“The Baroque Cycle” by Neal Stephenson

You would expect a 3000 page novel about the men who invented
natural philosophy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries to occasionally get tedious, as characters explain the
difference between Leibnitzian Monads and atoms to each other.

It sometimes does, but it’s well-written enough that you care
enough about the characters to put up with it. (Think about the
long essays about the nature of history in War and
Peace
— you keep reading to find out what happens to
Pierre and Natasha anyway.)

Actually, the comparison with War
and Peace
isn’t far-fetched at all — I’m sure
Tolstoy’s intended audience for his disaster novel was
interested in the question of how history would have been
different if Napoleon hadn’t had a cold at the battle of
Borodino. Neal Stephenson’s audience is interested in how
alchemy turned into modern physics. Both audiences want to read
about the mud and stench on the battlefields as well as the
high-level strategy and tactics that led to the battle.

The action of this novel takes place on 5 continents and
numerous islands; the characters vary in social standing from
slaves to King Louis XIV of France; they invent not only
ingenious methods for winning battles, but the modern banking
system and long-distance shipping; the details of organization
of the places they live, from palaces to jail cells, are
meticulously described.

In other words, there’s plenty of material for a 3000 page
novel, so if you’re interested in at least half of it, you’ll
enjoy reading it.

I criticized
the ebook preparation a couple of weeks ago. I want to pick one
nit about the writing.

The typical bodice-ripper, with just the stuff about eighteenth
century life that everybody knows, lasts about 250 pages, and I
don’t often get through even that much. In order to justify
3000 pages, the reader has to really believe in the
meticulousness of the research. Not that all the writing has to
be in the style of the eighteenth century, but the willing
suspension of disbelief becomes harder when the author is unable
to resist glaring anachronisms like this:

Again, Mother, almost the whole point of mistresses is
that they may be hot-swapped.

I’m sure that character would have used current technological
jargon in gossiping about court liaisons, but Stephenson really
should have resisted twentyfirst century technological jargon.

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2 thoughts on ““The Baroque Cycle” by Neal Stephenson”

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