Trompler Foundation Archives

King of the Shaggy Dogs

It always happens, sooner or later.  An author whom you’ve followed with love and admiration for years finally breaks your heart and abuses your trust, typically after having previously generated enough revenue to escape the harrowing eye of an editor.  With favorite authors, I always feel obliged to finish the recent, heart-breaking work to the bitter, tedious end, in the hope that some salvageable nugget might reward my loyalty, a hope that is rarely fulfilled.  I’m certainly not the first one to become disenchanted with Neal Stephenson after The Baroque Cycle, but it was particularly trying for me, coming as it did right on the heels of Baudolino, which soured me on Umberto Eco.  Nevertheless, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes of The Baroque Cycle despite the misgivings that started to surface in Quicksilver, the first book.  In recognizing that those misgivings were justified, I realized what it was that I like about Stephenson and hope to see in his future work.

I don’t remember which friend first recommended Snow Crash, but I will always remember thinking that it seemed written specifically for "us"; it intersected uncannily with the need for a post-Cold War update on cyberpunk and the convergence of hackers and coders into the Entrepreneur-Hero.  Plus, Stephenson captured the irreverent, reductive voice that all Young Turks need.  This is where Snow Crash defied, for me, the classic definition of science fiction, wherein readers forgive lapses in style or technique because they love the ideas the author introduces.  In Snow Crash, the ideas weren’t particularly novel or compelling; the avatar-proto-Internet was just a popularization of and extrapolation from Bulletin Board Systems, and although the religion-as-genetic-virus idea was new, it didn’t seem very interesting.  Stephenson’s riff on the sanctity of the 30-minute-pizza-delivery-deadline, on the other hand, kicked ass.

It didn’t take long for me to discover Zodiac, which I eventually came to prefer to Snow Crash.  Written and set in late-80s Boston, Zodiac subverted the usual stereotypes of environmentalists, corporations, and government regulations.  After an adolescence of searching for an effective response to a decade of Reaganism, Stephenson’s DIY-guerrilla-activism was remarkably empowering.  Just as significant was the pragmatic approach to the career-vs.-slacker choices that were rather pressing in the years after graduating from college.  Zodiac is still the first book I recommend to people who have never read Stephenson.

The Diamond Age probably represents Stephenson’s greatest achievement for me because it incorporates Stephenson’s irreverent voice with a truly interesting idea: the dissolution of the geographical nation-state after the nanotechnological revolution.  Because it was set in China, I had to take Stephenson’s word for a lot of things, but it didn’t impede the stories.  Yes, here Stephenson truly began to weave disparate characters and story arcs together, but he didn’t get too ambitious and the pacing and length were manageable.  My only complaint was that the book lacked a proper ending, but I forgave that because everything else worked so well.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had to forgive Stephenson a lot for Cryptonomicon.  Key plot developments occurred off-stage, and when I had trouble following along, I assumed it was my fault (a major theme of the book was, after all, puzzle-solving).  The forgiveness came so easily, however, because the book treated with one of my favorite historical periods (World War II) as well as a scene to which I flattered myself that I was partially privy (the dot-com Boom of the 90s).  Stephenson’s voice was in full flower, too; whether he was channeling Yamamoto’s frustration with the Imperial Staff or laying out the intimidating contortions of a corporate non-disclosure agreement, the wit and brio sustained me for months.  The "Origin" chapter alone, wherein the Waterhouse relatives (geeks, all) assign fungible values to family heirlooms by plotting them on a grid in a wind-swept parking lot, will be forever enshrined in the annals of geek fame.  Cryptonomicon was long and it ended unsatisfactorily, but it entertainingly and, yes, elegantly demonstrated the power flowing to those controlling secure communications.  Stephenson juggled many characters (I still can’t distinguish most of Randy & Avi’s business partners), but they mostly came across as plausible.  Of course, the likeability of Cryptonomicon’s characters becomes a liability in The Baroque Cycle, and now we’re saddled with the immortal Enoch Root (I actually didn’t parse Root’s immortality until I started The Baroque Cycle; in reading Cryptonomicon (multiple times), I thought he was just long-lived).

It was a while before Quicksilver came out, and Stephenson finally bowed to pressure from his publisher and permitted his first novel, The Big U, to be reprinted, and I picked it up.  It was immediately apparent why Stephenson had been reluctant to reprint it, and it still doesn’t appear on the frontispieces with other Stephenson titles.  No character development to speak of, and the plot is too dispersed to keep track of.  Nevertheless, at the time I didn’t think it was informative of Stephenson’s style, and I also quite sympathized with what I imagined to have been Stephenson’s inspiration: "I sure knew some crazy guys in college; I bet their antics would make for a hilarious novel."

