I’m in Eastern Washington right now (Pigott manor in the Methow Valley), and unlike past trips, I’ve actually been doing a fair amount of reading. Yesterday I finished The Confusion, the second book in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy. It’s a series of historical fiction set during the Enlightenment. It follows the exploits of three main characters, Daniel Waterhouse, “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza. All three are fictional characters, yet they interact with historical figures and participate in (and sometimes even bring about) historic events.
Daniel is a puritan scholar and member of the Royal Society. He was college roomates with Isaac Newton, but has befriended Gottfried Leibniz as well, through lengthy philosophical exchange and travel. He is not of the nobility, but he is frequently drawn into noble affairs through his various friendships and connections to his revolutionary puritan father. He is also interacts extensively with Hooke, Locke, Huygens, Wren, Fatio, and many other savants of the time. He resides in England except when his obligations call him elsewhere, and at the end of The Confusion, he has finally managed to secure passage to Massachussettes and has been set up as the head of the Massachusettes Institute of the Tecknological Arts, or something like that.
Jack has the most compelling and interesting story. He is a vagabond who travels to the East during a war, where he rescues Eliza. He travels about with her for a while and falls in love with her. His unbelievable misadventures carry him through most of Asia, some of Africa, Southern South America, and all of Western Europe. He becomes a king, steals a ship full of gold, becomes a slave, a pirate, and a merchant.
Eliza flits through the various circles of nobility throughout England, France, Prussia, Germany, and the Netherlands. She helps invent the burgeoning system of finance, and develops a love of natural philosophy, so engages Waterhouse, Leibniz, and other prominent philosophers.
The trilogy (or at least the first two books that I have read) are phenomenal for many reasons. They are incredibly intricate and detailed, meticulously researched, and compelling for their historical accuracy as well as their action and adventure. But all of these factors are made possible by their tremendous length. Each book is around 850 pages. That is part of the brilliance of the series. Whereas most books focus on the brief exploits of their main characters, The Baroque Cycle chronicles the full lives of its three main characters and, in the process, the political, economic, and social evolution of Western Europe over a period of several decades.
Neal Stephenson, the author, is a genius, but also eccentric. He wrote the entire series by hand, with a fountain pen. He has a historical book club. He has a medieval machine in his basement for crafting arms and armor. I’ve heard great things about his other works, like Snow Crash and Anathem, and I intend to read them in the future. Stephenson is a visionary author who can imagine worlds the rest of us have never dreamed of.
It has taken me well over a year, off and on, to read the first two books of the series, but I plan on finishing the third before going back to school in a few weeks. The story is wonderfully inventive, and more twisting and convoluted than any I’ve read, another product of the length. If you’re at all interested in the enlightenment period and the characters involved in it, I highly recommend this series. Assuming, of course, you can get through 2500 pages.