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EVERY SO often, I encounter a tale that calls for periodic rereading. James Clavell’s two-volume Shōgun is one (www.wp.me/p2ETap-1ln). Neal Stephenson’s trilogy of The Baroque Cycle is another, all 2633 wonderful, entertaining and illuminating pages of it. Here’s my pitch for, collectively, Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World.
Stephenson’s three volumes actually consist of eight titles. Quicksilver is also the opener in the first volume, the other two being The King of the Vagabonds and Odalisque. The Confusion has two parts, Bonanza and The Juncto. The final volume consists of Solomon’s Gold, Currency and The System of the World.
Overall, the trilogy has a rich cast of characters interacting with important figures of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. It’s more than historical fiction, though. Stephenson calls it “science fiction” because of themes relating to science and technology. By this characterization, it could also be called “economic fiction” or “cultural fiction” or….
In Quicksilver, we meet Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher (i.e. scientist) who’s deeply involved with the squabble between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This squabble is historically correct, a serious one splitting British and European natural philosophers as to the discoverer of calculus, the mathematical analyses of motion.
Along the way, through Waterhouse’s membership in the fledgling Royal Society, we learn more than a little of the emerging scientific revolution.
The King in King of the Vagabonds is a great character, Jack Shaftoe, who in my mind does a superb job of channeling Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (or vice versa). Shaftoe stumbles from crisis to crisis, mostly with good humor, always with great resourcefulness and courage.
Amid much adventuring in a Turkish harem, Shaftoe rescues English Eliza (destined to becomes a financial wizardess as the trilogy evolves). They eventually meet up with Daniel Waterhouse as well.
There’s also a mysterious character named Enoch Root. Is he immortal?
The Confusion has swashbuckling adventure with pirates, musketeers and the economic essence of precious metals. Think con-fusion of silver, gold and the technicalities of watered steel, mercury and phosphorus.
Eliza gets rescued by Jack again. She becomes knowledgeable in the era’s cryptography—useful in her role as double agent in Louis XIV’s court—and also wealthy as a lord. In fact, before The Confusion comes to a close, she’s the Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm and a widow.
The System of the World gets its title from the third volume of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Its overriding theme—if such is necessary by this point—is the evolving monetary system of world trade. In England, 1714, Newton is the highly respected Master of the Mint and his archnemesis is the insidious counterfeiter Jack the Coiner.
Jack who? This is no spoiler here, as there are plenty of other plots a’brewing. Newton and Leibniz are still at it over calculus. Britain’s Queen Anne isn’t well, and who will succeed her, another of the Hanover line? What about the plan to wipe out the natural philosophers of the world?
And if 2633 pages aren’t enough, seek out Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. There, successive descendants of Daniel Waterhouse and Jack Shaftoe mix it up with the mysterious Enoch Root in World War II Bletchley Park and, decades later, at a data-rich Millennium. All in excellent fun, drama—and even enlightenment. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013