The Reading Canary: Why I Don’t Trust Neal Stephenson

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The Reading Canary: a Reminder

Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

If It Ain’t Baroque Don’t Fix It

I’ve had mixed feelings about Neal Stephenson’s earlier books. I couldn’t get into The Diamond Age, and while I did enjoy Snow Crash‘s wild, over-the-top parody of cyberpunk cliches, I felt that the kooky alternative history bits fell flat, and the ending left me cold. So it’s with some trepidation that I chose to tackle Baroque Cycle, a sprawling narrative of the time period between the Restoration of Charles II and the ascents of George I to the throne of England, which tackles politics and religious warfare but focuses on the birth of both peer-reviewed science and modern-day economics as we know them, and the dealings of the Royal Society in both fields. Amongst other things, one of the common threads binding the disparate subplots together is the famous feud between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over precisely who invented calculus.

Stephenson himself classifies the series as science fiction, due mainly to a few instances where the setting diverges from history. Specifically, Enoch Root, an immortal alchemist who pops up in an earlier novel of Stephenson’s (Cryptonomicon) is a recurring character, there’s slightly more emphasis on primitive computers than seems reasonable, and the fictional island of Qwghlm (another feature from Cryptonomicon) is occasionally relevant. Most of these features, and the vast majority of the fictional characters Stephenson adds to history, are pretty innocuous, but for me Qwghlm was a step too far – it’s an anachronism too far, a feature randomly added to the setting which doesn’t seem to have the same air of historical verisimilitude as the other inventions. Perhaps it’s the vowel-less alphabet of Qwghlm, which pretty much guarantees that any Qwghlmish word that crops up leaps off the page in a way that the English, German, Italian, French and other words and names simply don’t.

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