A Note …

Upon Reading the First Ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

It is a Frolick, a Cornucopia of interesting things, a narrative of the discovery of the calculus, scientific feuds, dissection, Religious Dissent, changing fashions in art, the return of comedy to the English stage, computation, coinage, banking and much, much more. One of the Leading Characters, Daniel Waterhous, is a bit of a Forrest Gump of history, accidentally giving New York its name here, helping the young Benjamin Franklin there, keeping Isaac Newton alive as an undergrad, and so forth.

It’s not particularly a Novel, certainly not all that interested in character and personality. As a friend of mine once remarked about Patrick O’Brian, history drives the plot, rather than artistic concerns. This makes it appear a bit haphazard at times, and Stephenson is also prone to winks at the audience (there is a demo of a computer) that strike me as forced.

More interesting, however, is the Argument of the Work: That the Baroque period is the birth of modern Europe. The Wars of Religion have given way to dynastic and territorial concerns. Alchemy is fading, outshone by Natural Philosophy. Paper money is on its way in, along with joint stock companies and global markets. England’s Glorious Revolution (a Dutch invasion) will put paid to Divine Right, at least in that part of the continent, completing Cromwell’s work. Christendom is being replaced by Europe.

In politics, the Argument is not bad. By convention, the Peace of Westfalia is the beginning of the modern state system, particularly the notions of sovereignty and non-interference. (These are eroding today, but that’s another story entirely.) While that’s a bit before the story begins, the period that Stephenson is writing about is the time when the system comes together. We’ll see how the Argument holds up over the next 2700 pages.

In his acknowledgements, Stephenson indirectly addresses the size of the work:

Many other scholarly works were consulted during this project, and space does not permit mentioning them here. Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill’s six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

3 thoughts on “A Note …

  1. Indeed. One of Winston’s less remarked achievements was to introduce industrialisation to the production of historical works – 4 volumes in The World Crisis, 6 on the Second World War, 6 on Marlborough, another stack on the English-Speaking Peoples, he never left anything short of words. Or rather, he and his flocks of assistants, researchers, secretaries and other examples of the division of labour..

  2. The Baroque Cycle was wonderful. It may have been ~3,000 pages long, but I at least didn’t want it to end.

    That said, it’s an odd piece of work. The three novels have pretty much the same characters (there are some casualties), but the tone and the themes of the books shift around quite sharply.

    Daniel Waterhouse as Forrest Gump: it isn’t /entirely/ so. One thing you have to get your head around is that Dan is set up (very deliberately, I think) as an unorthodox hero. He’s a physical coward — this is a major plot point in the first and third books — and a bit of a depressive. This makes him seem odd if not downright unappetizing to some readers.

    But there’s a lot to like about Daniel. He’s not a moral coward, at all; he’s a very keen observer; he’s smart and dryly funny; and he’s got that whole relentless Puritan self-examination thing going.

    I will tell you that a certain number of readers over on rec.arts.sf.written absolutely hated the end of the first book, which places Daniel in a distinctly unheroic situation. But I utterly loved it. Get back when you’ve finished it and let’s discuss.

    Oh, yeah: it’s a very European book, albeit from an English POV. So entirely appropriate for this blog.

    Doug m.

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