Book-A-Month - May 2009 (Finally)

I started reading Quicksilver, the first volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, in 2005. I put it down after about 30 or 40 pages — it was too dense for me to get into quickly. I had read so many others of his books and loved them that it was more than a little disheartening that I would encounter this novel by my favorite author that was undesirable to continue reading. Every so often, I’d pick it back up and chug along, ending up around the 100-page mark. I took it on every camping trip and vacation, always putting in some modicum of effort to move forward, trying to remember the important details from my previous attempts.

In 2008, I made a personal goal to finish the entire Baroque Cycle in the next three years. I had just received the next two volumes for Christmas, neatly totaling 1703 pages between them. In that year, I did not end up getting to either of these two new volumes, even after finishing Quicksilver last February, which I had actually started to greatly enjoy. So this January when I did my annual re-evaluation of goals, I decided to be a bit harsher on myself and decided that I needed to read the rest of TBS this year, which necessitated that I get started, and do it very quickly. in February I decided to plunge in and start reading The Confusion. This was supposed to take two months, and though I took a break in March to read Watchmen and V for Vendetta, it has ended up taking me over four months. It was continually discouraging to see this ridiculous-length text go on forever and ever. Across three volumes, the entire story takes so long to unfold. There are numerous side-plots and pieces of background which you’re not sure quite how relevant they are. The story of Bob Shaftoe, for instance, and his military field service was interesting, but I really have yet to understand how relevant that was to the main plot. Maybe that’s wrapped up more in The System of the World, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

Anyway, I really (really) liked this book. Its biggest fault, or biggest draw, is still the verbosity-factor, and that’s the case with a lot of Stephenson’s works. Had I longer stretches of time to myself, it wouldn’t even be a question. I’d sit down and knock out The System of the World in a week or two instead of the likely two to four months that it’s actually going to take. The books are that interesting, which is good, because my wife keeps looking over and asking if I’m still enjoying yourself, and I am. Now that I am two-thirds of the way through the story and have an understanding of Stephenson has composed these books, the plot is really compelling. I want to keep reading them. I’ll have to jump on the next book.

In terms of a review, the book is fantastic. You really do need to have read Quicksilver prior to reading The Confusion, and I actually had to go back and look up several details I had forgotten. For instance, I couldn’t remember exactly how Jack received his nickname “Half-Cocked”, and really thought it should have been funnier than it was. I also couldn’t remember why Eliza didn’t have a last name and it turns out she just doesn’t have one or it’s left out and no one bothers to ask. In high French Society, unless you were d’something, it didn’t really matter so long as you have a title. As the Duchess of Qwghlm and of Arcachon, she has titles, and so for the entirety of The Confusion, no one pays it any attention. Somehow it’s glossed over in Quicksilver, and I couldn’t find a good reference as to why.

I thought that Stephenson didn’t spend nearly enough time on Waterhouse’s, and consequently Newton’s, story line in this book. He covered a lot of it in Quicksilver — the political divergences of the late 17th century, the formation of the Royal Society, the military actions of that time, Jack and Eliza’s adventures in eastern Europe, Daniel’s journey from Boston back to England — which were all very interesting. I really missed it in The Confusion, which was 80% about Jack and his adventures as galley slave/king/pirate in Eurasia, Eliza in high France and the other side of Cryptology and Natural Philosophy with Bonaventure Rossignol, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier and Gottfried Leibnitz. Maybe a bit too much about high France.

Stephenson does such a great job of using real history’s characters and their actions as a plot background. He takes history and inserts Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and of course, Enoch Root) and makes them the unnamed companions to existing historical figures. It’s a really great way to set the stage within the world of the real, but give yourself enough artistic license to write two-thousand pages about what didn’t really happen within what did.

Enoch Root is still an interesting character, and by far one of the best across any of Stephenson’s works. We finally start to get an understanding of who or what he is in this book, though I understand from online posts that we learn even more in The System of the World regarding his consumption of the elixir vitae and his “immortality”. I love that Stephenson has Root say “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo.” I wonder if Neal will bring him back in the future timeline he describes in an interview in 1999 from Locus Magazine, now that we’ve read the one set in the past:

I have two sequels to Cryptonomicon planned, but they’re in different time lines. I’m trying not to give the idea that it’s a tightly locked together set of books. They’re supposed to work as stand-alones. There are always a few strange little corners of the story that may not make sense outside of the context of the full series, but 99% of it can stand on its own reasonably well, I hope. It’s kind of a wink to the science fiction readers out there: “See, it really is a science fiction book!”

I have one volume left; The System of the World clocks in at 882 pages not including the four pages of acknowledgments, which I will certainly read. I am hoping that I can get through all of it by the end of the summer. I think, however, that I am going to take a break. My wife picked up a book by Malcom Gladwell titled The Tipping Point. She has two other books to read before it, so I’ll probably sneak it in for June. It looks pretty interesting, and I think I need something that isn’t set in the early 18th century to “cleanse the palate”. I’ll go back to The System of the World in the summer and try to finish up before my son’s first birthday.

And, for anyone who has gotten this far, Sculpting in Solid Mercury (via BoingBoing and Popular Science):

Jun 4th, 2009