I thought I was going to like this book a lot more than I did. The premise --- that four women, who are really all the same woman as she exists in fou...moreI thought I was going to like this book a lot more than I did. The premise --- that four women, who are really all the same woman as she exists in four different timestreams, meet up through some weird space-time wackiness that jostles their worlds into contact --- really grabbed me, as did the prospect of an all-female utopian society, like the one from which one of our four protagonists, Janet, comes. And indeed we do see a lot of this society, told in flashback by Janet, and it's really interesting, although the nonlinear way in which the story is told, and the frequent digressions into flashback, and the lack of anything resembling a plot until maybe the last thirty pages or so, really takes away from this. Each character gets to narrate part of the story, and we're never told who is speaking, which is really tricky given each character's tendency to ramble about whatever is on her mind. Both Jeannine and Joanna (Jeannine comes from an alternate America where the Great Depression never ended, and there was no women's movement; Joanna is from our timeline and a second-wave feminist) spend a lot of time ruminating about their experiences of sexism, and their very ambivalent feelings toward the various men in their lives. I liked all of this, and found it interesting, but it was so chaotically written and so difficult to piece together a) what was happening, b) who was speaking, and c) in what order things were happening, that I really didn't enjoy this as much as I thought I would.(less)
This is a tricky one to review, because while there's a lot I loved about it --- it's very satisfying in a narrative sense, with a lot of long-running...moreThis is a tricky one to review, because while there's a lot I loved about it --- it's very satisfying in a narrative sense, with a lot of long-running threads resolved and tied together, and it gives us much more of Dr. Allison Mann's backstory --- I absolutely hated the answer to the question of what caused the XY-killing plague.
Without going into spoileriffic detail, I'll just say I thought it was an obnoxious injection of magic into what had been a non-magical, realistic world. I have a biochemistry degree, and I had been impressed at how little head-slapping Bad Science this book contained (a frequent problem for science fiction of the "mysterious plague" subgenre) and at how well Brian K. Vaughn had succeeded at writing technical dialogue for Dr. Mann that wasn't gibberish to someone who actually knew what all the words meant. But all that goes right out the window in this volume ... in earlier volumes, the series had flirted with the idea that magic exists (prescient dreams, red herrings about enchanted rings or ancient amulets), and I had liked the tension between these elements and the dogged realism of Dr. Mann's search for the cause of Yorick's immunity to the plague. But in this installment, instead of stepping up the juggling act, Vaughn seems to have chosen to drop one of the balls.(less)
A couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and ev...moreA couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and events in this book overlap with the first, it really doesn't matter.
Where the first book followed Daniel Waterhouse, Natural Philosopher and scion of a staunch, politically active Puritan family, and took place mostly in England, this book follows "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe (whose nickname refers as much to an anatomical peculiarity of his as it does to his spontaneous and intemperate disposition) and a mysterious, beautiful and very clever woman named Eliza, and takes place mostly on the European continent.
It also has much less of an emphasis on 17th-century science than the first book, delving more into that era's political and economic developments. (Indeed, so much of the action of this book revolves around schemes relating to the buying and selling of shares of stock that I was both bored and somewhat confused for long stretches in the middle. Finance is like intellectual Kryptonite to me; can't understand it, have zero interest in understanding it.)
Anyway, the characters. Half-Cocked Jack sounds like someone took the most dramatic, colorful elements from Dickens (Jack's motherless childhood with his brother Bob, earning money hanging onto condemned men's legs as they swung from the gallows, ensuring a somewhat quicker death), Hunter S. Thompson (Jack is slowly losing his mind to syphilis, and as his side of the story progresses he becomes increasingly prone to vivid hallucinations which he cannot distinguish from reality), Jonathan Swift (in the frankly scatological descriptions of the kind of life Jack leads - hygiene is apparently a luxury a 17th-century Vagabond learns to do without), John Kennedy Toole and Gary Shteyngart (Jack's lewdness, sensuality and his knack for accidental heroism), and blended them all together in a single character. The actual experience of reading about this character's adventures is only slightly less awesome than whatever you've conjured up in your head while reading the previous sentence; the only problem is that they're so disjointed and episodic there's no sense of narrative momentum, just one damn thing after another.
