An orrery of thought

Having finished reading Neal Stephenson’s epic historical trilogy The Baroque Cycle it’s quite hard, on reflection, to recall everything that’s in it. It has to be one of the densest, most detailed, and most complex works of fiction I’ve ever read. It is also really a single novel, although each of its parts is extremely lengthy in its own right, bound together by plotting that is both structurally sturdy and delicately filigreed, a clockwork of intersecting, nested narrative arcs, which by no accident resemble the astronomical mechanisms disclosed by Isaac Newton’s work on gravity. These mechanisms were described in the third book of his famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, titled De mundi systemate, or in English, The System of the World. This also happens to be the title of the concluding volume of Stephenson’s trilogy, again, not by coincidence. In fact, that is one notable characteristic of this series of books: their titles all refer directly to their central themes. Those themes are all present across the whole cycle, but they are structurally central to the volume that bears each name. Quicksilver refers to the ‘philosophic mercury’ sought by alchemists, but also used to name the animating spirit of intellectual enquiry, and more prosaically the most widely used treatment for syphilis. The Confusion refers to the mingling of cultures, trade and society shown in its globe-spanning narrative, and also to the mixing together of elements, the ‘con-fusion’, or ‘fusing with’ that occurs when two metals are melted in the same crucible, a process which is central to the book both literally and metaphorically. The System of the World refers to Newton’s book, but there is not much astronomy in Stephenson’s: instead it refers to the new social, political and economic system that emerged through the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This was the era when currency became more fiat than specie, when stocks and shares began to be traded in the ways that they are today, when central banks first came into existence, and when the institutions associated with these phenomena, as well as the political institutions which embodied the power of their participants, came to exceed the political might of monarchs and aristocrats. It’s the time, in other words, when the bourgeoisie took over from the nobility. Of course this was a lengthy, gradual, and complex process, which had its beginnings in and before the Italian Renaissance, and the great trading houses of the Mediterranean city states, but Britain got the jump on its powerful northern European neighbours by the expedient of beheading its king in 1649, an event which is one of the earliest memories of The Baroque Cycle’s central character. After that event, for all the complex politics, continued warfare, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and the Hanoverian ascension that came afterwards, it was obvious that money (the bourgeoisie) had the upper hand over land (the aristocracy). For many, this supremacy is aligned with that of science over religion, Protestantism over Catholicism, trade over warfare, and so forth, and one of the central themes of Stephenson’s trilogy, which becomes the dominant theme in The System of the World, is the complex of relations between these forces, frequently symbolised by the English political contest between Whigs and Tories.

Clearly what I’ve described sounds like the thematic basis of a history book, not a work of fiction. It also sounds like it might make for a rather forbidding, and frankly dull, sort of a novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stephenson has enormous fun with this set of themes from start to finish, and he explores them through the peregrinations of a large and varied cast of characters, whose social status ranges from, well, the King of France, down to the illiterate mudlarks of the tidal Thames foreshore, and which includes many prominent intellectuals of the time. In my opinion, having now read quite a lot of his books, there are two things in particular that Stephenson does brilliantly. One is technical conversations between experts, presented to the audience on the assumption that they are interested, and don’t need a spoonful of sugar to accompany their ‘medicine’. The other is heists. He has the trick, with both species of set piece, of making them almost ludicrously entertaining and suspenseful, and The System of the World (like both the earlier books of the trilogy) is amply provided with examples of both. But there is a good deal more to this book than a fistful of intellectual themes and an expertly constructed thriller plot. Characters which have had several narrative decades and three enormous books for us to get to know them, and for their relationships to develop, are brought to life vividly and idiosyncratically; by the conclusion of the final volume their interactions are freighted with a weight of well-earned emotional import that would be very hard to achieve by a shorter or less convoluted route. Stephenson writes them sympathetically and amusingly, and he seems to value their weirdness, in a way that makes me, for one, feel that I’d be welcome in his world.

All of this is realised in language which I found a delight, in literally every sentence. Stephenson’s dialect of Bygonese is riotously anachronistic, musical, and linguistically gnarled in a way that made me feel the history of English speech far more vividly than a more historically accurate approach could have hoped to achieve. Such departures from historical verity extend beyond the language, and Stephenson has said that The Baroque Cycle should be classified as science-fiction rather than historical fiction. There are immortal (or very long-lived) characters, unlikely alchemical effects, and computing machines considerably more sophisticated than the ‘stepped reckoner’ that Liebniz actually constructed. But fundamentally, these books are about the political and intellectual ferment of the second half of the seventeenth century, and about what it might have been like to live through it, so for me the term ‘historical’ is appropriate. After all, every work of historical fiction is to some degree a fantasy, and entails the same kind of world-building, imaginative and inventive, that is required by fantasy or science-fiction. As I said at the outset, I’ve forgotten at least as much as I can remember about these books, but whatever has lodged in my sieve-like brain has been some of the most entertaining, playful, erudite, intellectually stimulating and emotionally involving fiction that I’ve yet encountered.

1 Comment

  1. When I read Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” it brought me into the historical period wonderfully but I thought it should be trimmed by half for maximum, focused impact. I wonder if I’d feel the same here. I also wonder how much the old aristocracy invested in the new bourgeois financial and other systems, making the whole thing more of a costume change and less of a class revolution. I have no clue. Just thinking out loud 🙂

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