02 September 2006

14. The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Book two of the Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, was my favorite of the two I've read. This one was a lot of swashbuckling naval adventure. Most of the 800ish page long book deals with Jack Shaftoe and his efforts to get rich and get back to England. And the main action takes place far from Europe, though we do check in on Eliza, married now and having babies, and the Natural Philosophers. This book deals more with economics and money than Quicksilver and less with the fine details of European politics.

More so in this book than the other I found myself asking, "why are we spending so much time on this piece of the adventure?" But as I said earlier, Stephenson is a mad genius and I found myself apologizing. I actually like the length of the books, rich detail and lots of characters and interplay. No action happens in Stephenson's world that doesn't have a corresponding reaction/s.

I look forward to reading the third installment, the final 900 pages or so, and I know I will feel a loss when the story comes to an end. There's still Cryptonomicon, though, which takes place in more modern times, with descendants of the Baroque characters.

I recommend, it's the better of Book 1 and 2.

13. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

I loved Snow Crash so much I decided to get some more Stephenson. Quicksilver is book one of the Baroque Cycle.

The book is divided into three sections - the first deals with England's Natural Philosophers of the Royal Society like the fictional Daniel Waterhouse and his room mate the real Isaac Newton and their pals. The second section introduces two other main characters Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe a Vagabond and crusading mercenary soldier who is suffering from the French Pox (syphilis), and Eliza who is from the fictional island of Qwghlm and has found herself in the harem of the Sultan.

Clocking in at just over 900 pages, Quicksilver would be difficult for me to summarize. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the last two sections of the book. I really had to wonder why Stephenson included the first section dealing with some obscure topics and people. But as I read on I realized that the Baroque Era, which just preceded the Enlightenment, was dominated by the investigation of the natural world. The conclusions of these philosopher scientists rocked the world of religion, politics, and science.

One other interesting technique Stephenson uses is that he starts the story in the middle, we see Waterhouse living in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1713. He is asked to come back to England to help settle a long-simmering conflict between Leibniz and Newton over who discovered the calculus. So the frame is set that most of the tale is trying to catch up with the first few chapters (and in fact, after I finished the second novel I reread the first section of the first book again, and now I'm convinced Stephenson is a genius writer).

The second and third drops the Natural Philosophers altogether and picks up with Jack outside the siege of Vienna, about to invade the city with some army he has hired on to fight for. After he goes chasing after an ostrich (figuring the feathers are the best plunder he stands to gain as a lowly foot-soldier), he stumbles across one of the Sultan's men killing all of the girls in the harem. He puts a stop to that and rescues Eliza. She turns out to be from Qwghlm, an island off the north west coast of England. When Eliza was little she and her mother were captured and made the servants of a French noble. She was then traded for some horses and found herself in the harem. So Jack and Eliza escape on Turk, this great war horse that Jack steals. They go on some amazing misadventures, but it turns out that Eliza is a genius for making deals. She wheels and deals and makes a small fortune. Unfortunately Jack, in order to gain her love, decided to engage in a bit of trading for himself and invests in a slave ship. Eliza, a former slave, gets mad at Jack for perpetuating the slave trade and harpoons Jack before he can make it off the ship and make it up to her. He comes to in the middle of the ocean just as their ship is coming under attack from Barbary Corsairs. Jack is rowing a slave galley as Quicksilver ends.

I'm leaving out so much: cryptography, machinations of the French court, letters between Natural philosophers, machinations of the Natural Philosophers, James II, Louis XIV, Catholics, Protestants, Germans, and the Dutch (including of course, William of Orange).

I recommend.