The other main character is Eliza, a beautiful woman Jack rescues from a Turkish army camp during one of his brief spells of soldiering. When she first appeared, I wasn't sure I'd like her: her first interaction with Jack is a strained, eyeroll-inducing stretch of sexualized banter revolving around the tired, ages-old "battle of the sexes" scenario: the man has every kind of power imaginable over the woman, but because he desires her, that somehow evens the scales, or even secretly gives her the upper hand. Whatever. But luckily, Eliza is more than that: she's incredibly clever and a gifted storyteller, spinning tall tales that captivate Jack, who has lived more tall tales than most people have even heard. Like Scheherazade, she doles out portions of her life story (how she came to be a slave in a Turkish officer's tent, for instance, when she is a European woman who speaks English) strategically to make sure Jack keeps her with him long enough for her to get where she wants to go, which is Amsterdam.
Once Eliza gets to Amsterdam, she and Jack split up; she stays put, hoping to get in on the expanding mercantile economy and getting swept up in a scheme involving shares in a silver mine somewhere in the mountains of Germany, which gets her running in such high-rolling circles that she runs into a couple of lordly types who seize the opportunity to use her to further their various political intrigues. Her story gets more and more interesting and suspenseful as the stakes of her game rise and the rules get more complex; Jack's, on the other hand, seems to lose steam once he parts company with her. He continues to wander around Europe, with some vague notions of selling the fine warhorse and other loot he picked up in Turkey and thereby financing x more years of Vagabond life, and maybe also leaving something for his children. (He's never met them, but he knows he has some). He goes from place to place, stuff happens to him, he is increasingly unable to distinguish what's really happening from his hallucinations, which tend to resemble Elizabethan morality plays. It's all fairly anticlimactic, even though there are a couple of really awesome episodes. The book seems arbitrarily cut off at the end, for both of them, though. Eliza's arc in particular still seems to be building toward a future climax when the narrative ends and the (very long) section cataloguing the Dramatis Personae begins.(less)
With this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from o...moreWith this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from one set-piece action scene to another that is typical of Stephenson's endings, I thought he actually succeeded at tying everything up in this one. I guess he can do that when he's got an entire epic-length novel in which to end things, as opposed to the fifty pages or so he tends to devote to endings in his stand-alone novels.
In this volume, unlike its predecessor, the three books blend seamlessly into one another, and the mega-novel reads just like it had all been written at once. (Maybe it was --- it was published first as a three-in-one volume, and only later were the individual books released.)
Daniel Waterhouse, the first of the three protagonists to be introduced in Quicksilver, is also the first to show up here. Having been drawn out of his long retirement in Massachusetts by Enoch Root, to try and mediate Newton and Leibniz's decades-long feud over (nominally) the credit for inventing calculus and (ultimately) differences of opinion on cosmology, he has arrived in England, where he is standing in a field that will be the site of an "Engine for Raising Water by Fire" (i.e., a steam engine). From there, he goes on to London in the company of a mysterious person named Threader, whose innumerable discreet business transactions with various wealthy townsmen make the trip take far longer than it should. Daniel figures out that Threader deals in the newfangled paper money that Daniel finds so baffling. At the end of this long, meandering trip, something explodes near their coach. Daniel recognizes the flame as that produced by phosphorus, which tells him 1) the explosion was not an accident and 2) whoever made the bomb is an Alchemist.
This one simple task that Daniel is given --- get Newton and Leibniz to talk to each other and start working together instead of at cross purposes --- mutates into an imposing snarl of "side quests" in RPG parlance: Newton is Master of the Mint, and plagued by a mysterious counterfeiter named Jack the Coiner, whom Daniel ends up helping him hunt down; Leibniz has found a royal patron for his Logic Mill project, and he wants Daniel's help in getting the thing built, as well as giving it raw information to encode. There is also a succession crisis --- Queen Anne is childless, old and sickly, and both her brother James and her cousin George have claimed the throne --- and a criminal investigation for Daniel to embroil himself in.
Both of the other protagonists, Jack and Eliza, have entered the story by now: Jack is, of course, Jack the Coiner, working covertly for Louis XIV to undermine Britain's economic power, and Eliza has attached herself to the Hanover court, as she is a close friend of Princess Caroline, whose mother wed George August, who is now one of the claimants to the English throne. Eliza and Daniel are playing for the same team --- Daniel is a Whig, mostly for cultural reasons (he's a Puritan, and there is strong overlap between the Puritans and the Whigs), he's helping Leibniz, whom Eliza also tries to help, and he's helping Newton, whom the Tories are trying to discredit as Master of the Mint. But Jack is working against both of them, which must cause him some internal conflict because he still loves Eliza, though he tries to make himself forget this.
