The Confusion
The Confusion is the second installment of Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy, which began with Quicksilver (ISBN: 0380977427) and ends with The System of the World (ISBN: 0060523875). In his 1999 bestselling novel Cryptonomicon (ISBN: 0380973464), Stephenson explained the role of cryptography in World War II by switching between two characters - the gung-ho Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe and the timid cryptographer Lawrence Waterhouse. To make things even more complicated, Stephenson also shows us the story of Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence's grandson) as he founds a tech startup in the Phillipines, meets the attractive granddaughter of Sgt. Shaftoe, and finds a fortune in World War II Japanese gold.

What does Cryptonomicon, a novel about cryptography where the entirety of the action takes place in the 20th century Pacific Rim, have to do with Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which is set in England and France at the turn of the 18th century? Just as Cryptonomicon attempted to explain cryptography to the layman (through World War II, when it first rose to prominence), the Baroque Cycle is Stephenson's attempt to explain the origins of both the complex economic system that govern our current world and the scientific method which governs our pursuit of knowledge. The economics are explained by Eliza, an economic savant who finds a home at Versailles in the court of Louis XIV. In the following passage, she takes the role of Mercury, god of commerce in order to explain the role of banks in transferring money during a dinner party:

"Voilà!" announced Mercury to the audience, which by this point numbered above twenty party-guests. "The first act of our masque draws to a happy ending. Monsieur le contrôleur-général has transferred silver from Lyon to London at no risk, and even converted it to English silver pennies along the way, with practically no effort! All by invoking the supernatural powers of Mercury." And Eliza took a little curtsey, and basked for a few moments in the applause of her guests.

Our guide to the beginnings to modern science is the Englishman Daniel Waterhouse, an ancestor of Lawrence and Randy. A fellow of the Royal Society of London, he hobnobs with Issac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Robert Hooke, and Samuel Pepys (incidentally, a Mr. Waterhouse does appear in Pepys' diary) and influences English politics (Stephenson gives him credit for the modern definition of the word "revolution" as political and social change,which would be important to the Glorious Revolution, which removed King James II from power).

This serious study of late 17th century socioeconomic history is interspersed with the history of Jack Shaftoe, known throughout his contemporary Europe as "King of the Vagabonds." In Quicksilver, Jack rescued Eliza from death at the hands of Janissaries (while chasing an ostrich), crashed a French masque (dressed as himself, Jack first inspires awe among the nobility at his "realistic costume" - a feeling which quickly disappears when the king arrives, also dressed at the King of the Vagabonds), is captured by Turkish corsairs, and goes mad from syphillis. In The Confusion, Jack recovers from his madness, escapes from captivity as a galley slave, amassing a fortune in gold, and sails around the world. This seems slightly less ridiculous when we consider that in Stephenson's universe, Sgt. Shaftoe would later be the sole survivor of an amphibious attack on the Japanese, infilitrates occupied Italy, is captured by a German U-Boat which defects to Sweden, meet General MacArthur, and be present at the liberation of Manila.

The Confusion also has a similar narrative style as Cryptonomicon. As Stephenson explains in the Author's Note:

This volume contains two novels, Bonanza and Juncto, that take place concurrently during the span 1689-1702. Rather than present one, then the other (which would force the reader to jump back to 1689 in mid-volume), I have interleaved sections of one with sections of the other so that the two stories move forward in synchrony. It is hoped that being thus con-fused shall render them the less confusing to the Reader.

While the wordplay is excellent (the dual meaning of the word confusion also comes into play in the plot of the novel), the implementation is less than impressive. Part of the problem is Stephenson's tendency to ramble. While the explanations in his books are always thorough, there is really no reason for the reader to spend half a page reading about the layout of a town or the rigging of a ship that only has a tangential role in the narrative. This longwindedness was acceptable when reading Quicksilver, but became increasingly grating during The Confusion. After having spent several hundred pages with these characters, it becomes increasingly annoying to have Stephenson rehash the reasons for their actions.

Also, while Quicksilver switched from 1655 to 1713, The Confusion, as I have previously noted, takes place within a more shorter period of time. In the first book, if the reader was getting bored of Daniel Waterhouse's adventures at Cambridge, there was a good chance that at the chapter's end, Stephenson would have "fast-forwarded" to a later period (i.e. Daniel in London), the novelty of which might prove more to be interesting. While The Confusion switches between "Juncto," which is the story of Eliza, and "Bonanza," which chronicles the adventures of Jack, at each return we find ourselves back in the same tedious situation. I finished The Confusion, but the last half of the book was not an enjoyable experience.

I suspect not buying The System of the World might mean the end of my association with Neal Stephenson. Based on my experience with The Confusion, I do not particularly look forward to reading anything that he may have written that is longer than 100 pages, regardless of the topic. This saddens me only because Cryptonomicon was a good book. I read the book sometime during last summer after finishing Snow Crash. The relative importance of Cryptonomicon was only highlighted for me during the first semester of last year, when one of my professors recommended it as an useful look at the role of cryptography in World War II (Stephenson's view is that the foreknowledge of German and Japanese war plans was important, but not critical to military operations, mostly because the Allied generals and admirals could not fully utilize their knowledge without giving away to the enemy the fact that Axis message traffic was broken). Later at work, I discovered an unusually high number of my colleagues (in this case, greater than zero) had read the book and enjoyed it.

On the other hand, I have some perception that this day might come. In May, I attempted to explain the allure of Neal Stephenson to someone. From her body language, I suspected that she was completely uninterested in the subject of the conversation. I stopped talking about it. Looking back, I am not entirely sure which bothers me more - the nagging suggestion at the back of my head that someone else's feelings (or lack thereof) toward an author could change my views toward their literature, or the suggestion that I was never really into Neal Stephenson in the first place.