The Baroque Cycle (with spoilers)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Sat Dec 4 11:01:03 EST 2004


On Sat, 04 Dec 2004 00:34:18 -0600, Margaret Ball wrote:

>Ok Ven, your comments on the Baroque Cycle make me want to give it 
>another try. I started with the second volume, which may have been a 
>mistake, found it very hard slogging and a severe disappointment from a 
>writer I'd previously admired greatly.

Oh, definitely try again, from the beginning.  This isn't a trilogy, it's a
three-volume novel.  Starting with _The Confusion_ is a bit like reading,
say, _The Merlin Conspiracy_ and beginning on chapter 7.  So it's no wonder
you were disappointed.

I finished the third volume a few days ago.  Wonderful, wonderful book.  The
Baroque Cycle is one of those works that I'm simply happy to be reading;
even the digressions are wonderful.  I would re-read _Cryptonomicon_ now, to
remind myself of where everyone's descendants ended up, but Jacob loaned it
to his boss so it's not available.  Pout.

(It occurs to me, two-thirds of the way through writing this, that there are
some spoilers within.  Not enough to justify spoiler space, but enough to
require a warning label.  So there it is.)

Stephenson said, in an interview somewhere, that TBS is a fantasy--that
despite the historical fiction aspects, the language and structure make it
speculative fiction, and readers seem to know that.  I think it's historical
fiction, but reading this last volume with the above in mind, he's right.
It's a weird notion, and mostly irrelevant to understanding TBS, but there
you are.  Only in the character of Enoch Root (and certain events in the
final volume) do you have truly supernatural elements, and they don't seem
at all strange in the larger context.

In any case, this is one of the best and most thoroughly detailed historical
works I've ever read.  Stephenson adds details to well- and lesser-known
history until it's hard to remember that some of these characters never
existed.  In the first two volumes, I was so caught up in history I had
never heard of (or, often, history from one part of the world I had never
associated with events in another part happening at the same time) that it
wasn't until the summary at the head of the third volume that I realized
this debate between Newton and Leibniz was actually a war over how the world
would be understood--the new system of the world.  Stephenson puts all these
histories, normally studied in isolation, into context with one another: the
glittering and degenerate France of the Sun King, Cromwellian and Stuart
England, the Hanoverian succession, the treasure-ships of the New
World...reading these books is like living this history in every place at
once.

I didn't really like Daniel Waterhouse until _The System of the World_.  I
wasn't bored by him or anything, but in _Quicksilver_ he struck me as kind
of wishy-washy, blown about by the actions of the stronger men around him.
Or, in a more generous light, that he is the observer through which Newton
and Leibniz and their great quarrel are revealed to the reader.  In this
final volume, he gets to shine.  I was especially impressed that although
*he* hadn't ever seen himself as an actor in these great events, he's not
slow to take on that role when the time comes.  It's tempting to start from
the beginning and read straight through, to see if those initial impressions
are the same.

I did love Jack Shaftoe.  I remember when I first discovered why he's called
Half-Cocked Jack I laughed for about ten minutes.  I don't know why that
tickled me so much, except that it was so unexpected.  Given that, his love
affair with Eliza started out poignant and turned out to be amazingly
complicated, their separation frustrating (but entirely reasonable), and the
culmination of his story very satisfying.  He's a thorough rogue and I love
him for it.  In _Quicksilver_ he talks about his sons in such a casual way
that I never really expected them to show up, and when they did, they were a
great addition to the story.  In the Epilogs to _TSOTW_ Stephenson wraps up
the stories of the main fictional characters, including Danny and Jimmy
Shaftoe.  I won't go into detail--it's too good to read unspoiled--but their
finale got me thinking about their descendants, and from there, everyone's
descendants in general.  Especially, since I was thinking about the
Shaftoes, those who came to America in the earliest days--dissenters,
rebels, convicts--and had children, who had children, and eventually their
modern-day children drive cars and watch television and complain about the
degeneracy of modern society.  Time is a wonderful leveler.

It was a great read.  I kept dipping into it over a period of about a week,
finding it easy to stop because the sheer mass of the story got overwhelming
and I needed to do something simpler, like organic chemistry.  :)  I loved
reading it, every minute of it.

Melissa Proffitt

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