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Thursday, March 03, 2011  

Neal Before Zod

Being a fan of Neal Stephenson since my old bandmate Kraftmatik lent me his copy of Snowcrash (he had me at the main character's name, Hiro Protagonist), I knew I was going to read The Baroque Cycle eventually. I just wasn't particularly looking forward to it.

It's not the size of it; I'm not afraid of a big book. I loved Under the Dome (even if an event on page 3,950 pretty much renders most of pages 1-3,949 moot), and Stephenson's own hefty Cryptonomicon kept me riveted, at least between the math problems that kept popping up every ten thousand pages or so. In fact, undertaking to read The Baroque Cycle, which consists of three bunker-busting tomes averaging 4,785,832 pages each, gave me the reassuring feeling of knowing what I was going to be reading for a good long while.

And I have been reading it for a while. I started the first book, Quicksilver (the others are The Confusion and The System of the World, and another reason I put off starting for so long is that I somehow thought there were four of them and I only had three) in September or October, I don't even remember which. And I confess that I've cheated on it with several other books since then, but they were all really good (Packing for Mars, Going in Circles, Full Dark, No Stars, World War Z, and Year of the Flood--okay, mostly really good).

It's just that it seemed like such a departure for Stephenson. I'm the last person to want to put an artist in a box (I once bought an Anthony Stewart Head album, okay?), but why was the greatest living cyberpunk writer (yes, I said it, Gibson) doing a historical novel in 17th-Century Europe?

I shouldn't have worried. Yes, it gets off to rather a slow start, but so does a supertanker. Then, before you know it, you're immersed in the 17th-century versions of the story elements that make up Stephenson's sprawling comfort zone: bleeding-edge science and technology, large and troublesome stashes of gold, unlikely shifting alliances, cryptography, smart people (both book- and street-), etymology, long periods of enforced chastity, architectural chaos, journeys to exotic locales, elite swordfighting and weaponry, Japan, the etiquette minefields of rarefied social classes, Qwghlm, nerdy Waterhouses, swashbuckling Shaftoes, and, every once in a while, a dizzying, showstopping list of random crap like this one.

And I love it. By any standard, it's a towering achievement, so much so that it seems churlish to point out its flaws, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to. At a total of 83.2 million pages covering more than a half-century, pacing and structural problems are unavoidable, with the events of a single day sometimes filling hundreds of pages while elsewhere years pass between one page and the next. There's a metric shitload of themes in play, some of which you're not going to care about (which may or may not be the same ones I don't care about), and with all those balls in the air, it's sometimes a little jarring when Stephenson goes after one that rolled off the stage during the part I was reading around Thanksgiving. But what else is he going to do? A book this length without those issues would be a dull, boring, monolith, and even if I find myself slogging through another lengthy explication of international œconomics and geopolitics during the reign of Louis XIV, at least I know there's going to be a heart-pounding, over-the-top, chase/battle/escape scene coming along any time now. And anyway, there are worse ways to learn about international œconomics and geopolitics during the reign of Louis XIV.

Because one of my favorite things about Neal Stephenson is that he writes about boring things in an interesting way, a goal I frequently meet half of. I even read his computer manifesto In The Beginning, There Was The Command Line… and found it fascinating, even if I violently disagreed with its conclusion that you can't really choose an operating system until you've programmed your own, because, noooo.

And it feels tacky to complain about the small-worldness of The Baroque Cycle. In a narrative that literally circumnavigates the globe, people from different plot threads are always encountering each other like a fifty-year season of Lost. And let's not even get into all the celebrity cameos by historical figures like Ben Franklin, Georg Friedrich Handel, Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, William Penn, John Wilkins, Benjamin Franklin, Blackbeard, Liebniz, every European monarch of the period from Charles II to Peter the Great, and Isaac Newton, who's less of a cameo than a second-tier character. Oh, looky there, I got into them.

But all of it's okay, even if it's implausible, because it's fun. And just when you're getting used to already knowing something about some "new" person that a certain character has just met, because you met them six weeks ago, suddenly there's an encounter that I'm not going to spoil except to say that it's going to make you want to go back and reread the previous hundred pages or so. And honestly, given how much time you've already invested, you might as well.

Really, the whole thing is just crammed chockablock with shit he shouldn't be getting away with, from a show-offy scene in a banca told as a dramatickal allegory encrusted with classical references and wordplay, to a long epistolary section decoded from an encrypted needlepoint. Seriously. But he does get away with it, because it's awesome.

So, having been reading this novel (I prefer to think of it as a single, eight-book, three-volume work) for more than one percent of my life, it's almost become part of me. Now I'm on the home stretch, with only a few thousand pages left to go. But I haven't finished it yet, and I'm not sure I want to. That's why I'm writing my first-ever book review about it now, before I'm done reading it, while my love for it is still complicated yet large.

Because the thing about a book I love is that as much as I want to see what happens, I don't want it to end. And the thing about the other Neal Stephenson novels I've read is that they don't end -- they stop. You can appreciate the distinction, especially if you've read Neal Stephenson. If that happens again after half a billion pages, I'm going to be pissed.

posted by M. Giant 7:55 PM 3 comments


I read the whole damn thing, exhausting though it was, and now every time someone makes a reverent reference to Isaac Newton I get the giggles. Also, I may never forgive Robert Hooke about that dog.

As soon as you recover your strength, try 'Anathem'. You know you are reading Stephenson because your head feels as if someone is opening it with a can opener.

By Anonymous Mary Holland, at March 4, 2011 at 9:04 PM  

I've read the whole thing twice through, and Cryptonomicon four times and loved it so much. Reading your review is making me itchy to go drive a frontloader over to the bookshelf and hoist them down for another go round.

By Anonymous TampaBeeAtch, at March 7, 2011 at 3:37 PM  

I wasn't running fast enough the first time I tackled these. But I will try again some day. Character name Hiro Protagonist makes me smile whenever I think of it.

By Blogger Nimble, at March 9, 2011 at 1:42 PM  

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