I have just closed the final page on the most compelling 3,000 page series it has ever been my good fortune to read. I feel happy, confused, disappointed and lost; for me, Neal Stephenson’s series ‘The Baroque Cycle’ is at an end. For the past few months I have lived with one of the three encyclopedic volumes of that author’s cycle clutched to my side, graduating from Quicksilver to Confusion to The System of the World.
The Baroque Cycle, historical fiction that it is, takes you galloping down through the pillars of modern Western civilization like a drunken pubcrawl led by a gonzo James Burke with a penchant for the perverse, like the oft-mentioned imp that resides ‘pon the shoulder of the author’s most lovable character, Half-cocked Jack; the adult successor to my juvenile hero, Indiana Jones. Jack’s improbable life and adventures make him a legend in his own time, making you loath to ever pick up a history book again for fear that he never lived.
Yet you do.
Want to pick up a history book, that is.
And a book on calculus. And biology. And cartography. And certainly the books by Newton and Liebnitz.
That’s because, at its heart, The Baroque Cycle is a great big loving look at one of those remarkable times in human history when Important Ideas Were Afoot, and there were people out there who were equal to the challenge of identifying those ideas. People who we, 300 years later, have raised to such high symbolic levels as to be unidentifiable as a living people.
Thank God that Neal Stephenson has the talent and drive to use history in such a way to stitch together the Bigger Picture of that age. Under his pen concepts collide like fleets of fiery Hindenbergs, lighting explosive mental fires to concepts that I never imagined to be linked. Stephenson manages to weave incredible structures from the waxing and waning wonders of the late 17th Century, like Natural Philosophy (Science), Alchemy (Chemistry), the instruments of fiscal trade (Stock Exchanges), royal intrigues (Politics), warfare (International Relations) and Mathematics (Calculus).
Rarely gauzy in his portrayal of historic times, people and places, Stephenson paints a picture of a world where luxury and poverty rub shoulders and the distance ‘twixt the two are far closer than than they are now. The fat old scientists in wigs who we yawned about in grade school turn out to be dangerous men with radical ideas and cruel, sometimes ghoulish addictions to solving life’s mysteries.
There were so many avenues of exploration provided by The Baroque Cycle I can’t decide whether to re-read it with a highlighter and a notebook or to go and pick up some readings of my own. Even as I find places where he played fast and loose with reality I’ll discover wonders that lesson books never taught me.
I’m now a solid fan of Stephenson’s works and am thankful that there remain a few of his books that I have yet to read.
Please don’t stop now Neal!