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Going For Baroque (Pt. I)

Saturday, June 7, 2008
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The Baroque Cycle — Vol I: Quicksilver

Neal Stephenson

Once again, I’m so behind. This was first published in 2003 and 2004; I’m only reading it now. In terms of website-reviewing, this makes it ancient history — I might as well be writing about the Glorious Revolution. But wait . . . through good fortune, I can do both. For the events surrounding the deposition of James II of England from the throne are but one of the many intriguing story lines Stephenson entertains us with in this thick, esoteric tome (actually a collection of three separate novels).

Yes — I haven’t read something so enjoyable, and clever, in a long time. This book is what you might call ‘smart fun;’ for, to really enjoy it, you should have either a fairly decent grasp of 17th c. European history, or at least be willing to hit Wikipedia every half-hour or so to look a bunch of stuff up (I admit I’m somewhere in the middle). You should also be fairly comfortable reading about geometrical proofs and cryptographic methods, most of the details of which, I’m afraid, are over my poor little artsy-boy head, even though I find the discussions within which they are framed quite interesting. Finally, you should have a zeal for adventure and an admiration of well-written descriptive verse — both of which I believe I do possess in spades. Hence my grand enjoyment.

One thing I do find puzzling, however (and what makes me give even more credit to Stephenson), is how this volume can be so engaging while really lacking anything that could be considered a coherent plot. At over a thousand pages into the Cycle, there’s really no overarching storyline yet; there have been a few mutterings and suggestions here and there about something to do with the search for (and possible discovery of) an ‘elixir of immortality,’ but, beyond that, what we’ve had thus far has been simply a play-out of the actual historical events of the time with Stephenson’s fictitious characters thrown into the mix. So while, again, this is very entertaining, it does leave me a bit perplexed as to where it’s all going. But, given that there are two volumes left, and the second one is entitled The Confusion, I have a feeling something’s going to happen fairly soon.

Okay, I realize I haven’t said too much here . . . you may be wondering why I even bothered to write this. Well, it’s mainly to a) recommend this to everyone; b) thank Drew for giving it to me; and c) give me a chance to use that fantastic pun in the post title. Most satisfying.

I’m going to try and buy Vols. II & III tomorrow and hopefully write a full-blown take on the whole Cycle as soon as possible.

Part II / Part III
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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, June 7, 2008 7:10 pm

    I tried to read Cryptonomicon, and failed – got about 3/4 of the way through and had to stop. I found it too heavy on the computer and code stuff (not Stephenson’s fault, but mine for not being able to keep up) and I found the plot very hard to follow. I’m not saying it isn’t a great book, and I did manage to slog through Foucault’s Pendulum, so maybe I need to revisit it, or try Quicksilver.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Sunday, June 8, 2008 6:21 am

    I would recommend trying Quicksilver. The computer nerd stuff is kept to a minimum.

  3. Sunday, June 8, 2008 8:24 am

    As I mentioned before, I can totally see someone without a technical interest in computing and such giving up on Cryptonomicon. But I’m a little amazed than someone would call it quits after reading 75% of any story.

    The Baroque Cycle utilizes Science, Math, and Cryptology, but doesn’t bombard the reader with them the way that Cryptonomicon repeatedly does. Yeah, I ate all that up, being a computer nut. But I also thoroughly enjoy the wit and depth of both Stephenson’s direct storytelling and that that comes from his characters. The learning aspect is great too. The historical events and figures are of course interesting and then there’s the really cool tidbits, like van Eck phreaking or how to count to 32 using just one hand (or over a thousand with two hands and, if you’ve got abnormally dexterous toes and inhuman patience, to over a million).

  4. tgjkennedy permalink
    Monday, June 9, 2008 10:41 am

    Now that I’ve paid my 8 month old library fine, I’m officially adding this to my library booklist. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Monday, June 9, 2008 1:41 pm

    I did the same thing with Moby Dick – still don’t know how that damn thing ends. Well, I do, more or less, just not all the details.

    Though I know a hell of a lot more about ambergris and whale anatomy then I did before…

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