This blog provides an ambivalent review of a 3000-page trilogy by a great author, Neal Stephenson.
As I borrow most of my reading materials, I tend to lag behind any trends or new works from significant authors. On my recent trip [Jenny's blog] to visit my folks I finished Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" trilogy [all books link via Amazon.com affiliate link]. The series contains Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Just shy of 3000 pages, the series took ten months to read (I started the series when Mark was born) which results in my ambivalent feelings towards Neal's work.
Let me begin by saying something nice: Neal Stephenson can write great geek-focused fiction. This niche genre requires an especially delicate pen due to the piercingly critical eyes of its readership (the same audience that points out that space explosions should be silent because vacuum won't carry sound waves). Mr. Stephenson captured the attention of programmers and other pale-skinned folk with Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Once an author captures my attention with such great geek-fiction, my loyalty (even fealty) has been acquired as well.
Unfortunately, Neal takes a path which puzzles me at best and frustrates me at worst. In Cryptonomicon an interesting juxtaposition of two generations solve parallel problems in the present and WWII. Just under 1000 pages, plenty of room for plot and character development present themselves. A good book (on my recommended list for geek-types), Cryptonomicon meanders to its conclusion attempting to promote the journey over the destination.
The "Baroque Cycle" follows in this vein with less compelling subject matter. Set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of historical figures prominent in the development of computer science and scientific method romp through the book. The book reads like an The Society for Creative Anachronism devotee's master work with frequent gratuitous word origin asides. (An interesting tidbit is Cryptonomicon's characters descend from a main character in the Cycle.) However, one particular geek (myself) finds that Neal breaks an important computer science rule: less is more. If the same concept or program can be condensed, the short form often gives superior performance and adds elegance. Neal violates this principle with my four most recent reads. Neal needs an editor.
Perhaps my reading time becoming more precious (after the birth of my son) strengthens this feeling. Had I read these books in high school, I would have likely enjoyed a meander here or there. However, I feel my loyalties have been stretched.
In the end, can I recommend "The Baroque Cycle?" If you're a geek, read Neal's earlier work first. Before becoming an important figure, he wrote very well--perhaps because he had to. His more recent works still get my qualified recommendation: read if you have the time. I still have to catch up to Neal's other recent work (see my intro paragraph), but I expect to see other large books on library shelves.
And Neal, please help all of us loyal readers to love your work and give us the precious few and not the mighty much.