I just finished Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a twenty-six-hundred-some-odd page novel stretching from, approximately, the time Isaac Newton entered Trinity College until 1714, shortly after George I ascended the throne of England. It is the story of the Royal Society and the birth of science, of the modern conception of money and markets and the forces that created them. It’s the story of the rise of the British empire, or its beginning, at any rate.
It’s one crazy book, or, looked at another way, three crazy books. It’s a very postmodern historical novel, the beginning of the 18th century viewed very much through the lens of the 21st. It’s liberally sprinkled with deliberate anachronism both verbal and material. It starts out as two stories–one, a tale of the beginnings of the Royal Society and late-17th-century England, and another, an improbable, swashbuckling picaroon romance that traces the life of one Half-cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, and another Eliza, former Turkish slave-girl become financier and duchess. Then–and this is the genius of Stephenson–the two tie together and in the last thousand pages or so become one and the same, a swashbuckling picaroon romance about the beginnings of science and the modern political-economic system. Along the way there are long detours through the courts of Versaille and Hanover and London and the Hague, with diverse wars, pirate-battles, Hindu kings, African queens, hangings, trysts, battles, plots, counter-plots, prison escapes, and derring-do galore.
Stephenson’s prose jumps from storyline to storyline, and indeed from timeline to timeline, almost from page to page. This frenetic non-linear pacing for which Stephenson has been both acclaimed and declaimed can, in the context of a story involving literally dozens of major characters and almost as many sub-plots at any given time, get very confusing.
There are Neal Stephenson books I’d recommend without reservation–The Diamond Age, Zodiac, The Big U–and at least one–Snow Crash–that I consider mandatory reading. This is really neither. It’s one of the most epic tales I’ve ever read, and certainly one of the longest. It had me up at all hours, turning page after page, and left me feeling I knew a good bit more about the world and the way it worked than I had when I started. If I ever run into anyone else who’s read it, I intend to sit down and hold a conversation about it for hours on end, if for nothing else then to squeeze more profit from the several months I spent reading it.
It is, on the other hand, an extraordinarily dense work, with Stephensonian digression taken to the most extreme. Treatises technological or metaphysical adorn almost every page, and are often put in the mouths of characters in such a way as makes for the clunkiest dialogue imaginable. If you are interested in the calculus, or the structure of markets, or how they came to be, or fin de siecle European politics, or any or most of a thousand other things, then this is definitely the book for you. If not…well…
A failure? No. For everyone? Certainly not. Read some other Stephenson first, and if you like it, slowly work your way up to this behemoth.