The Electric Commentary

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Book Recommendations

I am currently in the middle of Neal Stephenson's The Confusion, book two in his epic Baroque Cycle. Stephenson's last 3 books (The Confusion, Quicksilver, and Cryptonomicon) are all brilliant. These books stand on their own individually, but as a series they appear to be engaged in a novel trick.

First and foremost, prior to Cryptonomicon, Stephenson was a strict science fiction writer, concentrating on hi-tech thrillers. He made a radical departure with Cryptonomicon, which deals with high powered international fincance, WWII battles and intelligence, codebreaking, and complex mathematics. It also features actual historical figures like Douglas Macarthur and Alan Turing. On first glance it does not seem in any way like a science fiction book, and it always confused me when I would see it in the science fiction section. If you write one science fiction book are you stuck there for life? Is Anne Rice's Exit to Eden in the horror section? (granted, the movie adaptation starring Rosie O'Donnell probably belongs there, but that's a separate issue.)

I then read Quicksilver, book one of The Baroque Cycle. It takes place in the late 1600s and early 1700s and features ancestors of the fictional (as opposed to real life) Cryptonomicon characters in addition to real people of the era such as Louis XIV, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Ben Franklin, Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, several English kings, and other various royalty. Like Cryptonomicon, it in no way resembles science fiction except for the fact that it deals with science, however all of the science involved is non-fictional science. Yet there it is, in the sci-fi section of every Barnes and Noble in the country.

Now that I'm on to The Confusion (page 350 as of this morning) the sci-fi label is starting to make a little sense. I will not spoil it for the uninitiated, but there is one character common to all three novels (and presumably the upcoming conclusion to The Baroque Cycle, The System of the World) who is at first confusing. He does a few things in Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver that are, shall we say, very very convenient, and at one point in Cryptonomicon, does something that is impossible. Even though it's impossible, you don't really notice it. (I have asked two of my friends, who read it a while ago, if they even remembered it happening, and neither one did.)

Stephenson's writing is remarkable. He must perform countless hours of research. He can turn a phrase like Austen, make interesting the most tedious scientific discourse, and still take on the voice of a hardened military man, sometimes all in the same paragraph. And it always seems completely natural. What may make him timeless is that, over the course of a book and a half, the series ranks with any of the best historical fiction ever written. However, I think that over the final book and a half, it will establish itself as some of the best sci-fi ever written. Moreover, I believe that the sci-fi elements of the first two books (counting Cryptonomicon as part of the series) are invisible without information in the last two books. This is becoming increasingly clear as I work through The Confusion. I think it's incredible that he has been able to pull this off (assuming that he does, of course).

If Stephenson manages to pull off a the novel trick of redefining a book's entire genre years after the fact (let alone the genre of two books), it would be nothing short of the creation of an entirely new literary device. I can't read The Confusion fast enough, and I can hardly wait for The System of the World. If you haven't already, give Cryptonomicon a shot.

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