Book Review: Birth of a System: The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson


[Note to reader: weird spellings, such as “oeconomy” and “Technologickal,” are intentional.]

Clausewitz vs. RobotScience fiction writers have long been obsessed with history. This usually manifests itself in some sort of time-travel, such as in TV’s Quantum Leap or the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which the heroes finds themselves in medias res during various historical events. But there’s more to this obsession than just finding a setting for a time-travel story-there seems to be an underlying characteristic found in both sci-fi/fantasy geeks and historical/political, shall we say, “enthusiasts.” Indeed, the very same people (including, perhaps, yourself) you knew in high school who played Dungeons & Dragons and taped every episode of The Next Generation, likely also spent time simulating World War II with Milton Bradley’s Axis & Allies or reenacting complex international negotiations with Avalon Hill’s fun-for-all-policy-wonks-and-game-theorists Diplomacy.

Neal Stephenson is the publishing world’s paragon of such a history/science geek; it wouldn’t be surprising to find him pulling out a Linux-enabled portable device in the middle of a jousting session at the local Renaissance fair. His novels have increasingly moved from science fiction to the similar, yet more daunting, genre of historical science fiction. There were hints of this change in the cypherpunk-meets-ancient-Sumeria Snow Crash, and later in The Diamond Age, a nanotechnological tale set in an oddly Victorian future.

The transition truly became evident in the magnificent Cryptonomicon, half of which dealt with code-breaking in World War II, the other half with the adventures of a modern day technologist, seemingly ripped from the pages of Wired magazine. Now, with The Baroque Cycle, a three novel series concluding with the recently published The System of the World, Stephensonian historical sci-fi has come into its own.

Fluxions vs. DerivativesIn over 2500 pages, The Baroque Cycle deals with, among other things, the emergence of modern scientific societies, industrialization, global markets, currencies, and free societies. In the first volume, Quicksilver, we meet Daniel Waterhouse, the founder of the anachronistic Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts, based here in Cambridge (known then as Newtowne). He is called over to England by Princess Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, later Queen of England, to settle the life-long debate between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz as to who first invented the mathematical calculus (or the study of fluxions, in Newton’s obsolete terminology). Waterhouse was Newton’s roommate in his youth at Cambridge University, and perhaps knows him more than anyone else, although they haven’t communicated in years. He’s also a good friend of Leibniz, such that the goal of his research at MBCIT is to implement Leibniz’s Logic Mill, an early version of the modern computer.

We also meet Half-Cocked Jack, a vagabond who rescues the beautiful odalisque Eliza from the Turks during the Siege of Vienna. Jack ends up in a Turkish slave galley, while Eliza takes on Amsterdam and France, under the reign of the Sun King, as a financial mastermind. In the second and most thrilling volume of the cycle, The Confusion, Jack earns his keep by circumnavigating the globe, stealing a stash of gold with perhaps alchemical properties, and garnering a global reputation. Eliza, meanwhile, establishes herself as both a French and British duchess via political and financial machinations. This volume is Stephenson at his finest, intermixing swashbuckling and piracy with surprisingly engaging digressions on such things as the antiquated timber trade centered in Lyon, France.

Stephenson takes the adventure down a notch in System, but maintains the oddly fascinating political and scientific workings of 17th and 18th century London. This is the sort of book with attractive, detailed maps of the city, surrounding landscapes, and structural blueprints in the front and back covers. In System, Waterhouse has finally made it to London, yet can hardly find time to settle the calculus debate. Instead, he is consumed with investigating a series of incidents involving timed explosives, a relatively new technology enabled by advanced horology. In addition to that, he’s been asked by Leibniz to ship evidence of his research to Leibniz’s benefactor, none other than Russia’s Peter the Great. To that end, Waterhouse begins a massive project in London to manufacture gold cards punched with holes for use in the Logic Mill.

