Skip to main content

Book review: The Baroque Cycle

Summary: this trilogy, consisting of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, clocking in at nearly 3000 pages, is a great and entertaining look at the the birth of science and capitalism.  Highly recommended.

Stephenson combines what must have been enough meticulous research for several history PhD theses with a mischievous disregard for perfect accuracy.  Stephenson has an eye for interesting historical anecdotes (like the origin of the word "realize"), and though that can be a bit distracting at times, it's never boring.  Real historical figures are press-ganged (to use a favorite phrase in the series) into service as characters of all sorts.  Leibniz, Newton, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, William of Orange, Hooke, Huygens, John Wilkins, Ben Franklin, and John Locke are just a sample.  Leibniz and Newton in particular play major roles and have close relationships with the fictional characters (which are ancestors of characters in Cryptonomicon, a book set in the 20th century).

Despite the carefully constructed background, the book is not really self-consciously historical.  Characters often speak with a kind of ironic detachment characteristic of Stephenson and the modern age, and often make explicit their role in history in an unlikely way.  It's obvious that Stephenson is speaking through them, but the advantage of those creative liberties is that Stephenson's historiographical ideas (that the seeds of the IT revolution were sown back in the 17th century, for example) shine through with a lot more brilliance than would be possible with a strictly qualified and hedged history book.

A quick aside: a stranger, not-realistic role is played by Enoch Root, a character who also appears in Cryptonomicon.  I won't tell you what he does, just that it is decidedly not scientific.  It seemed like a cool plot point rather than a philosophical statement, but I was a bit unsure what to make of it.

I'm probably about the perfect target reader for the series, so it's no surprise that I liked it a lot.  Other less-geeky readers might not want to invest the time to get through them, but if you like science, technology, and Errol Flynn-style pirate swashbuckling, it's definitely worth a read.  About my only complaint was that Stephenson's ironic distance sometimes penetrates through into the descriptions to a point where it's difficult to figure out exactly what was happening.  Reading these on my Kindle might have been a disadvantage there, as I was constantly wanting to flip back through to reread previous section that I had neglected to bookmark, and couldn't manage it.  Still, worth a read.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves tha

The Conversational Downsides of Twitter's Structure

Over the past couple years, as I've had a steady writing job and ascended from "utter nobody" to "D-list pundit," I find it harder and harder to have discussions online. Twitter is the only social network I like and where I talk to people the most, but as your number of followers increases, the user experience becomes steadily more hostile to conversation. Here's my theory as to why this happens. First is Twitter's powerful tendency to create cliques and groupthink. Back in forum and blog comment section days, people would more often hang out in places where a certain interest or baseline understanding could be assumed. (Now, there were often epic fights, cliques, and gratuitous cruelty on forums too, particularly the joke or insult variety, but in my experience it was also much easier to just have a reasonable conversation.) On Twitter, people rather naturally form those same communities of like interest, but are trapped in the same space with differe