Neal Stephenson


"The Confusion"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer AUG 22, 2004)

When last we saw our heroes, they were both in serious trouble. Jack Shaftoe was a galley slave, half mad with the pox, Eliza was in danger of losing everything. In this book we are relieved to see Jack relatively sane again, the pox burned out of his blood by a horrible fever, and Eliza, though still without the considerable funds she managed to amass is managing to stay afloat thanks to her wits...despite the fact she’s carrying around an infant son. Once lovers, these two could not be further apart. Jack and his fellow galley slaves are about to embark on an impossible mission, to steal a king’s ransom in silver from a Spanish treasure ship in a desperate bid to earn their freedom and a percent of the profits. Eliza, too, is concerned with the flow of money, as she is set to learn everything possible about it in order to help the King of France fund his wars. In some ways these two are running along the very same basic plot line. Both Jack and Eliza are concerned with money, and the making of it. Jack, being the King of Vagabonds, earns his through daring and thievery, Eliza through cunning and manipulating the system.

I sometimes like to use the idea of a tapestry to describe the various threads of the story woven together, but for this book that would be too weak a metaphor. A tapestry is flat, and has borders, which certainly does not work for this book as the ideas and histories reach far beyond the edges of the book, and it’s too dense A tapestry made of this book would probably be thicker than the walls you’d consider hanging it on...if you could find hooks to bear the weight. (Though this book isn’t all that light itself. Sitting in a doctor's office for three hours reading it will build your forearm muscles quite well.)

We have, for the most part, two stories that are braided together. (Though we do travel briefly with other people...we meet Enoch Root again for a time, discuss things with Liebniz, and witness a meeting between Jean Bart and Bonaventure Rossignol.) Jack and his mad adventure (stealing the gold comes to pass before the middle of the book...at that point you realize that the journey and the adventures have just begun as Jack and the Cabal find themselves moving from one scrape to another...) and Eliza’s machinations, which all are part of her quest for revenge (like Jack’s story, when she gets what she wants, she finds that she’s just at the beginning. Eliza and her mother were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Her mother died, and she swore that she would kill the man who sold her. Just as she finally has what she thinks she wanted, someone does something worse...they steal her son.)

And with each of these stories, there are other stories. In Jack’s part, each of the members of the Cabal, from the familiar Vrej Esphahnian, Mr. Foote and Yevgeny to new members such as Moseh, the plan maker and Jeronimo, who combines the chivalric romanticism of Quixote with vicious blasphemy, all tell their tales as to how they got into this predicament. In Eliza's there are tons of letters as she contacts different people to figure out how to use the financial system, trade, and such to make money. One of the many people she writes to is Daniel Waterhouse, who’s slowly recovering from last book’s kidney stone operation.

There is a ton of history, much of it so obscure that you’re not sure why it’s there...family trees, who owned what place, all combine to create a map of the people of the times. You don’t know why it’s important, but you know it is, and like any good student, you’re amply rewarded for remembering the details when needed. There are also a lot of small details that reward you immediately because they add texture and are just plain neat, such as when Jean Bart is given, during a play, a golden laurel in recognition of his brave efforts. The laurel slips off his head...a gaffe that Bart neatly avoids by catching and throwing it to his King.

Another thing I liked was how things were communicated...the dialogue is always clever. Even Eliza’s letters, and the replies back, are filled with character. I particularly liked the scene where Moseh tells the Pasha of The Plan. Of course, a lowly slave can not directly address the Pasha of Algiers, so he addresses the floor: “O most noble floor, exalted above all pavements....Though you have already been generous far beyond my deserts in allowing me to grovel on you, I have yet another request: The next time you have the high honor to come into contact with the sole of the Pasha’s slipper, will you please most humbly beseech said item of footwear to inform the Pasha that the following conditions exist...” This example shows how the conversations are often clever, telling a lot about the times and attitudes while entertaining and moving the story forward. it also shows how conversations here are like playing chess...it is often that way, because even though Eliza will not find herself conducting amazing feats of daring on the high seas, what she’s doing is just as dangerous. Sometimes the conversations aren’t even chess like...they are more like a duel to the death.

