Gopher Baroque

At 1,800-plus pages, Neal Stephenson's just getting started

What do viruses that pass from online hosts to silicon carriers, books that teach the most powerful aspects of culture and train readers to use that knowledge to their advantage, data havens, WW II-era crypto-battles, and powdered-wig-wearing, connivin courtiers (who traffic in rumor and status) have in common? They all rest at the centers of Neal Stephenson's plots, and they all deal with the ways in which information transmission is at the nexus of technological and social change.

In Stephenson's latest, it's the 17th century. Religion is on the run, and "Natural Philosophy" is spreading like an intrusive fungus all across Europe. The sovereignty of kings is threatened. And everywhere, and seemingly nowhere, is the mysterious Enoch the Red, the elusive key to Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" and its opener, Quicksilver.

There will be geek-gasms aplenty in every IT cube as Stephenson's long-awaited follow-up to Cryptonomicon picks up where his similarly sized 1999 epic left off, tackling the role that code making and breaking plays in world affairs and social advancement. It focuses less on cryptography and more on the development of the scientific method, and the ways in which the main characters—Daniel Waterhouse, Eliza de la Zeur, and Jack Shaftoe—influence the events surrounding the maturation of modern science. Concepts that we take for granted—gravity, calculus—were, during the Baroque period explored in the book, radical ideas that could lead to disrepute (a grievous wound to anyone living in the rigid social strata of post-Cromwellian England) or any number of grotesque punishments.

Quicksilver messenger: Stephenson
photo: Brian Smale
Quicksilver messenger: Stephenson

This is a novel of Ideas, and while there's more than enough swordplay to buckle the most jaded of swashes, there's a sense that Quicksilver only swabs the plot deck for Stephenson's planned sequels (The Confusion, April 2004, and The System of the World, October 2004). One of the book's major points lies in the Baroque series' title. Stephenson spends many pages detailing the smells, fluids, architecture, and mores of an incredibly fecund period of discovery. This is meandering with a fierce purpose; elaborate scene-setting on a grand stage, conjuring a time and place so completely that when the cycle is complete, the full gravity—literally—of the changes being wrought will be felt.

Guiding us through this dead wonderland is a cast of characters that begins with the ancestors of Stephenson's Cryptonomicon characters—the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes—and continues through a list of royalty and nobility that would cow Shakespeare.

They also serve as foils for Stephenson's irrepressible sense of humor—he wants us to have as much fun reading as he obviously did writing. An early passage painstakingly describes the oppressive obsolescence of one character's home, using an unreliable timepiece as a centerpiece:

"The eight-foot-high grandfather clock in the adjoining hall contributed a sort of immediate presence with the heaving to and fro of its cannonball-sized pendulum, which made the entire house lean from one side to the other like a drunk . . . the wild clamorous bonging that exploded from it at intervals that seemed suspiciously random, and that caused flocks of migrating waterfowl, thousands of feet overhead, to collide with each other in panic and veer into new courses."

The evolution of market systems and the shifting nature of currency are also explored to an exhaustive extent, and the only thing more impressive than Stephenson's command of these seemingly disparate but interconnected subjects is the knowledge that he's only warming up. This is ground he's covered before—in different eras, toward different ends—but it all attests to one novelist's obsession with the power of information, the dangers of closed systems, and the liberating, revolutionary power that can result from keeping them open.

 
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