Whigs vs. ToriesWhich brings us to the continuing story of Half-Cocked Jack (named for his disease-mangled genitalia), Eliza de la Zeur, and the Master of the British Mint, Isaac Newton. Jack, to win again the love of Eliza, now unrequited for more than twenty years, has been trying to debase the English currency with counterfeit coins, undetectable since they are made with “heavy gold,” the allegedly magical gold stolen earlier by Jack. Newton is flustered by Jack, not only because his job is to keep the currency stable, but also because Newton, along with being the world’s most famous scientist, is also an obsessed alchemist trying to collect a sizable quantity of this so-called Solomon’s Gold. Indeed, he accepted the mundane position of Master of the Mint for this very reason, as a reluctant supporter of the Whig party. Unfortunately for Newton, Waterhouse has dibs on the special gold, even though he’s only using it for manufacturing punched cards.

Meanwhile, Queen Anne of England is near death, and the Tories are maneuvering to put a Catholic back on the throne. The Whigs, on the other hand, are preparing George of Hanover for the monarchy-a German, yes, but not a Catholic. In a major set piece of the novel spanning over one hundred pages, Jack and his cohorts invade the Tower of London, where the British Mint is located, to compromise the currency and damage the Whig movement. While action scenes have been a strength of Stephenson’s in the past, especially in The Confusion, here the details of infiltrating the Tower are surprisingly mundane. Stephenson, however, is able to compensate with a more suspenseful attack sequence at the mouth of the Thames.

I could go on with the political complexities of Stephenson’s world, but suffice it to say that the reader is constantly entertained with his careful mix of fiction and non-fiction. And Stephenson creates the most amusing way to learn about political and scientific history, by scattering constant bits of humor and creative anachronisms. For instance, when Waterhouse is resting on an English field, surrounded by sheep, he begins to ponder:

How many sheep in England? And not just in January 1714 but in all the millennia before? Why had the island not sunk into the sea under the weight of sheep-bones and sheep-teeth? Possibly because their wool was exported-mostly to Holland-which was in fact sinking into the sea! Q.E.D.

Such academic humor, in addition to subtle and not-so-subtle references to Tolkien, Monty Python, and a modern programming language with a similar name, appear sufficiently frequent enough to keep the more attuned reader entertained.

Old vs. NewWhich is not to say that Stephenson doesn’t have anything serious on his mind. He does not ignore the booming slave trade that is partially responsible for the birth of the global economy. The most likeable character in the series is Dappa, a Nigerian linguist serving as first mate on a transoceanic trade ship. In one of the best subplots the novel has to offer, Dappa is forcibly enslaved by one of his political enemies but makes the best of it by publishing his memoirs through the abolitionist Eliza.

Stephenson is also interested in the effects of the System of the world that is beginning to develop in this era. Waterhouse learns first-hand that the political world, so ingrained in social niceties and personal grudges, considers scientists second-class citizens. In terms of scientific progress, Waterhouse
witnesses one of the first functional steam engines and starts to imagine the potential consequences, both negative and positive, of a world run by generated power. When Newton and Leibniz finally have their philosophical showdown, their host Princess Caroline, concerned about the two scientists’ differing philosophies, tells them of an apocalyptic vision she’s been having:

“[T]his System, if it is set up wrong, might be doomed from the start… Oh, it shall be a wonder to behold at first, and all shall marvel at its regularity, its oeconomy, and the ingenuity of them who framed it. Perhaps it shall work as planned for a decade, or a century, or more. And yet if it has been made wrong at the beginning, it shall burn, in the end, and my vision shall be realized…”

Waterhouse is more optimistic, viewing a flawed System as better than no System at all. Stephenson’s insight is that the new System cannot come out of nothing, but will be integrated with the old System, the ultimate kluge. Scientists will always have a little bit of alchemy, just like Christianity has a little paganism, and the British government a little monarchy. You can’t understand the present or predict the future without knowing the legacy culture.

And you wonder why futurists look to the past!