Back to the Baroque
Neal Stephenson's science fiction of the past.
Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By GLENN HARLAN REYNOLDS
Cryptonomicon was still a book for science-fiction readers; the Baroque Cycle, and in particular its final volume, The System of the World, is not so much for geeks as about geeks. Leibniz, Newton, Hooke, Boyle--they're geeks to a man. But they're premodern geeks: geeks with a strong interest in matters spiritual as well as technical; geeks who, in fact, don't really draw a very firm line between the two subjects. Newton's fascination with alchemy is well known, of course, but Stephenson makes it clear just how much Newton was a man of his times in this respect.
Stephenson's style is a bit windy in places, and especially in the opening chapters of the third book. The descriptions are lengthy and detailed, with a simple walk through London taking up many pages. The conversations are involved and intricate, as the characters discuss and debate issues. Those who have read eighteenth-century novels will find both aspects familiar, while those who are expecting Hemingway will find something that's, well, not much like Hemingway. I found Stephenson's lengthy descriptions and interludes interesting and didn't mind that they slowed the plot from time to time.
The Baroque Cycle has its exciting parts--such as Isaac Newton trying to defuse a ticking time bomb while adrift in the North Sea, and warfare in Europe and Ireland--but it doesn't offer the fast-paced action of other recent books set in the same general period, such as Eric Flint's 1632. But Stephenson is aiming higher and deeper. His characters and the world they inhabit are grappling with questions of faith. Newton's interest in alchemy isn't truly occult; he thinks that it's another way to understand the mind of God. And Princess Caroline, who works hard to reconcile Newton with Leibniz, sees the reconciliation of faith and science as even more important. Without it, she argues, the new system will be doomed, something she illustrates quite dramatically by setting a globe of the earth alight.
One cannot help but feel, after reading the long passage in which the princess, Newton, and Leibniz discuss the matter, that things did not work out as well as they might have. Stephenson's novels address topics that remain the burning issues of our age. And they do so in a highly entertaining fashion. So long as you are not expecting Cryptonomicon all over again, you'll find Stephenson's Baroque Cycle one of the great reads of the year.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, and publishes the InstaPundit.com blog.