Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" series. I'm assuming that "Cryptonomicon" also fits into this, since the characters in "Quicksilver" are the ancestors of those in "Cryptonomicon".

Neal Stephenson, "The System Of The World" (reread)

2014-12-10 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 117 words

I've a sort of riddle for you, to do with guineas, was how Daniel ended the twenty-year silence between himself and Sir Isaac Newton.

The final instalment of The Baroque Cycle. Stephenson has hit his stride in terms of style and plot dexterity by this point; this is a fine example of large-scale literary engineering, with a satisfying conclusion.

There is probably little point in me recommending this book, since anyone who's made it through the first 1800-odd pages of the trilogy is unlikely to give up before the third volume. Nonetheless, if you've just finished The Confusion and are wondering whether it's worth continuing: it is.

Neal Stephenson, "The Confusion" (reread)

2014-10-03 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 132 words

The sun rose. What a moment ago had been glowing pools of spilled fire on the black velvet ground, were revealed as damp patches on khaki dirt. The bubbler ripped loose, hurtled away, and impacted on the roof of a monastery half a mile downrange. The chimney and dunce-cap shot into the air, spiraling and pinwheeling through the night sky as if the Big Dipper had scooped up a load of the sun's own fire.

See my previous review; and we're now moving into Newton and the Counterfeiter territory.

Rather more action-oriented than Quicksilver, although with occasional interesting alchemical interludes; I'd remembered the bit about steel but forgotten the striking description of phosphorus production. The epistolary approach to Eliza's sections works effectively.

Neal Stephenson, "Quicksilver" (reread)

2014-09-02 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 176 words

Forgive an ignorant Vagabond, but I am used to men of action—so when the Doctor spends all day, every day, talking to people, it seems to me as if he's doing nothing.

He's accomplishing nothing—that's very different from doing nothing. Enoch said gravely.

Continuing my programme of rereading books I last enjoyed ten years ago, this is the first volume in Neal Stephenson's 3000-odd-page Baroque Cycle series. The series is a prequel to Cryptonomicon, and explores some of the same themes: cryptography, the history of computing, and most importantly the nature of money. As the founders of the Royal Society are key characters, it also sort of works as a sequel to An Instance of the Fingerpost — although Stephenson's characterisation of John Wilkins is rather different!

While this is an impressive and wide-ranging piece of work, with a number of Good Bits (my favourites generally being the Eliza-and-Jack sections), it's not as tightly-written as Cryptonomicon. Recommended if meticulously-researched, extremely long novels are your kind of thing.

Neal Stephenson, "Cryptonomicon" (reread)

2014-08-08 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 205 words

My second favourite Neal Stephenson novel; just beaten by Anathem.

When this first came out, it was partly set in the present day and partly during the United States' involvement in World War 2 — so now, of course, it's partly a historical novel set in 1999 (pagers! GSM phones! BeOS!), involving a bunch of cypherpunks attempting to set up a slightly-shady digital currency. Which has, of course, happened in the meantime.

In general, this has aged pretty well. It's structurally very neat, being written as an ordered set of standalone vignettes (many of which would make decent short stories) rather than as continuous narrative. It's a long work but not an overpadded one, and maintains an even pace throughout. There's certainly enough complexity here to reward rereading several times, especially if you've gone away and read more of the relevant history in the meantime…

(The typesetting in this paperback edition leaves quite a bit to be desired, though, especially the maths near the start and anything set in a monospace font. It's not unreadable, but it is jarring. Other editions may be better; I've certainly not had the same problem with Stephenson's more recent books.)

Neal Stephenson, "The System Of The World"

2005-06-22 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 10 words

Neal Stephenson, "The Confusion"

2004-08-30 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 382 words

Monsieur Shaftoe, this ballroom does not seem to agree with you. I do believe you should not be invited back, the King was able to remark, a bit sourly, before they were engulfed in courtiers with drawn swords.

The second (or, if you count "Cryptonomicon", third) instalment in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. We follow the further convoluted adventures of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza de la Zeur from 1689-1702. As Stephenson points out in an abbreviated foreword, the book is structured as two interleaved novels, one ("Bonanza") following Jack and the other ("Juncto") Eliza; they influence each other throughout, and finally intersect at the end. This is an imposing 815-page hardback book; it took me a bit over a month to read (albeit in small chunks).

Jack's story circumnavigates the globe as his group of Vagabond comrades carry out a series of thefts, deceptions and honest trades in the name of profit. Eliza's merely skips back and forth around Europe a bit, exploring how the world's nascent financial system works, but in some ways it's more complex than Jack's. Some of the major characters from the previous book — particularly Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton — get decidedly short shrift here, but the set of new characters in Jack's band make up for this, and I'd hope that Daniel at least will be back for the third book.

I found having Wikipedia to hand useful while reading; Stephenson's science is both accurate and interesting (the bit on wootz steel, for example), and many of his characters and events are based loosely on historical fact, so this is very much a book to read around as well as through. Stephenson's Metaweb site provides useful annotations specific to this series, although it's probably best avoided until you've finished the book.

Uncharacteristically for Stephenson, this book actually has a decent ending; while it's clearly leaving room for the events of the third book, it ties up most of the loose ends from this one. In general, this felt more polished than "Quicksilver"; I don't think it'd stand as well on its own as, say, "Cryptonomicon" does, but it's a worthy continuation of the series.

A long but entertaining read — recommended, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Neal Stephenson, "Quicksilver"

2003-11-24 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · no content

(No content.)