Books : Laboring through the Baroque Cycle

I like Neal Stephenson a lot. His Snowcrash and Diamond Age were my introduction to Cyberpunk, and the follow up to these books – Cryptonomicon turned out to be a bestseller and possibly his best book to date. I loved the numerous digressions , the insider geek-jokes, and the irreverent tone of the book. Whole pages (and sometimes chapters) were dedicated to things had at best a tangential relationship to the plot. Like a whole chapter filled with a bad short story written by one of the characters. Or (really) Perl source code for a cryptographic algorithm he describes in the book.

And so I looked forward to the Baroque Cycle, a 3000-page trilogy about the Baroque Age. Quicksilver, Confusion and The System of the World – one book every six months, starting October 2003. Stephenson’s fictional creations cohabiting the book with Hooke, Wilkins, Newton and Leibnitz. This was going to be so good.

Not really. The Baroque cycle is a bit of a letdown.

Sure, there were some good segments. Jack Shaftoe was cool. So was Eliza. The board game that Eliza organizes for French noblemen to explain financial concepts was hilarious. The Royal Society sounded like a fun place to work in: Hooke seemed like a cool dude, and Newton a grumpy old bastard. A big chunk of the second book was devoted to India, and there were some intersting nuggets that I didn’t know. I’m not sure if this is true, but apparently, the women of Malabar (Kerala today) were so sexually promiscuous that most of the time kids didn’t know who their dads were. And thus started the tradition of children taking the mother’s last name. But I digress: In between the good parts, there was so much pointless fluff that any half-decent editor would have gotten rid off. And try as hard as I did, I couldn’t find a plot. Sometimes the book felt like I was reading a smart schoolboy’s scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the 17th century. The whole is so much less than the sum of its parts.

Note to Neal: Digressions are cool and all that, but digressions don’t make a book. Not a 3000-page book. And you forgot the plot!

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