Neal Stephenson (foisting books on a reading public, part ?+1)

Perhaps you’re of a different temperament than I am, and only start tasks that you fully expect you’ll finish, or your initial enthusiasms never flag in the course of some great undertaking.

While I may envy such persons, I think that the fully actualized may be denying themselves one of life’s surprising little pleasures: the recovery of pleasure and enthuasiasm (and the accompanying boost to your sense of dedication) in mid-task, with the additional available-to-all thrill of deferred gratification at the end.

If you’re imagining that I have a bookshelf full of thick books with discreetly placed bookmarks (I shall someday pick this up from where I dropped it, honest….), then you might be surprised. I’m sitting in my living room typing this, and looking at the bookshelf against the east wall, it appears that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the thickest work of fiction in this room–I promised the child of a friend that I’d read one of the books, and wound up liking the series (This, presumably, means that I am supposed to be very excited about Susanna Clarke’s adult fantasy “Pride and Prestidigitation” outing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Yeah, maybe later….).

So it’s with some surprise that I find myself reading the third novel in Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle” The System of the World, and feeling that little tickle that tells me that this may all prove to have been worth it.

Now don’t get me wrong–I’m not going to tell you to start making your own way through several thousand pages without some serious qualifications. It’s one thing to needle-drop (is it bit-dropping on an iPod or CD player?) through a disc on my recommendation, and quite another to kill a couple of humungous tomes.

So here are some interviews that have Stephenson talking about the book and its basic ideas with a couple of people–Laura Miller with my friend Paul Boutin that should give you a little background. Andrew Leonard has soldiered through the books (albeit more quickly than I, and has posted some reviews on Salon for all three volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Taken together, they might picque your interest. Or not.

Although I’ve read every single thing Stephenson has ever written, I wasn’t without my doubts on this kind of undertaking. At times, his writerly urgers mean that he spends way too much time describing the technology of rocket-propelled dogs, explicating Gödel’s theorem using chain links, spinning out extended pieces on using urine to make gunpowder, and how to manage the perfect bowl of Captain Crunch. As one friend puts it, “It’s the David Foster Wallace thing. You love it, hate it, or tune it out and tune in later.”

Watching these predilections play out over the course of a sequence of “historical” novels has moved in two ways for me: not only does the past “make more sense,” but I find myself seeing things about the conventions of Stephenson’s earlier genre works in a different light. I’m reminded that I find speculative fiction interesting for its occasional ability to imagine a world that extrapolates my own in ways I might not imagine; These novels live very much in my world, but they extrapolate forward from a time when quite a lot of what I take as “given” is still being formed. While I might have said whilst slogging through the first two books that the “ripping yarn” portions of the novel–hero bad-boy Jack and his galley slave band carjacking a ship full of gold, heroine Eliza (a great fictional creation she: a woman who instinctly understands and negotiates the rising currents and eddies of the emerging world, “hacking” her way past the obstacles imposed by her gender) negotiating the minefields of court intrigue–were what really entertained me, I’m beginning to see the shape of the story now. Instead of following old Daniel Waterhouse around and watching him try to arrange a little détente between Newton and Liebnitz, we’re going to see him as the “real” hero of the cycle: the man of reason that we all believe ourselves to be, attending the birth of a Present Age we take very much for granted.

And I think I can begin to see the writerly appeal of it, too. When it’s done well, you begin to see how revolutionary the rise of the scientific method really was. You begin to glimpse the absolutely earth-shattering consequences of the creation of credit and mechanisms of foreign exchange. And those things connect to the fabric of your day-to-day existence in ways that suddenly seem less obvious: the feeling for the observer is reminiscent of that scene in the Matrix where Neo gazes down the dingy corridor at his adversaries and we’re suddenly shown the same image revisualized as a kind of glittering data. I suppose that those social history books that my beloved reads achieve some of the same effects, but I’m a sucker for doing that while you tell a story.

On reflection, you can also see some of the ideas about mind and body and social networks that appear in his earlier more “explicitly” SF novels here, too–alchemy emerges as a kind of subplot in book 2 and appears prominently in book 3 as the way that Stephenson deals with the same questions of transcendance and the incorporeal. Rather than the pursuit of cranks, it becomes the way that thinkers of the time tried to imagine how one might escape the confines or discover what might be outside of the realm of What Science Explains. And I’m finding it an extremely interesting part of the book(s), as things develop.

If you’re enamored with the tech part of cyberpunk, then this will probably be one of the most prolonged snooze reads of your life in sections (or as a whole) unless you can wrap your head around the technologies of the past. Money is a network. Feuds are viruses that disrupt social networks. Pumping water out of Welsh mines is a form of hacking (An interesting how-to book on 17th century hacking techniques (sort of) is here, btw). If the prejudice towards seeing progress on your own terms only remains in place, well….

Neal Stephenson (foisting books on a reading public, part ?+1)

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