Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

I’m now a third of the way through Neal Stephenson’s grand cycle of Europe (and America too if you include Cryptonomicon as the fourth book after the trilogy) and enjoying it.

I don’t read much fiction these days, sci-fi even more rarely. But Stephenson’s moved on from his Snow Crash and Diamond Age phase of pure sci-fi – and anyway, he always transcended the author (wrongly) credited with kicking off cyberpunk*, William Gibson, in the same way Gibson was eclipsed by Bruce Sterling. Stephenson is roughly the same height above Sterling as Sterling was above Gibson.

For Gibson was, ultimately, a bullshitter. Brilliant with language, fantastic with storytelling (his short stories, written when he was a young man in his 30s, remain terrific twenty years later) but he was making stuff up: knock it, and it didn’t sound solid. Gibson never used the Internet, had no mathematical smarts or engineering training. His work, while poetic and artistic, never had technological rigour. You could feel the electrodes on your forehead, smell the ozone burning off the batteries, but you’d never learn how any of it worked.

Stephenson, by contrast, is a true Geek. An expert Linux user before it was cool, you can finish a Stephenson feeling confident that, if sucked through a wormhole to WWII-era Philippines or the court of Louis XIV, you’d actually know what to do and how to behave. Anyone who publishes an entire book about booting up a Unix desktop (OK, so it was a Wired article first) knows a thing or two about technology.

Stephenson’s got faults – as he slyly admits, calling his eight-book sequence “The Baroque Cycle”. This is not minimalist writing. Vast chapters are devoted to exchanges of letters, diarist musings, extended descriptions of places and people, while nothing much happens as narrative: this is literature for the pleasure of reading, rather than the excitement of storytelling. You’re not experiencing a narrative, you’re experiencing a world. It’s less reading a novel, more playing Second Life.

But that world he creates – by meandering around in a vast forest of verbiage, never quite getting to the point – is absorbing. You don’t just smell the shit in 17-century London streets; it flies off the page and hits you in the eye. Unexpected outcomes, like a heroic figure spending years as a galley slave, happen with regularity, constantly keeping you off guard; events you thought had happened turn out to have been cyphers for the events that really happened. And so on. In short, it’s a lot like real life.

The fourth book, Cryptonomicon, was published years before the trilogy (and I read it around ’99 I think) but Stephenson keeps the nods to the future non-obvious most of the time, maintaining a distinct non-McGuffin-ness that most Hollywood producers could learn from. There is a lack of depth to characters, their personae being defined by their circumstances of birth and world events they get caught up in, rather than innate characteristics. But perhaps that’s how it really happens. Most great events happen to other people. Few Englishmen even noticed the French annexation of Britain, or the Norsemen some centuries prior, or … in the same way, the Great Fire of London and the Revolution of 1688 are presented as canvas, not oils. London, after all, was then just a sizeable village; there was nothing in Britain to match Venice, or even Madrid, still less Versailles.

And Stephenson makes it real. I think I’ll plunge into Book II (Confusion), but I warn you Neal: I expect a bit more narrative this time, or I won’t make it to System of the World.

* Gibson the founder of cyberpunk? Yeah? Ever readJohn Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider”? That was where it started.

One thought on “Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

  1. Years ago, like around 1990, I interviewed William Gibson for a late-night science fiction show at my college's radio station. He freely admitted to a lack of substance in his work. In referring to his fiction he said, “It looks impressive, it's miles wide, but only a molecule thick.”

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