The Confusion - Neal Stephenson

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Confusion
Volume Two of the Baroque Cycle
Neal Stephenson
William Heinemann publishers
ISBN: 0434008788 (Amazon link)

About six months ago I read Quicksilver, the first volume of this series. It was a huge, sprawling, ambitious mess of a book but one which I'd been waiting for excitedly. I wasn't disappointed. I thought it was a terrific read, although I could see that its flaws might be enough to put some people right off. Personally, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next volume; although I'd been entertained, I was still puzzled as how the Baroque Cycle was supposed to tie into Cryptonomicon.

After reading The Confusion, which I enjoyed hugely, I am no longer quite so puzzled, and am happy to say that this is much better novel too - unusual for the middle book of a trilogy. Stephenson might have an excuse in that The Confusion is actually two books; in a brief author's note it is explained that two novels, Bonanza and Juncto, will be presented. As they both cover the time period 1689-1702, they will be interleaved, with the author hoping that "being thus con-fused shall render them the less confusing to the Reader". This, along with the title, is a clear nod to the reader that this will be a Theme, in much the same way that quicksilver, literal and metaphorical, dominated Quicksilver. Ironically, the clear statement of this theme in The Confusion actually clears up any remaining confusion from volume one. No matter how distracted you are by the action at the front of the stage, it becomes clear that for all the devious political machinations of Eliza, and the dashing, ridiculous swashbuckling adventures had by Jack, these novels are actually about the tearing down and replacement of the established financial and political systems across Europe, and thus to the wider world. Just as quicksilver is used to extract silver from ore, and England and France face the prospect of melting down all their metals for re-coinage, the wider metaphorical quicksilver flooding Europe is enabling Newton et al to extract a new world from the old, and the resulting turmoil, particularly financial, is necessarily reshaping the political landscape.

I don't intend to go into the plot at length, partly as it would spoil much of the fun, and partly because this is a sequel and thus only of interest to those who liked the first volume. If you didn't like Quicksilver, you'll not like The Confusion, and if you did, then all you need to know is that this volume is more of the same, but much better. Stephenson really hits his stride with his baroque style, and is free from the very first page to have some fun with the set up from volume one. Here's the quick plot summary:

Bonanza is Jack's story. As usual with Stephenson, he cheerfully stomps off into territory better writers might avoid - in this case bringing syphilitic Half-Cocked Jack back from the dead. Recovering from a vicious fever, Jack finds that he's now sane, if somewhat confused. He's now a galley slave off the Barbary coast, but that's okay, as he is with the splendidly drawn Moseh de la Crux. Moseh is a slave too of course, and as he helpfully explains the situation to Jack, and by extension to us, he explains that he has a Plan. The Plan involves a classic bank heist, with Moseh's cabal of nine selected fellow slaves like Jack ending up in possession of a large shipment of silver, and their freedom, with the help of a certain Investor. The problems begin when the heist turns out to be somewhat more rewarding than the Cabal were expecting ... and not what they think ... and the resulting caper sees them circumnavigate half the known world, from the a tour of the Mediterranean, Africa, the middle East, to Indian - where Jack memorably becomes an unlikely King for a while - before progressing onwards to Japan and, eventually, America - where much fun is had with the Inquisition - and Britain. All the things I liked about the Jack threads from the first volume are here, but fewer of the clumsy elements remain (in particular the anachronistic puns are much reduced in number, though there are a couple of jarring stinkers). The broad canvas foe events is particularly impressive given that much of the action is confined to shipboard life where you'd think this crew of splendidly drawn crew of Vagabonds would have less room to get into trouble. Bonanza is spectacular opera, sometimes tragic, but usually comic, as if Stephenson was channelling Sabatini and the screen-writers of every old pirate film you've ever seen. I really liked this book, and was impressed with the quiet way that Stephenson advanced rather a clever plot behind a smoke screen of swashbuckling action carried out by his amiable broad caricature characters.

