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The Baroque Cycle

October 6th, 2004 (04:45 pm)

I recently finished The System of the World, the conclusion to Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and cvirtue asked me what the trilogy was about. This is a large question--the three books total about 2700 pages--but here goes.

First, the superficial level: it's about main two characters, Daniel Waterhouse and Jack Shaftoe. (From the names, one assumes these are ancestral to the Waterhouses and Shaftoes of the 1940s and 2000s, from Cryptonomicon; but that never really matters to the story.)

Daniel is a friend of both Newton and Leibniz (tricky, since they're rivals), and the son of a major leader of the Puritans in the Civil War. We see him throughout his life--which mostly means from the time he meets Newton, and rooms with him, at Cambridge. He grows up; he joins the Royal Society; he builds a reputation; he rubs shoulders with the great. We see a man, a Natural Philosopher, who is struggling to cope with the changes we now call the Enlightenment. All through his life, too, he is trying to do the right thing by his friend Isaac, even when they are estranged for decades at a time.

Jack, on the other hand, is almost an opposite of Daniel. He's a poor Vagabond, and definitely not a rationalist; instead, he is hounded by the Imp of the Perverse. At the Siege of Vienna, his Imp prods him into rescuing a harem slave named Eliza, and she talks him into a partnership whereby she undertakes to sell his loot from Vienna. She turns out to have a first-rate mind, in addition to the, ah, skills she picked up in the seraglio. Jack spends the rest of his life in love with her, even when they are estranged for decades at a time.

On the more abstract level, the Baroque Cycle is about large issues that came to a head in Newton's generation, and still face us today: Free Will versus Predestination; Materialism versus Vitalism versus Monads (what we would now call cellular automata); the meaning of money; Monarchy versus Mob Rule. At least one of these wasn't made explicit until the last third of the last book, but turned out to have been prefigured by what had gone before.

Oh, and there's a lot about Alchemy, which was one of Newton's interests. It's presented pretty well; Daniel is skeptical of it, but we still get enough bits of narration explaining its precepts that you can understand the Alchemickal viewpoint as you go along.

And there's a background theme, which I will express in the words of Miles Vorkosigan: "How shall we be true to one another?" Daniel is bound by many loyalties: to his father, to Isaac, to his mentors in the Royal Society, sometimes to his king. He navigates these shoals with difficulty. Jack, as a Vagabond, seems to have more freedom, and fewer loyalties to divide him. But, at bottom, he has no less difficulty resolving his conflicts than Daniel does with his.


Posted by: Siderea (siderea)
Posted at: October 6th, 2004 07:46 pm (UTC)

OK, my burning question is, having loathed Quicksilver, should I bother pressing on?

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: October 7th, 2004 05:25 am (UTC)

Probably not. I mean, obviously it depends on why you loathed Quicksilver; but I can say that the remaining 1800 pages are about the same characters, and are in a similar style, so I wouldn't expect you to like them any better.

Posted by: JT (learnteach)
Posted at: October 7th, 2004 05:47 am (UTC)

Just picked up the book here in Amsterdam (I'm on a bit of a walkabout.) And...the burning question which I will know soon...is he any better at ending than he was? He's always weak on endings...

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: October 7th, 2004 06:05 am (UTC)
Re: Wow!

Mmm...better, yeah, but not a whole lot better. Better than Snow Crash, maybe better than Cryptonomicon. The same pattern, though: a long story leading up to a final climax to resolve the conflicts, followed by tea and buns all round. In this case, there were at least three ongoing conflicts to resolve, and some of them did better than others.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: October 7th, 2004 09:27 am (UTC)
Stephenson endings

I actually just finished a re-read of Snow Crash. I think it could have *used* some "tea and buns all round". One of my problems with his endings is that they're so abrupt. The action gets resolved, and then pretty much immediately "The End", with no time for either the characters or the reader to decompress.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: October 7th, 2004 09:38 am (UTC)
Re: Stephenson endings

Yeah. The System of the World is sort of a halfway fix: it has an Epilogue, showing the surviving protagonists in their new situtations. It doesn't answer all the questions you'd want it to, though.

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