I liked Quicksilver quite a lot, but I enjoyed The Confusion much more...it has more action, and it concentrates on two characters I wanted to learn more about in the last book. I am really looking forward to when The System of the World comes out, because in the end of this book, Jack is set out on an audacious enterprise that makes ransacking a Spanish treasure ship look like making instant pudding.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 72 reviews
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"Quicksilver"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer NOV 11, 2003)

We open the story with Enoch Root on his search for Daniel Waterhouse; Watershouse long ago left behind the arguments and politics of England when he moved to the colonies.  Settled comfortably with a wife and son of his own and trying to run a school, the last thing Daniel wants to do is get on a ship...that is, if he's lucky enough to make the crossing... and go to England; but he's been called as a witness by the Princess Caroline herself.  A controversy has been brewing between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over whom, truly, invented calculus.  Waterhouse, who was Newton's dearest friend and associate at the time he began his discoveries seems to be the key to solving the mystery.  Princess Caroline has wisely provided a substantial sum, a legacy, that if anything should happen to him, his family will be well provided for, and so Daniel leaves, but not with Enoch, who has other tasks to perform.  Waterhouse's journey, filled with pirate fights and small experiments, is interspersed with a much larger story, as he takes us back to the beginning of his interest in the sciences.

Read excerptIf you want to strip everything down to one simple synopsis, that's it; though, this is not a story so easily pinned down.  Immense in scope, Stephenson explores a history that many of us have never really studied.  We've heard of these natural philosophers -- Newton and Leibniz were probably test questions in science class -- but what do we know of them, really?  And so, in many ways, it is a history of this world, a study of the study of natural philosophy.  We meet Robert Hooke and John Wilkins as they struggle to find out how things work, and are pleasantly surprised to meet other people along the way...a young Benjamin Franklin, Blackbeard, Samuel Pepys.  They add to the texture of the novel, which is helped by a funny, if riské play ("Once More into the Breeches") that perfectly captures the cadences of the 17th century plays I've read, as well as various maps, quotes and memos from Royal Society, makes it feel like a perfectly rendered world.  It's gritty...Stephenson does not turn away from the filth of this place, or the harsh realities of the pursuit of knowledge.

Which, I think, leads us to the main theme of the book.  John Wilkins (now remember, everything I "know," right now, is from the the flawlessly woven book...what is real and what is fictional runs together for me) wrote the Cryptonomicon.  (Readers of Stephenson may well recognize this work...for it is the title of his own last novel.  Indeed, they seem interwoven, that book and this...for the names Waterhouse and Shaftoe will also be familiar, since the characters in Quicksilver are the ancestors of people in Cryptonomicon.  Readers may also be very familiar with the Merlin-like Enoch Root.)  Wilkins' book is all about codes...codes that people wrote between the lines of letters to pass messages secretly and other codes...and this masterwork seems to rule him. One of the tasks he'll set young Daniel to eventually will be to make lists and lists of things to help him create a new Philosophical language. These men all desire knowledge, to find the codes between the lines, to see how things work so that they can write them down, neatly and understandably, to translate for us the spectrum of the world.  They are willing to do anything possible...one particularly horrific scene shows Wilkins and Hooke observing a dog whose chest they've ripped open, keeping it alive by pumping bellows stuck down its throat.  The terribleness of this is underlined by the horror they feel once the shine of discovery has worn off, as they sit, bloody and tired, in the kitchen and wonder what kind of people they really are.

Waterhouse is not the only main character.  We also follow the adventures of Jack Shaftoe, the king of vagabonds (which, interestingly enough, continues the idea of codes, as the vagabonds all communicate through codes) as he rescues Eliza from a Turkish Harem.  I don't want to speak much of these two, because they're introduced pretty far into the book.  Jack is a swashbuckler extraordinaire, having raised himself up from the streets to be, as I said, a king of sorts.  He is an unrepentant adventurer, and it is this that forces him and Eliza, who he says he cares for, to part.  Eliza becomes a spy (more codes) and cats paw, going from being a member of a harem to the mistress of powerful men to the Duchess of Qwghlm.  These two characters are important, because they add adventure to the story, as well as perspective that tightens the tight weave of history.

An intelligent, many layered tale that attempts to transcribe and decode a history and a world for us, Quicksilver is a book to be read slowly and carefully in order to capture the fine nuances and facts hidden between the lines of prose.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 354 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Quicksilver at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The Baroque Cycle

Non-Fiction

Written as Stephen Bury (with his uncle J. Fredrick George):

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Neal StephensonNeal Stephenson was born in 1959 in Meade, Maryland and grew up in in Ames, Iowa. He graduated from Boston University in Massachusetts with a B.A. in Geography with a minor in Physics. Bruce Sterling has said that Stephenson "is the first second-generation, native cyberpunk science-fiction writer. Unlike most of the original '80s cyberpunks, he grew up in the new technoculture and, with a hacker's background knows how it really works." Neal Stephenson lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife and two children.
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