I’m probably the last blogger still reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and chances are good that I won’t take on the third part, The System of the World, immediately after finishing the second, The Confusion. Not because the books aren’t good, just that it is a lot to read consecutively.
The good news is that the main characters, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the Improbable Welshwoman, are much more interesting than they were in Quicksilver.
Jack acquires more dimensions, and as Eliza develops, she becomes less improbable and more of a comprehensible person as well. Additional good news is that there’s much more of a plot than in the first, and it drives the book rapidly forward. In fact, there are a number of plots, all conspiring to move the narrative along, which it mostly does at a good clip. In Jack’s half of the book, the plot involves escaping slavery, stealing precious metals from Spain’s Viceroy in the New World, and being pursued around the world by the consequences. In Eliza’s half, it involves court intrigue at Versailles, the war between England and France and the establishment of money.
That brief description makes Eliza’s part of the book — the two are interwoven, or con-fused as Stephenson would have it — sound drier, but I tended to enjoy it more. There’s a terrific epistalatory novel tucked in among everything else, and it’s all in Eliza’s half. The characters are more clearly drawn, more rounded and more sketched with a slightly more subtle hand in her half as well.
In Jack’s half, there is more out-and-out swashbuckling, but the wheels of the plot are also sometimes too visible. Further, the machinations necessary to get some things into place for Cryptonomicon are also sometimes too plain. The annoying authorial winks at the reader are still there, though fewer this time around. At one point, though, a character declaims, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo.” It’s apropos of not much, but stuck out like a sore thumb. The last long section of Jack’s story concerns a sea voyage; Stephenson is not nearly as good at this as Patrick O’Brian (who is?), whose books I have been reading steadily of late, so I tended to skim a bit more in that section.
In fact, I made my peace with skimming for pages at a time in this section of the Cycle. The author may have found every word necessary, but I didn’t, and I enjoyed it more for having leaved through several sections going ok, ok, not much to see here.
Unlike, say, Dorothy Dunnett, Stephenson does not put significant sympathetic characters in existential danger. As this is the second book of three, there is no chance that Jack and Eliza will not survive. Some of the villains were dispatched unexpectedly, which was nicely done. But even apart from characters that the books are not built around, i.e., Jack, Eliza and Daniel Waterhouse, or the ones history tells us survive, e.g., Louis XIV, George I, sympathetic characters are seldom in real danger. This tends to lessen the suspense of the book and expose the structural challenges in the middle part of a trilogy.
There is less of an Argument in this book, the author being content to develop what he set up in the first one. The Hanoverians are coming to England; France’s structures are straining in ways that will lead to 1789; rumors of the Enlightenment are heard as far away as Mexico City; and the greatness of Asian civilizations is sketched — Edo (Tokyo) is said to be the largest city in the World, the Great Mogul’s empire in India is depicted — but the clear interest is Europe’s rising.
The third book is set up as a conflict between Jack and Isaac Newton; symbolically of chaos and order, although Jack has to bring about chaos methodically and Newton is rather disordered himself. At the end, I suspect we will see the modern world on stage and all of the treasures buried that will be dug up in Cryptonomicon.