Perhaps Neal Stephenson came upon this film and—rather
than viewing this manuscript as symbolic of undisciplined
talent, of our tedious literary writers who feel the need
to speak and speak and speak, yet have so very little to say—he saw it as
a challenge. Quicksilver, you see, is not really a 900-page
novel: it's 1/3 of a 2,600 page novel. The Baroque Cycle
is its title, and its second and third installments are
called, respectively, The Confusion and
The System of the World. I realize, in most of
the genres Stephenson melds here—sci. fi., fantasy,
historical fiction, swashbucklers, potboilers, and
miscellaneous other adventure yarns—there is a
precedent for novels published in series. Foundation
comes to mind, or Ender's Game and its sequels,
or the interminable Wheel of Time. These are
stories tied together, deeply connected but separate,
and they come to us slowly, over the course of years.
The three volumes of The Baroque Cycle are to
be published in intervals of six months—written,
certainly, more as one than as three. And if
Quicksilver is any indication, there is no more
effort here to make the volumes singular unto themselves
than there is to do so for each of the multiple books
The proper comparison here is with The Lord of the Rings,
the epic novel in three parts. Rings is a collection
of six books published in three volumes, telling a single story;
and for those of you who watched last year's The Two Towers
(probably most of you), I should not need to explain how poorly each
separate volume stands on its own. The Baroque Cycle is to
be a collection of either seven or eight books in three volumes
(three in the first, two in the second, and either two or three in the third).
It will be over twice the length of Rings, wider in scope (if not
gravity), and peppered with lyrics and poetry and philosophy
(Milton, Defoe, Hobbes,
the King James Bible, et al, and a
bit of verse from Stephenson himself), as well as maps and diagrams
and, yes, even genealogies. I couldn't help but think, reading
Quicksilver, that Stephenson's intention here is to out-epic
And Stephenson does have a few advantages. He need not create a world
of intrigue and magic, a vast tapestry of politics and infighting
and war: They can all be found, he discovers, in the few hubs of
European trade and thought at the dawn of the Enlightenment.
He need not create wizards and magical races and magic itself: The
appeal of these is novelty and the power to change worlds, and
here Stephenson has Isaac Newton and
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—to
name just two who held such power—just at the moment they
He also, as an advantage over Rings, has women and sexual
tension, and of course sex.
QUICKSILVER CONTAINS FOUR STORIES,
give or take, somewhere between
three and a dozen major characters, two separate pirate attacks, executions
in the dozens, and two civil wars (along with a number of the other kind).
It acquaints the reader with four kings and a few of their bastard sons,
and finds itself located mainly in Boston, London, Paris,
Leipzig, and Amsterdam, as well as various points between. To summarize
the plot in any coherent way would probably drive me over the 64K character
limit, as well as drawing hate mail and vicious heckling from the
balcony, so let's just say this, this book that's one third of a novel,
it's big. Fifteen
You get the idea.
Throughout the first book of Quicksilver, we learn parts of the history of
Daniel Waterhouse, a puritan and natural philosopher
(in modern terms, a scientist),
and an advisor to kings, not to mention a friend of Newton and Leibniz. We
follow him through two separate time-lines: the first, story-wise, is his
return trip to England as an old man; the second, his college years and
early adulthood. These alternate chapter-by-chapter, in a rather obnoxious
cliff-hanger sort of way.
Much of Daniel's time, during and after his college years, is spent in the
company of the Royal Society. This English association of natural philosophers
conducts various experiments (many which would not get them invited to any
PETA get-togethers), communicates
with other such groups in continental Europe, and discusses findings. Daniel
finds himself an assistant to Isaac Newton and, as a member of a religious
minority, a diplomat between the various forces within and outside the Society. His
philosophical work is secondary.
As an old man in Boston, Dr. Waterhouse is the founder of the Massachusetts
Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts, or MIT, which is little
more than a log cabin filled with gears and sprockets and springs. He's
spent two decades on this work, and is now being called back to England
by the presumptive Princess of Whales.
The second book leaves Dr. Waterhouse and follows "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe,
an English vagabond who's nickname is an anatomical description, though its
other meaning is appropriate as well. Jack travels Europe, squatting and
stealing and, as a soldier, looting. In the process of the latter, Jack
rescues a Qwghlmian girl named Eliza, who's been enslaved by Turks. The
two travel across Europe in search of riches and adventure and so on.
There is much swashbuckling and cleverness. The relationship between the two,
however, is not as light or romantic as one might expect. Jack's impending
syphilitic insanity and death,
for instance, dampens the mood slightly—as do her flirtations with minor royalty.
