Phansying the philosophickal mercury

After sitting on a library waiting list of over eighty patrons long, we finally got a hold of Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion, the second book in a swashbuckling historical fiction trilogy entitled “The Baroque Cycle”. Stephenson is to be commended for being able to mix irreverent, wanton violence with minute 17th century trivia. Add in alchemy, banking, 14 bars of stolen gold, and a dash of cryptography, and you have a bizarre but good tasting literary recipe.

The good news is, at 815 pages, The Confusion is a hundred pages shorter than the first book, Quicksilver. There is also less inane chatter about the monarchy and how life was like before the Industrial Revolution, so more things actually get done. Half-Cocked Jack sails to Asia and even Mexico in a high-tech ship, while Eliza manipulates the burgeoning financial markets of Old Europe as France and England square off in battle.

The series remain geeky, with many obscure references to both Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and actual historical events. Neal Stephenson has started a wiki called MetaWeb for providing backstory on his books.

He even writes items for it, making him one of few authors that have annotated and commented on their own works.

Salon also ran an interview on Stephenson, where he talked about the monumental sea-changes in the 1600s that gave birth to modern finance and even computer logic: [via ]

“There was a review of ‘Cryptonomicon’ with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, “This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into.” I’m turning into one. I’m in this history book club, which is not all geeks but it’s definitely got some serious geeks in it. It’s been going for four or five years maybe. We’re all consistently dumbfounded by how interesting history is when you read it yourself compared to how dull it was when they made you study it in school.”

Stephenson explains to Wired how fame and fortune changed hands from the blue bloods to the crafty commercants:

“Bills of exchange weren’t a new concept. They had been around for centuries at the time the book takes place. They were the basis for the medieval economy and the rise of the Italian banking houses. It is, however, a new concept to the nobles to whom Eliza’s explaining it, because according to the code of behavior of the noble class, they’re not allowed to dirty their hands with commerce.”

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