Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle

This is slightly off topic, but since I know _some_ people on this list enjoyed snow crash and cryptonomicon, it seems ok to say a few works

The author and his work appear to be the same thing.

So I finally finished the 3rd volume The System of the World, Volume II is The Confusion, Volume I was Quicksilver, of the Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stepenson. It was fun,

in the end.

In fact, near the end was an awful, awful pun, which gave me to believe that the entire work might be considered some terrible shaggy dog story. Certainly, there's quite a bit of "cop out" going on (most the happy ending involes certain suspensions of disbelieve and generally one coming to terms with liking most of the "characters"

A failing NS shares with many authors in this genre is the lack of rich characterisation, but then he more than makes up for it in plot, subplot, rant, sub rant, and some (partly bogus) historical (and linguistic) depth of detail.

The author's website alludes to someone reviewing him as Umberto Eco without the charm - I think thats a little unfair - the books have character of some charm, as well as ruthlessness - there's cerainly the same old same old post-structuralist tricks, found work (fake), real people (Newton, Leibnitz various royalty) as well as fictional - - some of the made-up people are linked with characters in The Cryptonomicon (the Waterhouse and Shaftoe dynasties, Enoch Root himself, etc).

The raw themes of the 3 works are alchemy, the emergence of the market as a way to organise the world, and the origins of the debate about the ascendency Philosophy and Phyics (basically, possibly meant to be a metaphor of the 21st centure re-emergence of metaphysics, but in the Baroque period, the debate was about whether action at a distance (gravity) could be evidence of god, or the lack of god - the idea that there might be alternatives to the physics (animal/vegetable etc) systems of organisation - presaging the now ascendancy of bio-science as the pre-eminent system of the world, comapred to the 17th and 20th century where physics with mechanics, optics, electromagnetism, relativity and quantum mechanics) .

So a plus point with NS's writing at the detailed levelis the ability he has to pace scenes (you can tell that, like writers like Stephen King, he's a film fan), like screenplays - you WANT someone to buy the film righrs - you want it to be Ridley Scott (or Ridley Walker:)

A minus point is the lack of brevity - like me (like Stephen King) he's just not learned to precis. In the Baroque Cycle, I think he gets away with it for one special reason - to wax prolix is consistent with the Baroque writing of the time. Plus the rants are ornate, and like the comic riffs in Snow Crash, I found them amusing. But he needs an editor with more sway.

If you are into ersatz baroque writing, check out The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth. If you are into post-structuralism, definitely check out Umberto Eco (obviosuly the Name of the Rose, which also has many moments of Longeur)

If you want to see sublime Science Fiction, Post Structuralism and style, read Jorge Luis Borges or early short stories by Theodore Sturgeon.

The best bits 1/ There's a fight between half-cock Jack, King of Vagabonds and his corsairs, and the arabs in Egypt in book I. 2/ There's a fantastic discussion by Eliza of how the Bourse is really going to work in future in book II 3/ I quite like the action bits (e.g the invasion of the tower of London by Absail from the Monument to the great fire of London, or the trial of the Pyx:) but the fruitless debate between the joint creators of calculus in volume III is pretty neat.

A lot of this is set in London - if you want a better evocation of London over variouus parts of this period, read just about anything by Peter Ackroyd.

Some is set in Japan - read Murakami

Some is in 18th century New England - read (seee above) John Barth for example - actually for a wnderful fake work, see Giles Goatboy, essential reading for academics... ... ...especially if you work at Hogwarts ^H^H^H^H^

no, I do not know NS, nor do I play his agent on TV, nor has he slipped me 10 pieces of silver or any solomonic gold, more's the pity

  • p.s. I dont vouch for any of the accuracy of this review - if you wanna run an integrity check, you are going to have to read the three volumes, then spend 47 years being me, which will entail going back in time 47 years to start with and replacing me, so then no-one will know except you (I did it, so I know, so I know you can too:)
  • p.p.s I used to write sci fi stories (published:), but realised most writers do it because they can't do science
  • p.p.p.s one or more of these postscripts are wampeta, foma or granfalloons
  • p.p.p.p.s if you want to borrow any of the books cited above, or alluded to, then please feel free to contact me in my office next week. There is a late return fee