“The Baroque Cycle”

January 24th, 2005

(I have recently been requested, by my most vital critic, to shorten my sentences and attempt to reduce the number of clauses, juggled hither and yon, that populate my prose divided only by ephemeral commas. To which I can only respond that reviewing The Baroque Cycle, particularly having just come from reading it, is not the best lead-in to such a reformation.) As a reader, and particularly as a reader of “genre” fiction, there are two key principles which I seek to find in the material I select for said entertainment: Distraction, and Enlightenment. Distraction should be self-evident, and one would think relatively easy to accomplish, but may actually be the more difficult to achieve. In order to effectively distract a modern, intelligent reader, one must grasp both a degree of the novelty that is vanishingly scarce in our media-flooded world; and present it in such a fashion, and at a sufficient pace, as to maintain the focus of our attention deficient brains. Enlightenment may, on the other hand, be found in numerous and varying degrees, at least in the definition of such that I intend. By “enlightenment,” I mean the expanding of one’s perception in some regard. This can be accomplished the hard way, through inculcation of philosophical concepts and principles, or in diverse small ways, through the introduction of minute bits of knowledge about the way the world works through metaphorical vehicles the student can relate to those principles of the world they already grasp through their own observations; and all but the poorest of “Science Fiction” could be said to attempt the latter. Stephenson, in “The Baroque Cycle,” not only Distracts the reader so thoroughly that they must take care lest it intrude upon their personal and professional lives, but he also Enlightens us as he shows us the ways in which this world called “modern” came to be. In truth, these are not three different novels, but one ginormous one divided into three physical books, which are reviewed below… In Quicksilver, the first of these mammoth, doorstop books (I’m convinced that the name “Baroque Cycle” is due in greater part to the books’ physically massive and ornate natures than to the setting in which they are placed; with their classically decorated covers, rough-cut leaves of paper, and beautiful metallic dust covers, anyone should be proud to have these 900+ page beauties on their shelf) we are introduced to a diverse cast of characters from every class which Europe of the 17th century had established. One of our primary players is Daniel Waterhouse, son of a (in)famous Puritan Revolutionary who raised him in a certainty that the Apocalypse was soon to come, and that his son must lead the way. He was schooled by many of the finest scholars of the land, and found to be a quick study in most all matters that were coming to be known as “Natural Philosophy,” though not so quick as his roommate and best friend, the one and only Isaac Newton himself. Another of the primary players is a young man who has already made a name for himself, in a way. His infamy requires no parenthetical qualification. He is famous for being the most outrageous of the criminals and simple paupers who wander Europe trying their best to survive; he is Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds. Mutilated in a…distinctive way, branded from a young age as a Vagabond, but clever and lucky nearly beyond belief, Jack seeks only some measure of comfort and easy living until he encounters Eliza. Eliza, our final primary, is a gifted young woman with a bizarre past. Abducted by piratical raiders from the small, desolate, and improbably named island of Qwlghm off the coast of England when she was only a child, she was sold into slavery and the harem of the Turkish Emperor. She and Jack find themselves thrown together, sitting on a very small fortune, and falling (quite hopelessly) for one another. Students of Stephenson’s previous works will already be saying “Hey, wait a minute…” Indeed, this work is a “prequel” of sorts to Stephenson’s likewise brilliant Cryptonomicon, and one which accomplishes that interesting feat of adding potentially dramatic new interpretations on the work that has come before it. One particular character, in fact, appears in both novels; no small feat considering over 200 years seperate their events from one another at their closest. Quicksilver focuses in the largest part on Daniel and Isaac, discovering the Calculus and other fascinating aspects of our world that are so self-evident to us in our modern age, but were startling and transformative realizations in this, the Age of Enlightenment. Change, as signified by its title, is the signature aspect of this book. Europe in general, and England in particular, went through such a startling amount of changes in the middle and latter half of the 16th…changes in religion, in class structures, economic transactions…in nearly every way in which humanity perceived itself and the world which surrounded it, things changed. The “Glorious Revolution,” the Black Death, the Fire of London, the formation of the Royal Society…great and terrible events one stacked right on top of another, and vividly portayed to us through the lives of Jack, Eliza, and particularly Daniel. If you weren’t interested in this period before reading Quicksilver, you likely will be afterwards. The second book in the Cycle, The Confusion, has a title which is a sort of a pun, referring both to the disorientation that we think of as confusion, and to the metallurgical process of fusing two base metals into an alloy. Daniel takes a backseat in this part of the story, although his part of the tale brackets the main events of the book. This book explores, through the rousing adventures and misadventures of Jack, the state of the rest of the world in which our tale is set. His story also brings into the tale a great deal of gold, and not just any gold, but gold the likes of which noone else has access to, though many seek it. It shall be Jack’s vindication and torment for the majority of the rest of his life. Eliza’s part of The Confusion is, for those of a certain bent (mine, certainly) the more interesting portion. Eliza, through her sex appeal and her singularly brilliant head for finances, rises from a state of near pauperdom to highest nobility, consorting with the Kings, Dukes, and Barons of Continental Europe and playing a part in the revolution of international finances into the system of exchanges of stocks, commodities, and currencies which we currently possess. It is a story of sex, espionage, motherhood, and cryptography in the world of 17th century high finance, which may sound a bit odd at first hearing, but Stephenson makes work in a very compelling way. The final book of “The Baroque Cycle” has seen some criticism based upon, of all things, its title The System of the World, which some people apparently took as arrogant and irreverent. I wonder if, were they confronted with Sir Isaac Newton face-to-face, they would say the same to him for his choice to give the same name to the sequel to the Principia Mathematica? Likewise Newton’s often overlooked and comparatively unsung German rival Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz sought to accomplish much the same thing with his Monadology. These two, who arrived at the invention of the Calculus at roughly the same time following independent “philosophical” trails to do so, are in some ways the focus of the third book, although it is told almost entirely from the perspective of our old friend Daniel Waterhouse. Newton has been busy for the past twenty years running the British Mint in the Tower of London with great success, but has had to apply his intellect in ways that can be quite surprising in pursuit of counterfeiters, chief of whom is his nemesis Jack the Coiner, none other than the King of the Vagabonds come back to his childhood home to, for various reasons, attempt to debase and discredit the currency of England (which has become the finest in all the world). Daniel has returned from Massachusetts to attempt to reconcile Newton and Liebniz, a vital issue since the Germans (Liebniz’s primary employers), in the form of the Hanovers, are (probably) about to take over the rulership of England and would prefer for their savants to be working jointly instead of at loggerheads. Unfortunately, Daniel has not even settled into his lodging in London before he is nearly blown up by an “Infernal Device,” and finds himself seeking out Jack the Coiner along with Newton and several other fellows. This book has politics, finance, and adventure galore, blending together as Daniel, Eliza, and Jack weave in and around one another to create a magnificent (and, my goodness, a “genre” tip-of-the-hat!) conclusion to a truly epic work. Beautifully crafted and truly satisfying in the way that the “hurried wrap-up” of some of Stephenson’s prior works have not been, this is an ending to savor, and a series that I look forward to rereading sometime soon… Most highly recommended.

One Response to ““The Baroque Cycle””

  1. Trey says:

    Heh. Beautiful intro.

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