In the third book, the stories remain basically separate, but both continue
in parallel. Daniel and Eliza each find themselves embroiled in political games
of all sorts—particularly between Louis XIV of France, James II of
England, and William III of Orange. There is a revolution
on the horizon, as obvious as a thunderhead; at its front are the natural
philosophers of the Royal Society and a few scheming aristocrats in Amsterdam,
and at the center of each group are Daniel Waterhouse and the newly-titled Eliza
de la Zeur.
Quicksilver ends in a beginning, as any Volume One should end in a
beginning—but more than anything, it ends in a six-month wait for us, the
readers—a wait probably necessary after nine hundred pages but certainly not welcomed.
NEAL STEPHENSON IS QUITE
possibly the ideal geek novelist. He wrote the sci. fi.
novel of the nineties, Snow Crash, as a convergence of the best
sci. fi. of the eighties—cyberpunk, or in other words,
William Gibson—with the one thing it was most clearly lacking: irony.
Snow Crash centered around a character named Hiro Protagonist, a
samurai pizza delivery boy and virtuoso hacker (I rest my case).
The novel was filled with the sort of humor that appeals to the average
geek: puns and word-play and non sequiturs. There is a line of descent here from
Douglas Adams and Monty Python—who I have to say, so as not to
offend the geeks out there, are certainly funnier than Stephenson. But the
thing is, he writes hard-edged and significantly visionary sci. fi.,
and he actually has an apparent sense of humor.
Which all makes sense: Stephenson is a geek. He was once a computer programmer
who decided to start writing books. He has this innate obsession with
technology that's driven all of his novels, and he naturally grasps that
peculiar geek brand of humor. Gibson's famously been a late-comer to the technologies
he's described in his fiction, and it's unlikely he'd ever tell a joke involving
the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or Schrödinger's Cat;
Stephenson is the type who would.
And perhaps as important as all of this is that he left science fiction.
With Cryptonomicon, the novel just previous to this one,
Stephenson began to write tech-heavy mainstream fiction. Or, if you
prefer, sci. fi. in which the "science" part is real. His subject in that
novel was cryptography and computing, along with the Second World War.
Cryptonomicon is both a precursor and, it seems, an epilogue
to The Baroque Cycle. They are clearly similar in style and
genre, and separate from his other novels. Cryptonomicon
inspired the research that, in turn, inspired The Baroque Cycle.
Those who've read Cryptonomicon, as well, will have recognized
two of the surnames of characters I mentioned earlier: "Waterhouse" and "Shaftoe."
The central characters of that novel were, mainly, members of modern
generations of these two families.
Qwghlm, the fictional island off the coast of the U.K. that's home to
Quicksilver's Eliza, also plays a part in Cryptonomicon.
A wasteland of jagged rocks and mud, it's understandably quite isolated.
Because of this, its people have a unique and cryptic language, one that
contains no vowels and is unpronounceable to non-natives. This makes it ideal
(like Navajo) for secret communication.
The two novels also share at least one character. Enoch Root (a.k.a.
Enoch the Red), many geeks will be happy to learn, is ageless or
immortal or somehow capable of existing across multiple centuries.
In Quicksilver, he is an alchemist who appears at various
locations (over the course of roughly sixty years, by my calculations), often
Stephenson has confirmed that Enoch Root is indeed the same character
in both novels—which isn't particularly surprising, as his death
was described in the mid-1940's in Cryptonomicon, only to be
glossed over when he appeared in the same novel in the 1990's. Enoch
seems to be Stephenson's all-purpose wizard, handyman, and warrior.
He is a sort of idol to Stephenson's core of geek fans. He's
interesting enough that Stephenson can throw him around inexplicably
without too much complaint.
Quicksilver also contains the origins of the fictional book called
Cryptonomicon, a cryptological text that plays a role in the
real novel of the same name.
QUICKSILVER HAS MANY STRENGTHS—it has many characters worthy of novels
all their own, it has a pace that drives and drives and drives. For its length, there
is a great deal Stephenson does not describe. One often hears of long novels the
complaint that they are "extremely detailed," or so on, which is a polite way of saying
"tedious." My test for this tedium is simply how often I find myself skipping paragraphs,
skipping ahead to the next line of dialog, leaving behind the voice of the narrator
in order to just, well, get on with the story. With Stephenson, I do not do so often.