Juncto is Eliza's story, and by contrast is rather more sedate, but only at first glance. Newton and the other Natural Philosophers take only a supporting role for most of this book, with the focus very much on Eliza's turbulent political standing. Basically, all the cryptography and financial exposition of the first book is in preparation for Eliza's manipulation of world commerce, in particular, the silver markets. I was very surprised to find myself not only reading about the derivatives market in metals, but actually enjoying the discussions about the types of financial instrument might best be employed... This is nowhere near as dry as it might seem. Much of the story-telling is in the epistolary form - which I love - and the pace can seem slow compared to the frantic physicality of Bonanza, but every discussion contains veiled barbs or hidden meanings, there's political and financial ruin as the penalty for bad play, with war being just a tactical move. If all the back-stabbing isn't enough, there's plenty of sex to liven things up.

A side note on this - I saw several reviewers of Quicksilver comment on how Stephenson portrays Eliza as a offensive caricature of a woman. She's a sexually aggressive, idealised, male geek's view of femininity, an uber-babe who lives to fuck cryptographers. Well, that's fair comment in a way, but equally she's the lead for fully half the story, could equally be seen as a turbo-charged role model for the female geek, and it's not as there were no strong and scandalous historical women in our history. To be fairer still, Jack and the other male characters are not exactly paragons of realistic characterisation! In short, I liked Eliza, I love her book, and really admired Stephenson's improved plotting again. His geek agenda clearly laid out, Stephenson is free to turn his attention to progressing the plot, and finally tying this series into Crytonomicon. As with Bonanza, Juncto conceals some adroit plotting behind the picaresque action, reserving some well-handled surprises for the end. In particular, much of this book benefits from the additional tension generated when the game expands to include Eliza's children, who exposes her personally even as her influence waxes.

The two books don't come converge until near the end, and as usual, Stephenson staggers a little here. I really enjoyed how the diverse threads started to mesh, but found the sudden re-emergence of characters quiet since Quicksilver a little clunky. Still, on reflection, I really liked Stephenson's take on why Newton ended up at the Mint, and it lends a wonderfully coherent feel to the entire story so far, tying together the alchemical, political, financial and sheer adventuring threads together impressively. Like any good middle volume, The Confusion leaves all the pieces in view, all lined up for the conclusion, but with all the really interesting questions remaining. No doubt The System of the World will be another big, sprawling expanse of text, laden with a geeky agenda, riddled with anachronisms, unnecessary side-discussions and broad, earthy humour - with a dodgy ending. Given how these Stephenson's trademarks have actually turned out for the first two volumes, I can't wait! The Confusion is Stephenson's best book to date. Highly recommended.

Before I finish, I thought I'd quote [half of] one paragraph that caught my eye. It seemed to illustrate why people might love and loathe Stephenson working in this faux historical mode; the writing is pretentiously lavish, diverting attention from the plot and characters to bloat the narrative with the mere act of writing down the principal of a financial transaction (albeit a very important one). I personally am won over by this sort of prose, but if you're dithering about this series due to the mixed reviews, try this as a litmus test:

"The quill swirled and lunged over the page in a slow but relentless three-steps-forward, two-steps-back sort of process, and finally came to a full stop in a tiny pool of its own ink. Then Louis Phelypeaux, first comte de Pontchartrain, raised the nib; let it hover for an instant, as if gathering his forces; and hurled it backwards along the sentence, tiptoeing over i's, slashing through t's and x's, nearly tripping over an umlaut, building speed and confidence while veering through a slalom-course of acute and grave accents, pirouetting through cedillas and carving vicious snap-turns through circumflexes. It was like watching the world's greatest fencing-master dispatch twenty opponents with a single continuous series of maneuvers. "

Oh, actually, one more last thing. No doubt several reviewers and Usenet posters will also agonise over whether The Confusion is SF, whether it is lessened as a book by Stephenson somehow turning his back on his genre, whether it has the adolescent, chrome-plated appeal of Snow Crash. To quibble about that sort of thing is to limit Stephenson as a writer, SF as a genre and yourself as a reader. I consider myself a SF fan, and it's the majority of what I read, and I can only say that The Confusion is not only My Sort Of Book, it's one of the most entertaining books on my shelves, and has made me think much more highly of Stephenson as an author. Time spend considering those questions is time more rewardingly spent reading this monster.

Posted: Sun - April 18, 2004 at 12:31 AM