One of my summer projects has been to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s a three-volume set which includes eight separate novels he wrote and then combined. I’m a touch intimidated by even trying to summarize, but here goes. The saga ranges over the years 1640-1714 (roughly), following three principal characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a British natural philosopher and non-conformist; Eliza, a woman kidnapped from a remote British isle and abducted into the seraglio, who is later rescued and who subsequently makes her way into the court of Versailles and the world of high finance; and Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, adventurer, galley slave, pirate, and sympathetic everyman who will out-connive everyone unless the Imp of the Perverse compels him toward actions uncommonly glorious. Along the way we meet Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren, Boyle, Locke, Peter the Great, royals of Europe, harpoon-chucking Russians, insidious Jesuits, etc., etc. and are led on great many an escapade in which, as the phrase goes, hilarity ensues.
In some interview Stephenson defines science fiction as fiction that takes ideas seriously, and by that measure this is major league science fiction. There are no robots, cyborgs, or time travel, but we do encounter the beginnings of modern science (promiscuous with alchemy), the transmutation of rare earth metals into coins, credit, and finance, the operations of the British Mint and Royal Society, the various sultanates of Asia, the global slave trade, the manufacturing of watered steel, cryptography, the logistical difficulties of sailing and of naval warfare, the beginnings of steam engines, and the lived experience of London’s sewer problems, with lots of clanging swordplay along the way. None of these are merely glimpsed, but each is explored in such depth as to prompt the reader to wonder who the hell this Neal Stephenson person is and how many heads he might possess. For a guy who, as he says, gets paid to sit on his butt and make stuff up, the achievement of his series is jaw-dropping, and it is a ripping good yarn to boot, all 916 + 815 + 886 pages of it.
The length seems to scare off anyone to whom I’ve recommended this Cycle, though one might stop to consider that Mr. Stephenson wrote out the bloody thing in fountain pen, and (in this day and age) if a fellow believes enough in his project to be willing to do that, why then perhaps we might consider expending the effort to turn the pages. And while I would not put him in the league of novelists whose prose is in fact poetry, his writing does communicate the feeling that he is savoring the language as it emerges from his pen, noting the strangeness of words and how they have come about, relishing in the different speaking styles of his zoo of characters and delighting in how they might reply to one another. (Jack saying, “Let her rip, Ike” to Isaac Newton is one of my favorites.)
I’ve read other books by Stephenson, and clearly this is a guy who likes to understand and explain how things work, or how things came to be as they are (or were). In the same vein, he takes obvious delight in setting up a pivotal showdown. At times I knew I should try to make a map of the scene, because obviously I was missing some of the notable constraints upon the action, but I fell back into trusting the author. Maybe the next time I read it….
I’ll let it go at that. I finished the series last night, with great reluctance, as I will surely miss these characters, especially Daniel. That by itself, I imagine, is the mark of a tale well-told.