And as I said earlier, Quicksilver has a draw peculiar, today, to fantasy
novels: the epic sweep, the near-magical power of discovery. The texture of
fantasy. The sword-play and royalty, the peasant wandering dumbfoundedly amongst
ornate castles, mistaken for a Person of Quality. The political intrigue surrounding
struggles for the throne. The intense, ever-present game of appearance and influence
and realpolitik that lie under the surface of the best examples of the genre. It's no
coincidence that the community of hardcore fantasy junkies intersects so heavily with the
Society for Creative Anachronism, with their maces and hand-made chain mail.
Whatever intangible these readers find missing in our time, whatever it is they're
seeking in the past, they'll find also in this novel.
And then there's the science. This time period,
these few short decades, plays host
to an incredible pool of new thinking. Really, it's a new way of thinking,
and the discoveries seem to be simply waiting for someone with a little interest and
time and diligence to come along. It's not a matter of genius. Daniel Waterhouse and his
contemporaries are mostly just curious people who have the time to experiment. We live
in a time when it seems most discoveries are incredibly complex refinements of prior
discovery, and those interested in science can't help but long for the sort of
opening of an entire field of knowledge that takes place in this novel. Good science
fiction deals at least as much with the consequences of its technology as the technology
itself (a classic example of this is the ability to foresee not only the answering
machine, but also that people would use an answering machine to screen calls). Stephenson,
of course, does not have the luxury of forseeing anything, but he certainly
writes of technology with wonder, and has organized this book in such a way as to suggest
that the subject of the two upcoming volumes will be the consequences of this seventeenth-century
burst of knowledge.
There is strength here, and a suggestion of something more, as a whole, to come.
Quicksilver also has its weaknesses. The lack of any point of reference between
its first and second books is disturbing—it's just plain hard to start
reading a completely new story, unexpectedly, after a few hundred pages of the old.
Especially since the old story reaches no real resolution at its end. The future timeline
in the first book, as well, is clumsy and unnecessary. I'd rather not know that Waterhouse
lives into old age prior to seeing him in peril in his youth. It's just not dramatic.
Stephenson's humor is not always on key, and he has a way of being irreverent for its own
sake: the spelling of Qwghlm, for example—it's not particularly funny, and it
diminishes the sense of reality that the reader holds. It reminds me of his "joke" in
Snow Crash of saying that BIOS, a computer term, stands for "Built In Operating
System" (it doesn't). It reminds me of his steady use, in Cryptonomicon, of
"Nipponese" to refer to the Japanese and "Finux" to refer to the operating system Linux.
Stephenson is being different for the sake of being different, which is not the same as
This sort of thing doesn't hurt an absurdist novel like Snow Crash (indeed, on some
level, it probably helps), but in historical fiction it simply deflates the suspension of
disbelief. At one point I closed Quicksilver in disgust, as Eliza and Jack were
discussing the habits of a certain Personage, who eats only "fish that had gone
bad—quite some time ago," and spends his days searching out women who can pass
something called the "sniff-test."
Stephenson also seems to have a strange obsession with kidney stones, which I don't care
to elaborate upon.
And his dialogue here can be difficult to swallow. I first took it as a symptom of Stephenson's
geekdom, his geekness, whatever the word—that he sounds, sometimes, like a fifteen-year-old
dungeon master trying to talk like a medieval nobleman. We readers have a sniff-test of our
own, and the first few stretches of dialogue place somewhere between day-old fish
and the well-spoiled kind. And he's attached to archaic spellings, magicks and technologicks
and æ ligatures, which on its own can be forgiven, but certainly contributes to
the geek idea. But, well, it's simply a matter of growing accustomed to his language:
To write seventeenth-century dialogue in modern idiom would be, plainly, wrong. Comical, even.
But, as this is a twenty-first-century novel, to write it in Shakespearean English would be
wrong as well. Stephenson has settled here on a compromise somewhere between the two—fairly
elaborate English that is easily understood by modern readers, interspersed, occasionally,
with clearly modern phrases. Once you grow accustomed to the smell, it works quite adequately.
Perhaps the strongest feature of this novel, in comparison to Stephenson's others, is simply that
the complete lack of an ending is not, here, much of a detriment. Or, let me put it another way:
If his previous work is any indication, he will not bother to tie together all of the sordid plot-threads
of The Baroque Cycle until three pages from the end. He's notorious for his flaccid
endings—but with Quicksilver, well, at least for now we can hope.
I'll be reading the next two volumes as they come out—if only to see if my theory on horse
genealogies plays out. There's this horse named Turk that . . . well, we'll see.
Quicksilver : Volume One of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
914 pages, Copyright © 2003 by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Quicksilver | The Confusion |
The System of the World
The Baroque Cycle