Saturday, May 3, 2014

If it ain't Barock, please fix it

It's not quite correct to say that Neal Stephenson is prolific, but at the same time it's an almost dangerous understatement. In the 30 years that he's been publishing Stephenson has written about fifteen books, and a book every two years doesn't seem like great shakes when compared to Stephen King or Philip K. Dick's terrifying abilities to grind out novels (56 and 49 respectively that we know of). But, while a book like 11/22/63 requires at least some research and a book like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch requires just a TON of meth, a book like Quicksilver requires a jaw-dropping amount of research and balls the size of a SmartCar just to get started.

Stephenson is described by Cracked.Com's Robert Brockway as a man who "once wrote a book about a virtual-reality bushido master/pizza delivery man named Hiro Protagonist, but has since devoted his entire writing career to meta-history at the expense of all the world's forests" and "who is apparently out to drown the world in his books to avenge some childhood slight."

Stephenson has "only" written about fifteen books, but as near as I can tell at least five of those books are about everything. I know that sounds like an overstatement, but Cryptonomicon is approximately 1000 pages, takes place in two decades and on five continents, and aside from its main plot and characters spends a fair amount of time discussing Chinese currency, municipal building ordinances, RPGs, subsistence patterns of various Native Americans, calculus, the place of technology in mythological structures, and the possibility of mapping the streets of London based on seemingly random data.

When I was researching Stephenson so that I could figure out exactly how much of the universe he's crammed into 15 books I came across the term "maximalism" for the first time and immediately understood it because Stephenson's been showing me maximalism for 10 years and I only just now found the proper term to describe it.

So anyway, that's how Stephenson writes. You thought you were going to just be reading a novel about VR samurai but instead you got to strap in for an exciting discussion of Sumerian mythology and information theory too. FUCK YES.

I'm ashamed to admit it but the first time I saw part of The Baroque Cycle at a bookstore I sneered at it. As best I can recall I was thinking something like "Aw, man, here's this awesome sci-fi/cyberpunk author whose books I love and I'm going to have to stop reading him because he's started writing bullshitty history books." I'd like to go back in time and smack myself in the head for how wrong I was. These books are still sci-fi/cyberpunk(ish) and totally kick-ass, they just happen to take place in the 1600s. Ridiculous anachronism abounds and does wonders to humanize insane geniuses such as Issac Newton and Robert Hooke.

Oh, and the series is freaking enormous. There are eight books in three volumes and each volume is about 900 pages. It's so good. There's so much delicious speculative historical fiction to dive into.

Volume One - Quicksilver

Daniel Waterhouse is the the son of a Puritan and college roommate of Issac Newton; he tries to find his foothold in the world only to deal with plagues, fires, cut-up dogs, and the King of England blowing up his father. Liberal discussion of calculus, pirates, and the Tower of London included.
King of the Vagabonds
Jack Shaftoe, born low and fighting to stay that way, is drawn into bizarre intrigues and rituals by the lovely former slave Eliza. The unlikely pair ask questions about the nature of money and encounter all sorts of obstacles in their attempt to collect, control, or at least follow, specie. Jack has an unfortunate, though much-deserved, interaction with a large harpoon.
As Eliza's knowledge of finances grows she is caught up in drama all around Europe; Dr. Waterhouse has fallen out of Issac's favor but caught the eye of the King of England (not the one who blew up his father, a different king). Waterhouse and Eliza are wrapped up in intrigues separately and together. Dr. Waterhouse wishes he'd known to hydrate more.

Volume Two - The Confusion

Jack Shaftoe has found himself chained to an oar with a scheming cabal of slaves. They manage to free themselves and scrape up some scratch before improbably becoming food for insects and then royals in India. After losing their gains to a pirate queen they convince her that she should finance a ship for them, then sail to Japan, Manila, and cross the Pacific to end up in South America before braving Europe once more.
The Juncto
All that Daniel Waterhouse wants to do is sail away to America but people keep insisting that he owes a debt to England. Daniel's cohorts in the Royal Society work hard to try to gain political control an Eliza takes advantage of the essentially bankrupt island. Daniel convinces Sir Issac Newton that he might be good at running the Mint as the debate between Newton and Liebniz grows in furor and venom.

Volume Three - The System of the World

Solomon's Gold
Daniel Waterhouse makes it back to London just in time to be almost blown up by an Infernal Device. Jack Shaftoe is messing with money and causing Issac Newton no end of trouble, while Eliza is embroiled in the intrigues of the Hanoverian court because of the death of Electress Sophie.
Eliza and Daniel work together to improve technology, end slavery, and un-fuck England. Daniel and Issac manage to chase down and capture Jack on the eve of an enormous upheaval that sends Princess Caroline rushing out of the country, but no one but Jack knows what's been done to the Pyx, a box that holds samples of money as a safeguard for the mint. Peter the Great makes a stop in London and terrifies essentially everyone with his size and frustration.
The System of the World
Since Daniel and Issac have found out that Jack was responsible for polluting the Pyx they have been trying to track down the parties responsible for Jack. One Charles White becomes problematic until he is disposed of by a cannon duel, which really only makes him more trouble. Jack is hung at Tyburn before a Mobb that disapproves of the situation at exactly the same time as Daniel is busy acting as Issac's alchemical understudy and fighting off death by arcane means. Everything is an enormous mess, but in the end it looks like London is as much better off for having burned metaphorically as literally.

I have no idea how to review, or even effectively summarize, these wonderful books. They are too full and rich and startlingly dense for me to even say what they're about. I could spend fifteen hundred words describing one percent of this series and then I'd still have only described one percent and you'd have no idea what they're really talking about. But basically they're about an elderly scholar and a middle-aged criminal saving the world with the help of a harem slave, several savants, a watchmaker gone bad, half of the royalty in Europe, and one immortal wizard.

Good luck parsing that. And please read The Baroque Cycle because it kicks three thousand pages of ass.
     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. Harper Collins. New York: New York. 2003.
Stephenson, Neal. The Confusion. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2005.
Stephenson, Neal. The System of the World. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2005.

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