I was back in school when Quicksilver was released, and I typically wait for paperback editions due to cost and portability concerns, so I didn’t get around to it until June 2005.  In the case of movies, I typically avoid reviews of films I have already decided to see, and for better or worse, I kept to this policy regarding The Baroque Cycle.  I might have heeded poor reviews from fellow Stephenson fans among my friends, but the feedback loop doesn’t seem to be as tight as it used to be, and those who gave up on Quicksilver didn’t find it noteworthy enough to warn me.  As I dove into Quicksilver, I placed library holds on The Confusion and The System of the World, and the speed with which those holds were filled should have sounded the alarm.

The Baroque Cycle is very long (2700+ pages), but it’s length does not per se condemn it; the lack of payoff does.  In stretching the action over 55 years (1660-1715), Stephenson apparently hoped to obviate his critics’ demand for a satisfying conclusion by breezing over what other authors might have treated as climaxes (the escape from bondage, the making of one’s fortune) and retreating into grand historical perspective whenever his characters might have to display some development, injury, or wisdom.  Stephenson invests us in three main characters: Daniel Waterhouse, Natural Philosopher and recovering Puritan; Jack Shaftoe, soldier of fortune and King of Anachronistic Dialogue; and Eliza, a harem-girl who remakes herself into a spy, financier, and French duchess.

Only in the case of Daniel does Stephenson reward our attention, primarily because Waterhouse starts out as an observer of Great Men and only later pursues his agenda of promoting and preserving the Glorious Revolution.  Jack and Eliza are introduced almost simultaneously, and their early partnership promises to take the Continent by storm.  Instead, their dissolution is absurdly contrived, and maritime misadventures divert them into separate forms of captivity.  In the case of Eliza, the reversal is momentous and nigh-catastrophic; she has made her fortune in the markets of Amsterdam and secured the favor of the House of Orange and is making her way to conquer London society when adverse winds drive her ship into a French port.  Her fortune is confiscated and she is obliged to indenture herself to agents of Louis XIV, the all-but-proclaimed enemy of the Dutch/Protestant market culture in which Eliza has thrived.  Yet not only does diversion of Eliza’s ship occur off stage, so too does her decision to abandon her previous ambition!  Anyone who cared about Eliza would want to know how this misfortune affected her and how she struggled to cope with it.  Instead, we are presented with a rather blasé summary of the events from Eliza to an entirely new character.  Finally, this entanglement in French court society will cast a fatal shadow over everything that subsequently happens to Eliza, Jack, and even Daniel, all because Eliza’s ship couldn’t navigate from Amsterdam to London!  Now, Stephenson might try to spin this as the "chance winds of fate," but all of his works, not the least The Baroque Cycle, have made great hay of the power of the determined Individual against the tides of History.  The Great Men of Daniel Waterhouse’s generation were in a position to remake the System of the World, and we are to stand in awe of their choices.  We do stand in awe, which is why it is so frustrating to read hundreds of pages building Eliza up to be the Muse of the Market, only to dismiss her fortune and enmesh her in the web of Versailles with nary a backward glance.

As the self-styled King of the Vagabonds, Jack is ostensibly more suited to the up-and-down fortunes typical to the picaresque style Stephenson might have thought he was achieving.  In fact, Jack (like his descendant Bobby in Cryptonomicon) is our modern observer-representative, cutting through pretension to lay bare the power relationships that drive Baroque society.  I hope we can be forgiven for identifying with Jack, but Stephenson is setting us up again, because while we are treated to elaborate and entertaining preparations for Jack’s adventures, Stephenson then erases Jack’s accomplishments—usually off-stage—and forces Jack to go through it again.  Several times.  Jack and his merry crew of fellow galley-slaves steal the Spanish treasure ship from the New World, evade the French Navy, and engage in a lovely bazaar battle in Cairo, escaping from slavery and killing the evil French duke who wants the gold and who was responsible for selling the child Eliza into the Turkish harem.  Dashing, no?  Well, it turns out that Eliza doesn’t care and (again, off-stage) Jack loses the Spanish treasure to Hindu pirates.  Whoops!  Next chapter!

