(Multiple) Book Review: Neal Stephenson’s ‘Baroque Cycle’

Neil Stephenson’s ‘Baroque Cycle’ is huge. That’s no hyperbole; three volumes, each weighing in at around 900 pages. A big story, and no mistake. But despite the immense size of this opus, one is still astonished by the sheer volume of things it contains. Namely, nigh on a hundred years of fictionalised history covering the period after the English Civil War, commonly referred to as The Enlightenment. Historical fiction (as any library worker could tell you) can be dry as ship’s biscuits, or alternatively somewhat slushy if leaning towards the romantic styles. The ‘Baroque Cycle’ blows these traditional styles right out of the water.

But what’s it about? Well, it’s a history of science, alchemy, philosophy, politics, war, money, geography, piracy, slavery, poverty, cryptography, state secrets and skulduggery. But to simply list these things does the work no justice. Stephenson has managed to combine a selection of almost geeky threads into an immense tapestry of ideas, and on this he has embroidered the tales of a diverse cast of characters, fictional and historical, noble and common. The sheer scope of it makes it virtually impossible to summarize, and to do so would fail to explain the complexity and depth of the tale, which spins from character to character and country to country in a gyre of symbols and swashbuckling adventure. Stephenson makes no bones that he modelled the style after the ‘picaroon-romances’ of the era under scrutiny. These used an authentic historical background to frame the daring and dastardly deeds of their progenitors, while encapsulating the social mores of the time in the just desserts meted out to the heroes and villains. The ‘Baroque Cycle’ does something very similar, discussing as it does a lot of subjects close to the bosom of modern society (money, cryptography and science being arguably the most relevant). These discourses are voiced through the characters with wit and verve; it is plain to see that Stephenson has really got beneath the skin of the language of the time, and the enjoyment in using it is apparent all through the trilogy, blending the verbose declamations of the noble and the chatty brogues of rogues together with a modicum of modern geek-speak to produce dialogue that sparkles, informs and entertains all at once.

To be honest though, it would be false to describe it as an easy read; the archaic language alone will be enough to deter a fair few readers. But like much of Stephenson’s output, it rewards the reader who jumps in head first and elects to swim around in the story, accepting it briefly as his medium for existence. Complex, erudite and hugely entertaining, The ‘Baroque Cycle’ is a truly unique piece of work without precedent in the world of speculative fiction. Once you?ve read it, you?ll never look at history the same way again.

(The titles of the three volumes, in order, are ‘Quicksilver’, ‘The Confusion’ and ‘The System of the World’.)

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