Other characters figuring in this volume are Jack's brother Bob Shaftoe, who is still a sergeant in the Queen's (later King's) Own Black Torrent Guards, and who, with his regiment, helps Daniel and Newton raid a castle belonging to a Tory lord where they suspect Jack the Coiner may be hiding, and later takes part in some skirmishes with Tory militiamen. His regiment is also charged with guarding the Pyx, where samples of coins taken from circulation at regular intervals are kept under lock and key, stored until such time as someone high-placed takes it upon himself to have their purity assayed in a Trial of the Pyx.
There is also Eliza's handsome and resourceful German-born son, Johann; a Puritan shipbuilder named Nathan Orney, who has some wonderfully arch exchanges with Daniel (they call each other "Brother Nathan" and "Brother Daniel," though their feelings for one another are pretty far from brotherly); the huge, one-armed Russian agent provocateur named Yevgeny; the wily Jesuit priest Edouard de Gex, who is in England supervising Jack's sabotage of the English currency; Dappa, who has left Jack's employ for Eliza's, and who has taken up the pen to write articles condemning slavery; and Charles White, an odious person who serves the Viscount Bolingbroke, leader of the Tory faction, and who decides that Dappa, being a black man in England, must be someone's property, so he might as well be his, Charles White's, property. He has Dappa thrown into jail, from whence he directs all his pamphleteering at White personally. Their feud culminates in what may be the most absurd dueling scene this side of Twain's "The Great French Duel."
The ending of the book is truly epic: two climaxes build at once, cutting from one to the other. They have been long in coming: they are the Trial of the Pyx and the execution of Jack the Coiner. Stephenson draws them out, longer I think than any other scene in any of the books. But the drawing-out doesn't feel slow at all; it gives those scenes a sense of grandeur and finality.
Another thing I loved about the ending of this book --- which, after the two climaxes play out, consists of a series of epilogues showing where each major character ends up --- was its thematic coherence. Toward the middle of the book the title is explained: Princess Caroline is presiding over the reconciliation of Newton and Leibniz, and she tells them she wants them to work together because she senses that a new System of the World, a more rational one guided by science, technology and commerce, was being born, but that it was a fragile one that would require both of their combined efforts to keep on track. She specifically worried that the flowering of science would lead to a withering of Christianity, and she called on both philosophers to try to forestall that. At the end of the book, Daniel is standing in the middle of a mine that has been pumped dry by one of the new steam engines, and he reflects that the new System has succeeded in displacing the old. Throughout the saga, Daniel and Eliza have been instrumental in bringing it forth: Daniel has furthered the cause of Natural Philosophy, and Eliza has championed commerce. Eliza's anti-slavery labors also fall under the rubric of this new System: as Daniel sees it, the machines the new System enables man to build will do the work that slaves used to do, and will render slavery obsolete as well as morally wrong. (I do not think that this is true; I know that slavery has survived the machine age.) Newton seems to have one foot in the old System and one foot in the new; he's the world's pre-eminent Natural Philosopher, and as Master of the Mint he oversees the rationalization of England's economic system, but his great passion is Alchemy. Indeed, he tells Daniel he only took the Mint position to try and get his hands on the fabled Solomonic gold, the gold suffused with the Philosophic Quintessence that makes it heavier than all other gold and that, distilled, hardens into the Philosopher's Stone that grants eternal life. And Jack seems to be entirely a man of the old System, thriving on chaos and unpredictability. Everything he does --- undermining Newton's coinage, trying to have Daniel, Newton or both of them killed, throwing his lot in with the absolutist King Louis XIV, as opposed to the ever-more-republican English government, stealing the Solomonic gold and unleashing it upon the world --- seems opposed to the forces of Reason and Modernity, except that he also exemplifies some very modern values, like individualism and egalitarianism. As King of the Vagabonds, his command of the Mobb, and his appreciation for the Mobb's power and knowledge of its nature, prefigure the modern era when most countries are democracies. And in that way, Jack comes off as the most forward-looking of the characters, seeing the potential of mere peasants to be political actors when Daniel and Eliza are fixated on Kings, Barons, Dukes, Princes and Princesses.
Long story short, Neal Stephenson is a genius. I do not doubt I will revisit this series many times.(less)