Let me get my prejudice out of the way. With Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I thought that Neal Stephenson established himself as one of the best science fiction authors writing today. With Cryptonomicon, I felt that he had become one of the best authors writing in any genre. Now, with The Baroque Cycle trilogy, if there's a better author alive today, all I can say is, I want to read his or her work.
The Confusion and The System of the World, the fifth and sixth books I read this year, are volumes two and three of The Baroque Cycle, a sprawling, 3,000-page work. The Baroque Cycle is readable on a variety of levels: as a treatise on the development of modern financial systems; as a historical novel featuring the greatest scientists (Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren) and rulers (Louis XIV, William III, James II) of the 17th Century; as a pirate-vagabond-military adventure; or as a love story for the ages (my favorite, but then, I'm a romantic at heart).
It would be easy to choose one of many, many excellent sections that illustrate Stephenson's ability to explain, in context, technical and arcane subject matter. It would be equally easy to pick out a fine bit of swashbuckling, in which the participants may or may not be honorable, but are usually literate and often interesting. But some of my favorite passages from The Baroque Cycle are those that center on personal relationships. This is from a conversation between Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, and Bob Shaftoe, a soldier with whom she has had the occasional affair:
"I am ever in a delicate way," said Eliza, "but men pick and choose the time to take notice of it, as it suits their purposes." At this Bob chuckled again, which provoked her. "Let us speak plainly," she said, "for this is where our ways part -- you must to the Tower to attend your master in his prison-cell, I must to dockside to arrange passage to Dunkerque." ...
"When you promise to speak plainly, I know to brace myself," said Bob, and then he did literally, leaning against a brick wall.
"You have seen me sick, and suppose that I am pregnant. This has wrought powerfully on your mind, for you know that Abigail was given syphilis by Upnor and may not be able to give you children, even if you do pry her from the clutches of Count Sheerness. You have stopped thinking of me as 'Eliza the woman I roger from time to time' and begun to think of me as 'Eliza the expectant mother of my only child.' This has queered your judgment and led you to consider schemes that are not likely to produce Abigail's freedom. Know then that the foetus -- which might have been yours, or my husband's, or any of several other men's -- miscarried the night before last. It is with the angels. I would still produce a competent heir for my husband, but must begin a new pregnancy once I have reached France. Perhaps I shall seduce Jean Bart, perhaps the Marquis d'Ozoir, perhaps a Marine who catches my fancy on the street. In any case you must give up hope that any progeny of yours shall come from here -- " and Eliza rested her hand on the front of her bodice " -- for I am done with being the other woman in the life of Bob Shaftoe and Abigail Frome. Done with being the poppy-elixir that makes you forget your pain, and leads you to dream strategems that shall never avail you or her a thing. Abigail may be waiting for you, Bob. I am not. Get thee to thy projects, then."
Over the course of the three books, Stephenson occasionally writes anachronistically, always briefly, always for humorous effect, and never so much as to detract from the verisimilitude of his novels:
"The ineffable currents of the slave-market drove me to Algiers. My owner learned that I had some skills beyond oar-pulling, and put me to work as a bookkeeper in a market where Corsairs sell and trade their swag. The winter before last, I made the acquaintance of Moseh, who was asking many questions about the market in tutsuklar ransom futures. We had several conversations and I began to perceive the general shape of his Plan."
"He told you about Jeronimo, and the Viceroy?"
"No, I learned of that on the same night as you."
"Then what do you mean when you say you understood his plan?"
"I understood the basic principle: that a group of slaves who, taken one by one, were assigned a very low value by the market, might yet be worth much when grouped together cleverly..." Vrej rolled up to his feet and grimaced into the sun. "The wording does not come naturally in this bastard language of Sabir, but Moseh's plan was to synergistically leverage the value-added of diverse core competencies into a virtual entity whose whole was more than the sum of its parts..."
Jack stared at him blankly.
"It sounds brilliant in Armenian." Vrej sighed.
I can't say enough good things about this trilogy. Stephenson has more interesting ideas in any given chapter than most authors have in entire books -- or in some cases, entire lifetimes. It's an amazing accomplishment, and were it any other writer, I would say it was destined to be seen as the pinnacle of his or her career -- but this is Stephenson, so I know better.