Sunday, August 12, 2007

Baroque Cycle

I recently joined the elite club of 18 other people that have actually read all three volumes of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (or the Baroque My Back Cycle for those of us that had to carry around these books for the 18 months it took me to read them)

A far ranging novel, covering Isaac Newton, Leibniz, various kings/queens, Europe/Asia/North America, the invention of calculus and modern science, etc. over ~3000 pages, essentially chronicling the remarkable years of 1660 to 1714 when modern civilization was born. A remarkable tome, at its heart about the role of free will vs an all knowing God and mathematical perfection.

Stephenson clearly had free reign from his editors, often spinning off into multi-page Melvillian prose to lovingly explore such topics as how to fabricate phosphorous from animal urine.

For all the extravagance, there are literary jewels where the imagery lingers far longer than the backache. For example, 1/2 way through a round the world sea journey, our heroes approach feudal Japan from the west. During this time, Japan was desperately trying to keep foreign influences from their shores (those of us of an age will remember the Shogun miniseries, where we first learned to understand a little Japanese).

"Dappa exchanged Malabar-words with three black sailors who had just hauled in the sounding-lead, then turned toward the poop deck and gave van Hoek a certain look. The captain stretched out a mangled hand towards the bow, then let it fall. A pair of Filipino sailors swung mauls, dislodging a pair of chocks, and the head of the ship itched upward slightly as it was relieved of the weight of the anchors. Their chains rumbled through hawse-holes for a moment, making a sound like Leviathan clearing its throat. Then chains gave way to soft cables of manilla that slithered and hissed across the deck for quite a few moments, gather force, until everyone abovedecks began to doubt if the Malabari sailors with the sounding-lead had really gotten it right. But then the life seemed to go out of those cables. They coasted to a stop, and the Filipinos went to work recovering the slack. The sails had all been struck, but the wind that they had ridden in from the Sea of Japan found purchase on Minerva's hull and nudged her forward into the long shadow of a snow-topped mountain, creating the curious impression the the sun was setting in the east."

(I look forward to someday writing something 1/2 as good as the!)

Aside from the larger philosophical questions and historical excitement (and the philosophical issue of free will vs determinism is explored subtly and extraordinarily well through the actions of the story), imagery like the sun setting in the east on a Japan turned upside down makes these books a must read for those with the patience to work through them.

For those friends in Minnesota, in a moment of head swooning temporary insanity, I purchased the Hillhouse limited editions of these books. That means I have the original backbreaking hardcovers available if someone would like them.

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