Book review: "The Baroque Cycle" trilogy by Neal Stephenson

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This is a review of "The Baroque Cycle" trilogy: "Quicksilver", "The Confusion", "The System Of The World" by Neal Stephenson.

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There are no essential spoilers in this review.

This is Neal Stephenson's latest series of books. History, alchemy, the birth of modern science, pirates and treasures and distant seas - it's all there, in The Baroque Cycle. And there's a trace of cyberpunk, and there's also a trace of the stately and staid style of the writers of old... A multifaceted book that boggles the mind.
How did everything got glued together? Read on to find out.

Neal Stephenson is a heterogeneous author. His style changed a lot since his earliest books, and it does not give firm signs of stabilizing into a definitive shape.
In the beginning, there was the author of "Zodiac" and "Snowcrash" - one of the best products of the cyberpunk current within the larger area of the SciFi literature. As such, his style was pretty much "vanilla cyberpunk", not too different from the other authors within the same mindframe - those were books about virtual universes existing only inside computers, and katana swords, and riding skateboards on highways, and living really really fast, at the speed of an overclocked CPU.
Then there was "The Diamond Age", which marked a first turn in Stephenson's style. The cyberpunk background was still strong, but the book has an interesting flavour that places it into a more mainstream zone. The tone becomes more balanced and patient, coupled with a fictional revival of the victorian era in a world of high-tech. It is probably one of the strangest books by Neal Stephenson.
"Cryptonomicon" merely continued to evolve in the same direction. I believe that Crypto... is Stephenson's first book that reaches beyond a purely SciFi audience. The cyberpunk influence is not the foundation anymore - it becomes merely a flavour instead, a spice. The "meat" of the book is something different, part historical fiction, part high-tech thriller. For the first time, Stephenson creates credibly and with authority multiple plot threads that unravel independently, yet tightly connected. Also for the first time, there's a richness of the detail and simply a wealth of facts that add enormous weight to the text.
"The Baroque Cycle" takes a lot more steps in that very same direction.

It's difficult to offer a summary of "The Baroque Cycle" trilogy. First off, i promised to keep the spoilers off the review. But anyway, there's a dazzling abundance of twists and turns of the plot, and huge numbers of characters interacting, and a web of seemingly minor happenings that take only a few pages to come to being, but in the end are of the essence to the overall development of the book. The sheer complexity of it leaves you wondering just how much you remember from the whole thing. An entire world is contained in those 2500 pages - like any real world, has a life of its own, too complex to let itself caught in a few words.
A great deal is centered around Newton, Hooke, Leibniz and the origins of the modern science. The modern thought, still entangled with ancient beliefs (alchemy, etc), takes birth before our eyes. Then there's the birth of the modern financial systems, emerging from the trade in commercial centers such as the medieval Amsterdam. And then there's a great deal of travel to the Orient and the Pacific islands, and lots of treasure hunting and exotic landscapes and cultures. And, of course, there's the politics of the decades before and after 1700 - the era of Louis XIV and the house of Hanover and the power shifts that happened at the time in Europe. And a whole lot of social frescos, spicy snapshots of the everyday life in various societies of that era.

"Quicksilver", the first volume, lays down the foundation and sets the stage for the rest. The "quicksilver", the mercury, the essence wich, according to arcane alchemical rules, is supposed to give mobility and vivacity to the spirit, dominates the plot. There are lots of beginnings, a lot of things that get started, seemingly because a gratuitous need for change and movement and expansion and, well, a nearly pathological restlesness that kicks characters into colliding orbits across countries and continents. "Natural philosophers" (the term the autor uses to denominate what we would call nowaday a scientist) are obsessed with vivisections and physics and all kinds of strange experiments. Vagabonds wander across the stage, set unlikely alliances spanning multiple social layers and even end up being famous at royal courts. Women escape from turkish harems only to become characters that evolve in unexpected directions.
Movement, movement everywhere, and change. And persistent amazement for the reader.

"The Confusion" expands the stage even more, if that's possible. It is the "pirates of the oriental seas" book in the trilogy. At the same time, the political web of manoeuvres reaches the peak of complexity and tightness. The confusion mentioned in the title is actually a con-fusion, the act of melting together different elements into a new material. The quicksilver set everything in motion in the first volume; the process is in full swing in the second. The result becomes apparent in the third and last one.

"The System Of The World" has the result. Con-fused in the gigantic melting pot of the trilogy, the elements crystallise in coherent shapes. Thanks to the actions of the characters, the modern science emerges, complete with steam engines and newtonian laws; the modern financial system is founded, the concept of "currency" is invented and the stock market appears as of thin air. And the adventurers come home, whatever "home" means.
There's a common and, partially, well-founded conception that Neal Stephenson does not know how to end a book. That may be true for most of his earlier books. It is not true for the Baroque trilogy. Unfortunate endings are typically due to emotional flatness - the author does not or will not setup a tension peak near the end of the plot, whose release provides a recognizable ending. I think that's the case with Stephenson's other books. The Baroque trilogy, on the other hand, creates a knot that ties together all the plot threads, and solves them all in one fell swoop. There are actually multiple endings emerging from that knot, all of them good and real and satisfactory endings on their own (kind of like Peter Jackson's third movie in the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy). Pretty surprising for an author often criticised for artificially cutting off the books at the end.

"Amazement" is the word that describes the reader's reaction to this book. A thing of huge complexity, difficult to grasp at once, full of labyrinthine plot twists, happening on many planes at once... I mentioned "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco in one of my other book reviews, but that was not a fair comparison. The "Pendulum" can be fairly compared with "The Baroque Cycle" by Neal Stephenson, not with some diminutive spy novels.

And, yeah, there are those connections between this trilogy and "Cryptonomicon" that only make me believe that the author may plan to come up with something else in the same vein. If that's true, i'm looking forward to it.

Excellent book, highly recommended. Two thumbs up for Neal Stephenson!