The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson
The following was originally posted to my Livejournal on September 25, 2005.
Pirates! Intrigue in the court of Louis XIV! Neal Stephenson's The Confusion
The Confusion, the second volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, moves at a much faster pace than the first. Though Stephenson's style hasn't changed - he is still willing to offer sardonic asides and the occasional footnote - the novel (the author himself notes that The Confusion is really two novels, but this is a strange thing to point out; many novels go from one narrative thread to the other over the course of a book and this one is not a particularly unusual variation on that convention) covers only a few years and does, in fact focus much more tightly on only two protagonists.
On the one hand, we have a boys' own adventure. Half-cocked Jack Shaftoe is luckily cured of syphilis by a prolonged fever that, in itself, nearly kills him. When he comes to, he finds that he has fallen in with a cabal of galley slaves with a Plan for buying their way to freedom.
Through courage and bravado, skill and luck, we are treated to high adventure on the high seas that includes a round-the-world trip in the early 1700s, with stops in what is now Afghanistan and India, the coast of China and a very brief interlude in Japan before our heroes make their way across the Pacific (with the concommitant loss of some lives and almost all of everyone's teeth). Tortures by the Spanish Inquisition and betrayal by one of their own when finally back in Europe rounds out the story.
On the other hand, Eliza is still embroiled in European intrigues. Having already gained and lost more than one fortune (as well as having her first-born child kidnapped by a banker she conned), she continues to learn the ropes of economics, of courtierdom and of imperialism. She gets involved with Daniel Waterhouse and other English protagonists from the first book while weaving a complex web of deception across the continent.
The two narrative threads come together in a tragic reunion in the presecence of the Sun King himself, and the reader is left, once again, waiting, on the edge of the proverbial cliff, for the final volume of the Cycle.
I've never been much good at, nor much interested in, writing synopses but something this long seems to require it. Nevertheless, let's move along to more interesting things, shall we?
First, Stephenson is a wonderfully playful writer. While taking the reader on an erudite tour through the economics of the feudal world - the slave, spice and precious metal trades, for instance - along with the first stirrings of capitalism he also takes obvious pleasure in wrapping this 'round a rollicking pirate story, where the unlikely is commonplace and - sometimes - laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew that making phosphorous requires barrels of urine?
The world in the 1700s was one where life really was cheap, where war was endemic, where religion still struggled to maintain its hold on power in the secular world (those who write off Africa today as a hopeless basket case forget that it took Europe at least 1,000 years of constant war, genocide and tribal feuding to become the relatively peaceable place it is today. But I digress). Stephenson shows the sheer bloody danger - from violence, disease, famine - that even the rich in that time faced, and he does it very well. Not as melodrama, but as backdrop to drama and characterization, all the while continuing to play in the intellectual world as well.
It is the latter element that makes this book feel like science fiction, rather than historical fiction. Though he does not shy away from the gossipy, back-stabbing soap-opera of the courtiers, nor from romance and sex, overlaying all are his interests in the nature of power, of economics and, especially, in how we got here from there.
The 18th century was a remarkable time. Newton was still alive, Liebnitz had invented the calculus - the scientific method was being born; the feudal order was collapsing in the fact of capitalism, which was fed in large part by the technical innovations that followed the scientific revolution (and also fed by capital itself; a cycle both viscious and virtuous).
Stephenson's characters are three-dimensional, complex beings, but they are not the focus of the book(s). His interests lie in the broader spheres of the world, in society in general, and he shows us these things through the eyes of very real characters living in what is - to the reader - a very alien time and place.
All in all, the second volume of Stephenson's mammoth work is a great deal of fun as well as an intellectual eye-opener. I have reached the point where I expect the ultimate volume to satisfy me on every level.