Neal Stephenson has, from his first novel, displayed a couple of highly sought-after writerly talents: a yarn-spinning ability that is almost divinely Irish, as if his mother had given birth to him atop the Blarney Stone; and a knack for language that makes his books tower above those of other science fiction and adventure-thriller writers. Zodiac (usually listed as his first novel, but in fact his second, after U) told the story of a group of all-but-in-name Earth First! direct-activists. This was followed by his break-out novel, the mind-boggling Snow Crash, which revealed a fascination that has held Stephenson’s gaze ever since: cryptography. From the peak of Snow Crash there was a bit of a downhill slide, to The Diamond Age, and then Cryptonomicon. The latter of these two was a disappointment: Stephenson’s prose had dipped into the merely workmanlike (though still head-and-shoulders above the other “cyberpunks” his was classed with after Snow Crash), and the story was, while full of twists and turns and surprises, that of a fairly straightforward thriller.
Now Stephenson’s dropped The Bomb — a vast saga called The Baroque Cycle. We have two volumes so far, with the third and final volume, The System of the World, due out in September. Already comprising 1,700-some pages, the Cycle is a history of seventeenth-century science, in the broadest sense of that term, wrapped in a picaresque adventure story so far-flung that by the end of the second volume, The Confusion, we’ve already sailed around the globe with co-protagonist Jack Shaftoe and his Cabal. (Cryptonomicon readers will recognize the name Shaftoe; there are a number of parallels between that novel and the new Cycle. Jack, about to get annoyed because he’s heard it all before, at one point asks, “Is this going to be one of those yarns about… some sunken treasure-ship?” Sunken treasure was, of course, the raison d’etre of Cryptonomicon.) By the time the Cycle is finished, we should have some 2,500 pages of historical fiction which bracket the life of two key players of that era. The Baroque Cycle is indeed The Bomb, and it’s pure, uncut funked-up fun.
Isaac Newton and Gottfreid Leibniz were independent co-discoverers (or inventors, depending on your penchant, or lack thereof, for platonic forms) of the calculus, the mathematical tool used by physicists and engineers to describe bodies in motion. The development of calculus, though largely unsung in high school and undergrad history-of-science classes, is as important as Newton’s discovery of the inverse-square law in relation to gravity: he couldn’t have found the latter without the former. From this co-discovery, there developed an infamous rivalry. We typically think Newton won, as he is usually given credit for calculus; but, in fact, it’s Leibniz’s notation and nomenclature that we use when we learn and use calculus. It’s the lives of the gay Newton and the celibate Leibniz that bracket the time frame of The Baroque Cycle. However, we get much more of Newton as a young man, in the first volume, Quicksilver, told from the point of view of one of the early members of the Royal Society, Daniel Waterhouse. Leibniz kicks in later, especially in The Confusion, where we get a fine lesson on his infamously difficult monadology.
Waterhouse had every right to say, “I coulda been a contender” in the world of science. He was Newton’s roommate at Oxford, and worked with Hooke, Oldenburg and other luminaries of what was rapidly becoming the Enlightenment. But his lack of courage, his fear of confrontation, and his desire to just get along and be liked, cut that path off: then, as now, the social “niceties” of science made for a fierce mistress. Instead he became a courtier in mid-life, and a damn good one. Waterhouse lived in a tumultuous time: the Civil War in England that took the head of Charles off his neck and brought Cromwell to power, a restoration that put Catholics briefly back in charge, and a “Glorious Revolution” that put William and Mary, Dutch Protestants, on the throne of England. Eventually, Waterhouse sailed away from all the fun, emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and worked on Leibniz’s binary logic machine—the earliest forerunner of the modern computer.
