I chose the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson because I wanted a long book to read and because this author has written other books that I enjoyed. Perhaps if I knew this trilogy of books ran to 2700+ pages I might have had second thoughts but my Kindle doesn’t deal with page numbers. I like to think that I would have read these novels anyway. It certainly was not a sprint: it was a journey – a journey in time, a mental journey, and involving lots of journeying by the books’ characters. Stephenson takes us to the 17th and early 18th century. This time period represents a transitional age in that the way men lived upon the earth was changing, in much the same ways that we are in a transitional age now.
Quicksilver introduces us to the Alchemists, who wished to find a way to turn base metal into gold. Quicksilver is mercury, which fascinated Alchemists with its unusual behaviors as a metal that is liquid at room temperature and a metal that beads and rolls around as if it were solid. It was felt that quicksilver, so often found near gold deposits, was somehow transformed into gold by some kind of mysterious natural process. The Alchemists were almost done with their investigations, having failed so often in their endeavors. But the experimentations they had conducted gave them a great scientific curiosity about everything in the world around them, both nonliving and living. Out of the Alchemists came a group known as Natural Philosophers and we had the very beginning of Physics.
These were the days of Isaac Newton in England and Hooke in England and Huygens, a Dutchman, and Gottfried Leibnitz, a German. These men explored the insides of living things, they looked at everything under lenses that improved in quality as the trilogy progressed. They created “the algebra” and they began to see that all things were made of smaller things (atoms to Newton, monads to Leibnitz). Newton and Leibnitz both claimed to have come up with “the algebra” which made these two great men opponents and caused educated folks to divide into two camps depending on which great man they backed.
Stephenson gives us a fictional character to serve as a go-between for these great gentlemen who did not always agree with each other. Daniel Waterhouse is the character who speaks to all of the principals. He also avoids much of the Catholic – Protestant divide of the times by coming from a family that is neither. His father is persecuted for his beliefs, but Daniel is not. Daniel serves as our man in London and in Massachusetts where he is trying to set up the Massachusetts’ Institute of Technological Arts. (He is not the founder of MIT.)
The other two books in this trilogy – which jumps around in time and place – although not quite as neatly and tidily organized as I am making them sound, are called The Confusion and The System of the World. They take us out of London with a vagabond. On the “Continent”, we follow two very unusual fictional characters. We follow Eliza, the stunning and extremely intelligent ex-Turkish slave, captured by a French aristocrat with her mom and sold into slavery in Turkey. And we have Jack Shaftoe, a poor Englishman, also extremely intelligent, who becomes the King of the Vagabonds. Eliza and Jack fall in love when he rescues her from the Turks but their paths diverge. Eliza becomes wealthy by learning to invest in the Dutch “stock market” of the day. Dutch economics are superior to other nations earlier due to the trade of the Dutch East India Company. Eliza becomes a member of the court of Louis XIV and becomes a familiar figure at Versailles. Jack gets captured and becomes a slave rower on a ship bound for Africa. But he is too brilliant to stay down for long. Jack makes a plan, makes some friends and ends up taking us to visit all the world that was known at that time.
Jack’s plan involves stealing gold as part of a plan of retribution against the Frenchman who enslaved Eliza. He does not realize that this is known as the Solomonic Gold because it is bound to mercury. The nature of this particular gold had everyone chasing Jack and his men all over Christendom and beyond and puts his life in mortal jeopardy more times than you will want to count. The Alchemists and the Natural Philosophers are thrown into a total tizzy over this gold and several of our favorite characters barely escape with their lives and only manage it through the rather extreme machinations of Daniel Waterhouse and those he ropes into assisting him. Thus ends the age of Alchemy.
What follows are the beginnings of the Industrial Age. Here as magical science wraps up and practical science begins, just here when someone invents the “Engine that Uses Fire to Pump Water” and a contest offers a prize to anyone who can come up with a way to determine “the longitude” when on a sea voyage, things are as chaotic as they are here at the end of the Industrial Age in our real world.
The Baroque Cycle is a tale that will either entertain you over many a rainy and sunny day or will cause you to completely lose your patience and perhaps throw it at a wall. (Don’t throw your Kindle). Although I sometimes felt a bit crazed when I read for half a day and only progressed through 2% of the book, I never really wanted to stop reading it and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it’s not an experience I can recommend to anyone. You know if you are a reader who will love this or yawn over this. As for me I will eventually download another Stephenson tome and while away some more idle hours by allowing my mind to be taken somewhere/time else. (It is also a love story of sorts.)
“At some point, says Neal Stephenson by way of Daniel Waterhouse, the whole System will fail, because of the flaws that have been wrought into it…Perhaps new sorts of Wizards will be required then. But – and perhaps this is only because of his age, and that there’s a longboat waiting to take him away – he has to admit that having some kind of System, even a flawed and doomed one, is better than to live forever in the poisonous storm-tide of quicksilver that gave birth to all of this.