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After finishing volume one of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," I am inclined to believe that here is a three-volume novel well worth consideration by any self-respecting hacker.

"The Baroque Cycle" is the three volume "prequel" to his bestselling Cryptonomicon. Volume one, Quicksilver, itself three books.

The first book introduces us to Daniel Waterhouse, whose surname we recognize from Cryptonomicon and Enoch Root in eighteenth century Massachusetts. In short order, Waterhouse finds himself en route to London, in an attempt to resolve a scientific dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and having plenty of time to reflect upon the events of his life that led him to this point.

As the second book opens, we discover Jack Shaftoe, the King of Vagabonds and Eliza, whom he saves from a Turkish harem. The two wander across Europe, and in book three, their world moves toward convergence with Waterhouse's.

I have read numerous criticisms of the book, some less flattering than others. One issue that seems to emerge frequently is that the novel covers so much material -- the emergence of science, debates between the day's "natural philosophers" and alchemists, economics, history, and politics -- that no reader could keep up with the material. Compounded by the novel's length (volume one over 900 pages), some have charged that simply too many topics and too much detail are covered.

These critics are wrong.

As Stephenson progresses from novel to novel, his work has become more consequential, leaving the realm of the obvious cyberpunky themes, and delving into a variety of topics that are actually related, though in ways that not many would be quick to recognize. As of this writing, I have only read the first volume of the Baroque Cycle, but I see that Stephenson is not writing about a wide variety of themes, but in fact one: systems.

As a hacker and INTP, I am fascinated by systems, simple and complex. Nevertheless, when I look at world around me, I see systems everywhere.

Consider going to a baseball game. The most obvious system is the game itself: a relatively small number of simple rules like how score is kept, when players may hold a base, etc., in conjunction with a small number of variables like the speed and type of a pitch, whether and how the batter hits the ball, etc., make for a game with a huge variety of end states. Curiously, we tend to focus on only one measurement of the end state: who won and who lost. Sports statisticians, of course, keep track of many other end states: pitches, hits, errors, extra innings, etc. In any case, the game itself is also surrounded by a system: a league, showing who will play whom, where games will be played, which teams may hire which players, and so on. When at the game, observers engage in another system: an economic system, where sellers of the seats and the observers of the game agree on a price based on the expected quality of the experience and the availability of seats. Vendors of pop corn, hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, beer, etc., are part of another economic system with the game's observers, as well as the providers of the raw materials needed to provide those observers the service. Beneficiaries of these transactions then in turn either tell others of the experience (in effect advertising the good being sold) or use the money made to participate in still other transactions.

Similar analysis can be made to find analysis in everything around us. Even such matters as our speech, dress, and manners are indicative of where we stand in another complex system -- society itself. In some societies, factors like birth, education, race, and tribe also impact one's standing. In any case, these are all part of a social system. (I will articulate my thoughts on behavior, dress, and manners in a future article.)

In Quicksilver, Stephenson tells a complex tale involving economy, society, and science -- all from a systemic view.

Overall, the text makes for a pleasant read. Though more crude than I would wish in some places, one might argue that this is not entirely Stephenson's fault, since the story takes place in a historical context and much of the crudity is consistent with the times being described.

After less than fifty pages, I was drawn into the narrative and the strange world of seventeenth century Europe. Although several other books sit in my queue ahead of Confusion, volume two of the Baroque Cycle, I look forward to continuing the read.

Stephenson was once called "the Hacker Hemingway." The description is apt; hackers are certain to find his latest work fascinating and rewarding, while others will likely scratch their heads, unsure of what it all means.

Created by cmcurtin
This article originally appeared on Sunshine Poultry.
Last modified 2005-04-12 01:06 PM

baseball analogy

Posted by donetrawk at 2004-10-18 12:55 PM
Like it... I love baseball... I have a keen interest in SABRmetrics, and will be reading more about statistics and baseball in the near future.
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