Because we so easily identify with Jack, it is particularly annoying when his motivations turn out to be so ill-considered.  Stephenson tries to give himself cover by claiming Jack’s rash acts are often inspired by "the Imp of the Perverse," but it is all too transparent that this is merely a rubric for Jack’s own code of Vagabond honor, which we would like to admire.  Unfortunately, Stephenson awkwardly freights Jack with both a peripatetic concern for his sons’ welfare and an unrequited love for Eliza, which drive him on his circum-global quests.  Throughout The Confusion, Jack circumnavigates the globe gaining and losing one fortune after another, while Eliza removes herself farther and farther from any society Jack might ever hope to enjoy.

One of the pitfalls of historical fiction is that whenever the characters get too close to "real history," the author is constrained, often to the detriment of the story.  In the case of The Baroque Cycle, however, Daniel’s is the thread most closely woven with that of real historical figures, and as a result he is the most consistently motivated and plausibly plotted character in the bunch!  I am quite fascinated with the period covering the Stuart Restoration through the Hanover Ascension, and even though I knew how it turned out in the end, I genuinely dreaded the Jacobite machinations and cheered the Whig victories.  Jack and Eliza brought illuminating observations from their respective stations, but as actors they were condemned to frustrate the reader.  Less than halfway through Quicksilver, it was apparent that for a finer appreciation of the Baroque period, I should simply have read the primary texts Stephenson cited in his Acknowledgments.

As for discussions of ideas, Stephenson has a few.  The establishment of modern banking and coinage is laid out in a helpful way.  It is well understood that the Glorious Revolution (as the ultimate victory of the Reformation) permitted Great Britain to ride out the Enlightenment without having to kill its royal family, and, similarly, the triumph of the Sun King fatally committed France to an absolute monarchy that would inevitably generate what we now call "blowback."  Stephenson wants to demonstrate the role of free markets and liquid currency in making this possible, and he succeeds, albeit laboredly.  Authors of historical fiction can rarely refrain from indulging in amateur etymology, and Stephenson is no exception in his use of "phant’sy" and "clew," but the most significant word in The Baroque Cycle never appears in the text: "scientist."  Daniel and his colleagues are clearly the Heroes who determine the new System of the World, but they are constantly conflicted about how to define themselves; the scars of the English Civil War and the Thirty Years’ War have freighted all the available labels, and Daniel knows they need new words.

I don’t regard the whole subplot of the Solomonic gold, Alchemy, and the immortal Enoch Root as a discussion of ideas; it never rises above the level of superstition, and Stephenson utterly fails to provide any reason why modern readers should take it any more seriously than the 17th-century Daniel does.  As for Leibniz and the golden plates for his Logic Mill, it doesn’t appear to be anything more than a very tedious tying up of a loose end from Cryptonomicon that I had completely forgotten about.  Hundreds of pages are wasted on these and other extraneous details.  Stephenson’s demonstration of his familiarity with the geography of London alone could fill a dissertation, and yet it has negligible import to the story or the characters.

What was most disappointing about The Baroque Cycle was the relative poverty of Stephenson’s signature style.  Jack would seem the most natural vehicle for entertaining rants and observations, but it is Daniel, by virtue of his consistent character and world-weary philosophy, who makes for the best bon mots.  Unfortunately, they are few and far between.  King James II getting into a bar fight as he tries to flee London has a bit of sparkle, as does the naval acumen of Minerva’s captain van Hoek, but not enough to redeem over two thousand pages of periwig peregrination.

The ideas and revolutions that Stephenson wishes to showcase in The Baroque Cycle are certainly worth studying, and they might even lend themselves to a fictional representation.  Unfortunately, doing justice to the heady days of the Restoration-era Royal Society alone would take up a Cryptonomicon-sized tome, and the time scale necessary to observe the effect of those thinkers upon Baroque society is simply too long for our characters to plausibly bear witness to.  Daniel’s longevity is, while not unprecedented, remarkable enough that Stephenson cannot resist introducing the possibility that Enoch Root has surreptitiously shared a bit of his immortality with him, a conceit which is both tiresome and insulting.  The familial connections between characters in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle doesn’t enhance either work, and gives rise to the uncharitable suspicion that Stephenson didn’t want to bother generating new characters for the "prequel."

Up until The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson was one of the very few authors whom I would read without recommendation.  No more—as the Doctor said, it’s strictly quid pro quo from here on out.

Copyright © 2005 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.