Quicksilver begins with the relationship of Waterhouse and Newton, a relationship that never quite makes them lovers. After a few hundred pages, though, we’re introduced to the Shaftoe brothers, Bob and Jack, “mudlarks” from the gritty London slums. These two enterprising lads, in their opening scene, have started a successful business: they grab the dangling legs of hanged men to more quickly dispatch them (i.e., better a quick death from a broken neck than a slow one by strangulation). Such dear, sweet boys. Later, we find Jack in Germany and heading East. Beneath a Vienna under siege by Turks, Jack meets his co-protagonist and lady love, the harem slave and (temporarily former) duchess of Qwghlm, Eliza. (How to pronounce “Qwghlm”? Try a palatal fricative followed by a glottal fricative spitting into a liquid stopping somewhere in the nasal passages: if you pronounce this fictional way-north-of-Ireland island’s name while swallowing a mouthful of milk, you’ll know you’ve got it right when the milk comes squirting out your nose. Please be careful.)
Eliza is a great beauty enslaved, along with her mother, on the beach of Qwghlm. (In The Confusion, the stunning Eliza notes that “in a world full of men who only wanted to take her to bed, it was somehow comforting to know that there was one who, given the opportunity, would prefer to read through a big pile of stolen correspondence.” That one being Louis XIV’s cryptographer.) Eliza and her mother are separated forever when Eliza is traded for a horse (a very valuable horse, but still!) by a French duke to an Ottoman caliph. Eliza is your prototypical abolitionist, at least once she is removed from the Turk’s harem by Jack and has a chance to once again pursue her destiny. And this is where the history of science that underpins The Baroque Cycle widens out: Eliza is the mother of modern commercial economics, and we get many a funny lesson in the transition of European economies from land-based to market-based capitalism. Funny, yes, but the Cycle is not without its subtle, politicized jabs at the history of capital, as in this thought from Daniel Defoe, used as an epigram in The Confusion: “We say of some Nations, the People are lazy, but we should say only, they are poor; Poverty is the Fountain of all Manner of Idleness.”
Jack and Eliza wend there way back west, with a long stopover in Germany, where they meet Leibniz and an alchemist, Enoch Root. They end up in Amsterdam, where Eliza proceeds to make a fortune wheeling and dealing. After a falling out with Eliza, Jack sets out on an ill-advised sea voyage — only to be captured by pirates and sold as a galley slave. Thus ends Quicksilver, with Jack’s fate an unknown quantity in motion — just the sort of calculus an author needs to suck a reader into the second volume of the Cycle.
If anything, volume two, The Confusion, is even more exciting and funny than the first, which drags a little toward the end in a long series of letters between Eliza and various “Persons of Quality” with whom she is concocting intrigues. In The Confusion, Jack joins up with a group of his fellow slaves to form the Cabal and implement the Plan.
The Plan involves a large quantity of very valuable metal (presumably silver from Mexico, but it turns out to be something else, and worth much, much more) and playing several greedy ends against the middle. The Cabal pulls off the Plan, and sail (and row) away with quite a haul. In the process, Jack and Cabal company have burned their European bridges behind them, so it’s off to India, the Malabar coast, more adventures, much loss and gain of life and treasure, and eventually a voyage around the world.
Meanwhile, Eliza loses her fortune to a French privateer, Jean Bart (“Black Bart,” the English called him), only to make another one. “Now as you may know,” she writes to one of her allies, “every pirate and privateer has lurking within him the soul of an accountant.” The Cycle is full of such resonances between the present Age of Enron and the epoch in which the books are set.
Stephenson’s style in this epic is diamond bright, his wit razor sharp, and he brings to bear a ocean-vast knowledge of history and science. The late seventeenth century was a period of rapid intellectual and political change. As one princess write to another, “The upheavals of the last twenty years have been unbelievable: the kingdoms of England, Holland, and Spain have been transformed as fast as scenery in a theatre. When later generations come to read about our history they will think they are reading a romance, and not believe a word of it.” Not every character, and not every scene, in The Baroque Cycle is true: but there’s enough truth mixed with fiction to make these volumes (at least the two we’ve got so far) both a challenging lesson and a pleasurable read.