Monday, July 16, 2012
If anyone has wondered about my slightly longer than usual recent absence, I present the above photograph as a perfectly reasonable excuse, and one instantly to be recognized by any reader who has found him/her self caught up in Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle'. The three volumes, at about 900 pages each, were originally published in 2003 and 2004, and that was when I read them last. I've always intended to repeat the experience, thinking they'd come in handy for some long, dark winter evenings, but a few weeks ago at the beginning of our current heatwave I found myself drawn to the shelf where they've been sitting, picked up 'Quicksilver', and dove in. What a refreshing treat it was.
Taking place roughly between 1660 and 1715, The Baroque Cycle covers a period in which many of the foundations of our world are laid down. Things we take for granted now, like science, mathematics and currency weren’t obvious as our culture stepped away from the dark ages. What Stephenson did is to take us through a period rich in intrigue, discoveries and innovation to show where the system of our world comes from.
There are three main fictional characters who drive the novel - all of whom could well be described as larger than life personalities. The first one we meet is Daniel Waterhouse, an eminent Natural Philosopher, member of the recently established Royal Society, and close friend of Isaac Newton. As the story begins we find him at his recently established Massachusetts Bay Colony of Technologickal Arts (circa 1714, in a log cabin). The second main character is Jack Shaftoe, (known as Half-Cocked Jack - you must read to find out why) an English vagabond who by chance takes up with the Polish army at the siege of Vienna, meets and kills a Janissary, and in the process rescues the third character, a young slave girl from the oddly named island of Qwghlm, a fictional place that resembles the Outer Hebrides of Great Britain.
Through the course of the books, these fictional characters interact with all sorts of famous historical figures, from Newton and Leibniz to Kings (James II, William III, Louis XIV), Queens, Electors, a young Ben Franklin, Peter the Great and John Locke, just to name a few. Their extraordinary adventures take them across Europe, the Middle East, India, the Americas, and Japan. There are thrilling pirate, naval and ground battles, political intrigues, poisonings, and sword fights. Amazingly enough, the history described is extremely accurate as I discovered while doing follow-up searches about specific topics that interested me as I read.
I admit I have a few nerd-like tendencies but even more I love to be entertained while being educated. I read an interview done by the Guardian shortly after the novel was first published and it appears Neal Stephenson has views about teaching that would be nice to see enacted:
'History is dull unless there's a yarn in it. A yarn by definition has to be about a small number of individuals who are in some kind of an interesting situation. It is, therefore, a rather fine-grained kind of history. But history teachers in schools are not allowed to teach that way. Instead they are told to teach a class called something like "The Ancient World" or (in this country) "American History." And this makes it impossible for them to teach at the fine-grained level of individual yarns; it filters out all the interesting content and leaves only the dull stuff. If I were running a school I would begin by chucking all of those courses into the dustbin. In place of "American History" I'd have the kids read Cabeza de Vaca, or a biography of Jim Bowie.'
You may have noticed there's another of his books in the photo, 'The Cryptonomicon'. It was written before 'The Baroque Cycle' and takes place during WWII and our era but the research done for it inspired the larger book. This time I'll read it second.
.. and I'll try not to be gone so long.
Have you read anything interesting this summer?