The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson

In this second of Stephenson’s Baroque cycle of novels, the author continues his story of Jack Shaftoe and his new buddies, all of them slaves, and Eliza, his companion and lover from Volume One.  The Confusion, published in 2004, opens with Jack and his friends as prisoners of the Berbers in Algiers in 1689. Then shifts, in its dual focus, to Eliza maneuvering herself into the court of French King Louis XIV. These alternating scenes begin with Jack freeing himself from captivity with a thrilling move from being a galley slave to capturing a ship whose presumed treasure of silver from Spanish America miraculously turning into gold. It is an ironic metaphor for the alchemy that fascinates not a few historic characters that fill this volume.

Meanwhile Eliza inveigles herself as a double-agent into the complicated politics of the French court. Which becomes more complicated when she plots to turn paper notes into silver coins for French invaders to spend when invading England. How the invasion’s potential failure, which she hopes for, also brightens Eliza’s financial success is, however, difficult to follow. Indeed, the author is more fascinated than I by this blend of politics and finances.

Not to be ignored is the considerable research behind the vivid recreation of these scenes from the past. Which includes the interaction among the author’s fictional characters and actual historic figures, like the intellectuals Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. But more than in Stephenson’s Volume One, this is a fictional story woven through history, rather than one guided by history. It is also a story of the Enlightenment era, which prompts reverberations between its moment of fictional history that explores the development of mathematics and our current era in which the development of mathematics has evolved into our computer age.

Also of note is the author’s apparent delight in the use of language. This becomes obvious when he focuses on the swashbuckling adventures of Jack, first as he steals the new-found gold from a business partner of Eliza, then escapes by ship across the Mediterranean and survives an ambush in Cairo. Where, incidentally, he kills the father of the man Eliza has been forced to marry back in France. After we visit Eliza again—who is both seeking her illegitimate son, kidnapped by an enemy banker, and plotting to foil the French invasion of England—we find that Jack, unwelcome by the powers in Europe, is now penniless in India. Because a pirate queen has stolen his team’s gold, and he is surviving by donating blood to insects (don’t ask) in a hospital for birds and animals. The scene is gruesome, absurd, and presumably appeals to those with a sick sense of humor.

But it leads to another intricate plot in India, in which Jack and his buddies open up a trade route controlled by mercenaries. They do this by boiling camel dung and human urine to create phosphorous, and wearing the phosphorous at night to terrify the mercenaries. Jack is rewarded with a brief kingship, during which he constructs a great ship of teak, the Minerva, using gold re-invested by the pirate queen. And this soon puts our heroes, and the reader, on the road to the East. Many such scenes, whether in Cairo, India, France, or Germany, reflect the author’s endless fascination with finding new stories to dramatize his blend of history, adventure, and science.

Whereupon, we return to London, and to the Daniel Waterhouse whom we had met on the opening pages of the first volume. It is now two or so decades earlier than that opening, and Daniel is involved with long, impenetrable discussions with John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Nicolas Fatio. Frustrated by England’s financial uncertainty, Daniel is now planning to depart for Massachusetts, hoping to turn the intellectuals’ mathematical speculations into a machine that will be a forerunner to today’s computers. Meanwhile, his intellectual friends are forming a Juncto to tackle English finances. All of which seems to provide no link to the stories of Jack or Eliza, until the Juncto recognizes a need to establish a Bank of England to foster English commerce, and they name Newton head of the London mint. Which, note, Jack will be commissioned to destroy in Volume Three.

Still another connection to Volume Three is a young woman named Caroline. She is the daughter of a Prussian friend of Eliza. She is fascinated by science and becomes a friend of Leibniz. Indeed, it is this Caroline who has opened Volume One by urging Daniel Waterhouse to return from Massachusetts to Europe in order to resolve a scientific dispute between Isaac Newton and Leibniz.

This novel seems to be properly entitled, The Confusion. Not least, as Stephen Metcalf writes in the New York Times, because “we’re treated to endless levees, epistles, political-economical-metaphysical discursions, and Stephenson’s favorite, conspiracies.” Or as the book jacket says: “A great adventure ensues, rife with battles, chases, hairbreadth escapes, swashbuckling, bloodletting, and danger…that will place the intrepid band at odds with the mighty and the mad, with alchemists, Jesuits, great navies, pirate queens, and vengeful despots across vast oceans. Meanwhile, back in Europe…”

…We join Eliza, who is traveling into Germany to visit Herr Leibnitz in Leipzig but also her kidnapped son. To keep in touch in the 1690s, however, communication is by letter, even coded at times, and her constant communications with naval pirate Jean Burk and other officers, diplomats, financiers, and court figures allows the author to condense such financial maneuvering, still confusing, into summary reports, rather than having to dramatize such maneuvers at length. This is an easy way to cover a lot of ground, but its cumulative plotting is at the expense of clarification.

The remaining drama of the volume focuses on Jack Shaftoe. First, he heads south toward the tip of what is now India. Along the way, he is fascinated by the creation of Damascus steel. Or is it the author who is fascinated by still another blend of invention and history?

Stephenson continues here to be exercising his imagination rather than his intellect, changing the political, cultural, and/or physical setting in order to sustain our interest. For example, Jack enters a region dominated by a female pirate warrior, but their friendship has unexpected limitations. He then encounters a Japanese Jesuit, whose history he learns. Thus, there are few connecting links, little logical development from one story or confrontation or setting to the next. Except, some of those confrontations, such as the queen challenging him to swim with crocodiles, are dramatically powerful.

The Japanese Jesuit seems to be introduced in order that Jack’s new ship, the Minerva, might take our heroes back to Europe, via Japan. Jack is aboard, of course, with many of his ex-slave companions, all sailing under Captain van Hoek, a Dutchman. In Japan, they trade Indian goods for mercury (quicksilver), which is needed in the Mexican silver mines. They make an adventurous escape from a Japanese harbor, and enter an even greater adventure, beautifully described, of crossing the Pacific. They do so by following a wealthy Spanish galleon, which founders and sinks, leading to the rescue of a Jansenist priest and a court lady.

Both these characters will betray Jack in what is supposed to be a final twist—as will also one of his own companions. But the betrayals are unconvincing, more betrayals by the author of the reader, by pulling these surprises out of thin air. It is part of a final effect that puts Jack in severe jeopardy, before he is saved and commissioned to undertake a new mission that will be told in Volume Three.

Reviewer Andrew Leonard sums up in Salon the broad itinerary of his hero’s adventures: “Jack spends quality time bouncing around the Mediterranean, stealing gold in Cairo, laboring as both a peon and a king in India, gallivanting in Japan and the Philippines, and being imprisoned in Mexico. Our boy, Jack, gets around.” While Eliza: “is immersed in French court intrigue and experimenting with the new forms of finance that are maturing….Stephenson is as fascinated with the evolution of the concept and practice of ‘credit’ as he is with the sword-and-piracy shenanigans of Jack. And he is equally fanciful in his treatment of both.”

Stephenson blends bulldog research and a rich imagination, and combines them to create fascinating set-pieces—from palace and financial intrigue to naval battles, smallpox, hurricanes, and swimming with those crocodiles. But because of a lack of linkage, such scenes betray a failure of authorial discipline, at the expense of an integrated whole. As if the author is more intent on dreaming up enough drama to fill 800 pages than on bringing his story and his characters together, and satisfying the reader emotionally.

My reaction to this volume is quite different from my reaction to Volume One. I think this may be because the adventures here are strictly fictional. They have a basis in history, but the historic figures do not control this book, the fictional ones do. But also different because the author seems more interested in introducing new drama than in tying his dramatic scenes together. For example, the linkage between Jack Shaftoe and Eliza is close in the first volume, while here they live their separate lives throughout the novel. Nevertheless, I am still interested in Volume Three. I only hope it is more concentrated both geographically and thematically. (April, 2017)

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

Volume One of the Baroque Cycle (2003). This is an amazing, literate, and intelligent historical novel. It is literate because of its style, even occasional poetic passages, and because of its concerns with the philosophy and morality of its time. It is intelligent because it vividly recreates the culture, the mores, and the history of Europe in the second half of the 17th century.

Its setting centers on London, but also includes Vienna, the cities of central Germany, Paris, Versailles, and major cities of the Netherlands. It covers the end of the brief Catholic monarchy in London, the rival French monarchy, very ambitious under Louis XIV, and the intriguing royal courts in both capitals. And 80 percent of the novel’s characters are persons of history.

Thus, significant, supporting roles are given to Isaac Newton and the German philosopher Leibniz, who contribute to the intellectual history of the era, while other participants are Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, Robert Hooke, and Christian Huygens. Plus French king Louis XIV who hates the British, and William of Orange as he plots to become King of England.

But this is a work of fiction, even as it is a deep, philosophical, literary exploration of this moment of history. And the main character is the fictional Daniel Waterhouse, who graduates from Cambridge and becomes the secretary of the Royal (Scientific) Society of London, where he meets Newton and the other scientists and intellectuals of the era.

And yet a 916-page novel, almost by definition, requires more than one hero, and after Daniel dominates the first third of the novel we are introduced to Jack Shaftoe, an adventurous Vagabond who has no connection to Waterhouse. And admittedly, this change is confusing. Why has this character been introduced? Well, perhaps it is to expose us to more history, as he encounters Eliza, the book’s heroine, in a tunnel the Turks have built under Vienna to blow up its fortifications. And the second part of the book follows Jack and Eliza as they flee together across central Europe, encountering German intellectuals such as Leibniz, to the Netherlands, where they encounter more scientific and political heroes of history. Whereupon, in final section of the novel, they separate, and in Paris Eliza is made the Countess de la Zeur and dominates the concluding section—along with the return of Daniel Waterhouse.

But to go back to Waterhouse and the start of this novel. We meet him as an elderly man in Massachusetts in 1713. It is an intriguing opening, as he receives a mysterious message from a Princess Caroline, whom we will meet at the end of the novel when, years earlier, she is six-years-old. An old friend Enoch Root from England delivers this message to Daniel, which sends him off on a dangerous sea voyage back to London—a voyage that alternates with Daniel’s early life at Cambridge, where he meets many historic youths who will later ply a major role in science and in history. Indeed, this switching back and forth in time adds confusion, for we do not know if the emphasis of the novel will be on the events of Daniel’s youth, or what he is going back to.

As the second part begins, however, we see where the novel’s divisions lie. It has begun with Daniel’s youth in the 1660s and his Royal Society years the 1670s, when he also experiences the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Now, we continue with Jack Shaftoe’s trek across Europe with Eliza in the 1680s; and then the final third ends in the late 1680s with Daniel Waterhouse’s adventures in London as a Protestant king is restored, and then with Eliza’s adventures as the ambitious French king invades the German states.

The final chapters of this novel are somewhat disappointing, for three reasons. First, the author frequently resorts to long letters that do not dramatize the action but summarize it, no doubt because he needs to cover a lot of ground as he bring us up to date on the history of the times. This is climaxed by an especially long letter from Eliza that summarizes her adventures in giving birth, a private event that has no repercussions, at least in this novel.

And, second, this is followed by an unexploded bomb of a finale, when Daniel’s friends plot to arrange an operation on him for kidney stones. We know he survives, because he is living in Massachusetts many years later; and so this operation has no apparent significance except to offer at the end a cliff-hanger moment that leaves us in false suspense.

And, third, the most frustrating aspect of this novel is that it has no real ending, that it simply leads into the follow-up sequels of The Baroque Cycle. It is particularly frustrating because there is no outcome to the original set-up chapter, of Daniel being called back to England, and to agreeing to risk his life on a sea voyage. What added to my own frustration is that I did not understand, on first reading, the reason for Daniel’s return: as a go-between to help reconcile the dispute between Leibniz and Isaac Newton, and their followers, over the invention of calculus—a dispute that is holding back the development of scientific thought in Europe.

But despite all this, I found this novel to be amazing, mainly because of its vivid historic content. I was continually impressed by the details, all of them so pertinent to the story. Details about the geography, the means of travel, the rural life of the poor, and the contrasting wealth and dirt of the cities. Also details about the rivalry among countries, among monarchs, among cities, among various court factions. And explorations in depth of European culture, with the contrasts among philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and the different social strata.

The richness of this novel is magnified by the philosophic, religious, and human contrasts it offers. Such contrasts include Protestant vs. Catholic, religion vs. science, England vs. France, power vs. conscience, status quo vs. revolution, free will vs. predestination, fresh ideas vs. conformity, free communication vs. cryptography, tradition vs. innovation, corruption vs. integrity, etc., etc.

Stephenson had to have done a tremendous amount of research, but the real accomplishment was to have the concentration to hold all of it in his memory bank until it was appropriate to use. And then, finally, weaving it naturally into his story, usually through the observations of his characters, although at times in those letters, a method that I became tired of.

There are some memorable scenes in this novel, although the Plague and the Great Fire have more a vivid presence than a dramatic effect. The most memorable scene for me was the rescue by Eliza and friends of William of Orange as he indulges in his usual morning ride along a Netherlands beach. Also vivid is Jack’s rescue of Eliza in the tunnel under Vienna. On the other hand, when Daniel is memorably imprisoned in the Tower of London, his rescue by Jack’s brother Bob seems quite arbitrary and coincidental.

What I do not accept from the critics is any categorizing this work as a science fiction novel, even if it did earn an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Perhaps past Stephenson works were science fiction, but for me this work is completely historic. Yes, a modern sensibility wrote it, which undoubtedly is why I enjoyed it. But this work explores the past, and internally it belongs to the past.

Steven Poole in The Guardian calls Quicksilver a “great fantastical boiling pot of theories about science, money, war and much else, by turns broadly picaresque and microscopically technical, sometimes over-dense and sometimes too sketchy, flawed but unarguably magnificent.” I would agree with everything except the suggestion of fantasy.

I have held this novel on my shelves for a long while, in part hesitating to start a 900-page novel and in part waiting to find the successor novels in the trilogy. Now, I wish I had fond those novels, so much have I enjoyed this one. And also because it leaves so much uncertainty about the future fate of Daniel, Eliza, and Jack.

We leave Jack, for example, as a prisoner in a pirate galley. Has he exited the book completely? One suspects Daniel will become the main protagonist, in part because some critics have seen in this work a commentary on contemporary culture; and at the core of Newton’s and Leibniz’ researches into numbers is the germ of what will become our computer age. And we must remember that his mission is apparently to be to reconcile those two figures. On the other hand, Eliza has become so adept at politics and numbers, perhaps she will emerge as the more significant character, especially because of her continuing emergence as a financial power-broker. In any event, I look forward to continuing this saga. (September, 2014)