The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 30 Dec 2006

Notes on Neal Stephenson's Baroque novels
Earlier this year I was reading books by Robert Hooke, John Wilkins, Sir Thomas Browne, and other Baroque authors; people kept writing to me to advise me to read Neal Stephenson's "Baroque cycle", in which Hooke and Wilkins appear as characters.

I ignored this advice for a while, because those books are really fat, and because I hadn't really liked the other novels of Stephenson's that I'd read.

But I do like Stephenson's non-fiction. His long, long article about undersea telecommunications cables was one of my favorite reads of 1996, and I still remember it years later and reread it every once in a while. I find his interminable meandering pointless and annoying in his fiction, where I'm not sure why I should care about all the stuff he's describing. When the stuff is real, it's a lot easier to put up with it.

My problems with Stephenson's earlier novels, The Diamond Age and Snow Crash, will probably sound familiar: they're too long; they're disorganized; they don't have endings; too many cannons get rolled onstage and never fired.

Often "too long" is a pinheaded criticism, and when I see it I'm immediately wary. How long is "too long"? It calls to mind the asinine complaint from Joseph II that Mozart's music had "too many notes". A lot of people who complain that some book is "too long" just mean that they were too lazy to commit the required energy. When I say that Stephenson's earlier novels were "too long", I mean that he had more good ideas than he could use, and put a lot of them into the books even when they didn't serve the plot or the setting or the characters. A book is like a house. It requires a plan, and its logic dictates portions of the plan. You don't put in eleven bathtubs just because you happen to have them lying around, and you don't stick Ionic columns on the roof just because Home Depot had a sale on Ionic columns the week you were building it.

So the first thing about Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy is that it's not actually a trilogy. Like The Lord of the Rings, it was published in three volumes because of physical and commercial constraints. But the division into three volumes is essentially arbitrary.

The work totals about 2,700 pages. Considered as a trilogy, this is three very long books. Stephenson says in the introduction that it is actually eight novels, not three. He wants you to believe that he has actually written eight middle-sized books. But he hasn't; he is lying, perhaps in an attempt to shut up the pinheads who complain that his books are "too long". This is not eight middle-sized books. It is one extremely long book.

The narrative of the Baroque cycle is continuous, following the same characters from about 1650 up through about 1715. There is a framing story, introduced in the first chapters, which is followed by a flashback that lasts about 1,600 pages. Events don't catch up to the frame story until the third volume. If you consider Quicksilver to be a novel, the opening chapters are entirely irrelevant. If you consider it to be three novels, the opening chapters of the first novel are entirely irrelevant. It starts nowhere and ends nowhere, a vermiform appendix. But as a part of a single novel, it's not vestigial at all; it's a foreshadowing of later developments, which are delivered in volume III, or book 6, depending on how you count.

Another example: The middle volume, titled The Confusion, alternates chapters from two of the eight "novels" that make up the cycle. Events in these two intermingled ("con-fused") novels take place concurrently. Stephenson claims that they are independent, but they aren't.

So from now on I'm going to drop the pretense that this is a trilogy or a "cycle", and I'm just going to call this novel the "Baroque novel".

Here's the really funny thing about the Baroque novel. People have been complaining for years that Stephenson's books are "too long". But it seems to me now that the real problem with his earlier books is that they were not long enough. His earlier novels are full of leftovers, half-baked ideas, and miscellaneous detritus. I had imagined that with good editing to make the novels shorter, some poorly-integrated material could have been cleaned up. Perhaps so, but it hadn't occurred to me that there is another solution. Instead of making the novels shorter, make them longer, to accommodate all the flotsam. In the Baroque novel, Stephenson finally has enough space and time to deal properly with all his ideas. The flotsam is all still there, but it has been lashed together to make a boat, or a raft, or something like that.

This was quite a surprise to me. The world is full of incoherent ramblers, and most of them, if you really take the time to listen to them carefully, and at length, turn out to be completely full of shit. You get nothing but more incoherence.

Stephenson at 600 pages is a semi-coherent rambler; to really get what he is saying, you have to turn him up to 2,700 pages. Most people would have been 4.5 times as incoherent; Stephenson is at least 4.5 times as lucid. His ideas are great; he just didn't have enough space to explain them before! The Baroque novel has a single overarching theme, which is the invention of the modern world. One of the strands of this theme is the invention of science, and the modern conception of science; another is the invention of money, and the modern conception of money.

I've written before about what I find so interesting about the Baroque thinkers. Medieval, and even Renaissance thought seems very alien to me. In the baroque writers, I have the first sense of real understanding, of people grappling with the same sorts of problems that I do, in the same sorts of ways. For example, I've written before about John Wilkins' attempt to manufacture a universal language of thought. People are still working on this. Many of the particular features of Wilkins' attempt come off today as crackpottery, but to the extent that they do, it's only because we know now that these approaches won't work. And the reason we know that today is that Wilkins tried those approaches in 1668 and it didn't work.

The Baroque novel is a work of historical fiction. That is, it describes people who never existed meeting real historical figures, in (mostly) real places, during (mostly) real events. The history in the book is similar enough to real history to be familiar and understandable.

I find that almost all of Stephenson's annoying habits are much less annoying in the context of historical fiction. For example, many plot threads are left untied at the end. Daniel Waterhouse (fictional) becomes involved with Thomas Newcomen (real) and his Society for the Raising of Water by Fire. (That is, using steam engines to pump water out of mines.) This society figures in the plot of the last third of the novel, but what becomes of it? Stephenson drops it; we don't find out. In a novel, this would be annoying. But in a work of historical fiction, it's no problem, because we know what became of Newcomen and his steam engines: They worked well enough for pumping out coal mines, where a lot of coal was handy to fire them, and well enough to prove the concept, which really took off around 1775 when a Scot named James Watt made some major improvements. Sometime later, there were locomotives and nuclear generating plants. You can read all about it in the encyclopedia.

Another way in which Stephenson's style works better in historical fiction than in speculative fiction is in his long descriptions of technologies and processes. When they're fictitious technologies and imaginary processes, it's just wankery, a powerful exercise of imagination for no real purpose. Well, maybe the idea will work, and maybe it won't, and it is necessarily too vague to really give you a clear idea of what is going on. But when the technologies are real ones, the descriptions are illuminating and instructive. You know that the idea will work. The description isn't vague, because Stephnson had real source material to draw on, and even if you don't get a clear idea, you can go look up the details yourself, if you want. And Stephenson is a great explainer. As I said before, I love his nonfiction articles.

A lot of people complain that his novels don't have good endings. He's gotten better at wrapping things up, and to the extent that he hasn't, that's all right, because, again, the book is a historical novel, and history doesn't wrap up. The Baroque novel deals extensively with the Hanoverian succession to the English throne. Want to know what happened next? Well, you probably do know: a series of Georges, Queen Victoria, et cetera, and here we are. And again, if you want, the details are in the encyclopedia.

So I really enjoyed this novel, even though I hadn't liked Stephenson's earlier novels. As I was reading it, I kept thinking how glad I was that Stephenson had finally found a form that suits his talents and his interests.

[ Addendum 20170728: I revisited some of these thoughts in connection with Stephenson's 2016 novel Seveneves. ]

[ Addendum 20191216: I revived an article I wrote in 2002 about Stephenson's first novel The Big U. ]

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