Upon Reading the First Ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle
It is a Frolick, a Cornucopia of interesting things, a narrative of the discovery of the calculus, scientific feuds, dissection, Religious Dissent, changing fashions in art, the return of comedy to the English stage, computation, coinage, banking and much, much more. One of the Leading Characters, Daniel Waterhous, is a bit of a Forrest Gump of history, accidentally giving New York its name here, helping the young Benjamin Franklin there, keeping Isaac Newton alive as an undergrad, and so forth.
It’s not particularly a Novel, certainly not all that interested in character and personality. As a friend of mine once remarked about Patrick O’Brian, history drives the plot, rather than artistic concerns. This makes it appear a bit haphazard at times, and Stephenson is also prone to winks at the audience (there is a demo of a computer) that strike me as forced.
More interesting, however, is the Argument of the Work: That the Baroque period is the birth of modern Europe. The Wars of Religion have given way to dynastic and territorial concerns. Alchemy is fading, outshone by Natural Philosophy. Paper money is on its way in, along with joint stock companies and global markets. England’s Glorious Revolution (a Dutch invasion) will put paid to Divine Right, at least in that part of the continent, completing Cromwell’s work. Christendom is being replaced by Europe.
In politics, the Argument is not bad. By convention, the Peace of Westfalia is the beginning of the modern state system, particularly the notions of sovereignty and non-interference. (These are eroding today, but that’s another story entirely.) While that’s a bit before the story begins, the period that Stephenson is writing about is the time when the system comes together. We’ll see how the Argument holds up over the next 2700 pages.
In his acknowledgements, Stephenson indirectly addresses the size of the work:
Many other scholarly works were consulted during this project, and space does not permit mentioning them here. Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill’s six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh.