Previously, on the Baroque Cycle Reading Group:
Well: I wasn’t expecting that. King of the Vagabonds is recognisably by the same author and in the same style as Quicksilver, but for the most part it reads less like a continuation of a story in progress than it does the start of something new.
We take a slight skip back in time, to 1665 London (pre-plague, pre-fire) to meet the oh-so-literally “half-cocked” Jack Shaftoe, one of seven brothers in a working-class family. Soon enough the eldest brother is dead, thanks to a blackly-humorous accident during an attempt to steal a boat’s anchor, but via his execution Jack and another brother, Bob, find themselves paying work as hangers-on. Specifically, they are paid to hang on the legs of execution victims in order to hasten their death. Jack’s character and circumstances established, we jump forward to 1683 (mid-way between the two Waterhouse narratives in book one), and find that Jack has become a vagabond (and, offscreen, a widower and father), although he signs up as a mercenary just in time for the Battle of Vienna. During the battle, for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, he ends up chasing an Ostrich into a harem and there rescues an actual female character. Eliza is (1) young, (2) a native of Qwlghm, (3) extremely smart, (4) extremely beautiful, and (5) generally all-around perky; and after her rescue she and Jack travel across the continent together, each spending a good deal of time lecturing the other about their personal history. They spend some time in Leipzig, where they participate in “the Doctor’s” scheme to sell shares in a silver mine, before eventually fetching up in Amsterdam. There Eliza becomes a businesswoman and helps to finance the Monmouth Rebellion; meanwhile, Jack goes for a wander around France, ostensibly with the goal of raising some money to care for his children.
For a while, I was convinced that King of the Vagabonds is hands-down better than Quicksilver; having finished it, I think it’s no less flawed, but at least it’s flawed in different ways, and has some strengths that Quicksilver lacked. As I said, the novel is recognisably of a piece with its predecessor — it has the inconsistently anachronistic language, the engagement with famous figures and events, the skewed perspective on what matters about these things — but they’re put into what to my mind is a better and broader context. The single thread, while it lasts, helps the whole story feel more focused and coherent, while the continent-spanning scope of the story provides a more useful backdrop. There are also fewer, or at least less violent, authorial prods about the Meaning of the Story, and a bit more demonstration. The underlying concerns are the same, but you could say that Quicksilver was Theory and King of the Vagabonds is Practice.
And thanks to the dynamic between Jack and Eliza, King of the Vagabonds is also a much more readable book – at least in its first half. Neither character has what you’d call great depth, and Eliza in particular is unconvincing as a person; sometime there’s a comparison to be written of her, James Morrow’s Jennet and (though she is from a slightly later period), Adam Roberts’ Eleanor as willful historical women interested in the workings of the world, written by men. (For what it’s worth, to my mind Eliza is more convincing than Jennet but less so than Eleanor.) Moreover Stephenson’s character decisions (particularly the contrivance by which Jack and Eliza are separated at the end of the book) tend to the worst excesses and implausibilities of soap-opera plotting. But while it lasts, the relationship between Eliza and Jack is lively and engaging and makes many things forgivable. I think it’s no coincidence that they separate the novel loses its way dramatically, and that the sections dealing with them individually – and Jack’s adventures in particular — are far less interesting than anything they get up to together.
The simple fact of having two non-historical characters talking to each other means that you can have, for instance, Eliza expressing disbelief at Jack’s encounters with the high-born and famous. It grounds the story — there isn’t the sense, which there was in Quicksilver, that there are only famous people in the world, even though quite a lot of famous people eventually turn up – and as a result, I believe in the verisimilitude of Jack and Eliza’s experiences much more than I ever did in those of Waterhouse. And because they offer a radically different view of the world — from their lower-class perspective, you wouldn’t know that Waterhouse and the Royal Society exist — the encounters they do have with historical figures (who tend to be of rather higher class) feel more like the atypical events they should be.
An obvious example is the Doctor – and conveniently he also ties in, I think, to the question of historical uncertainty that we talked about last time. Specifically: The Doctor’s identity seems to be obvious, but he is only actually confirmed to be Leibniz long after he’s left the stage. For a while, when he’s introduced, it’s at least plausible that he could be Newton, or even Waterhouse. This uncertainty of identity – not to mention the pop-culture echo, which I’m sure is deliberate – positions Leibniz as a figure of wonder, rather than the near-equal he was in Quicksilver. His pronouncements are on the edge of plausibility, and the edge of comprehensibility to Jack and Eliza: “It is a mathematical technique so advanced that only two people in the world understand it [...] People will use it to build machines that fly through the air like birds, and that travel t other planets” (431). Later, another character summarizes “what the Doctor wants” this way:
“To translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers — and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy — whatever that means.” (476)
Because this is being said by someone who finds the Doctor outlandish – as we do – rather than by someone like Waterhouse who might accept these concepts without blinking, the self-conscious improbability of it is easier to bear. Moreover, because it’s embedded in a more conventional historical narrative, its extraordinariness is more powerful. This paragraph, and a couple of others like it, actually reminded me of nothing so much as Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry sequence, in which modern concepts are transmitted back through time with the hope of changing the course of past events. Almost all the attempts fail, but they fail in ways that highlight the contingency of history; and the “great project” here sounds like it could be exactly that sort of intervention. We should know how this story ends, because it ends with us; but we start to wonder whether that’s the right ending. (Tangentially, it seems odd to me that Baxter skipped over this entire period in his series; it seems ripe for the sort of story he was telling.)
I’ve mentioned the broader canvas of the book a couple of times. There’s a sense that there’s a whole continent in play, and a world beyond that, all gradually being knit together by the developing systems of the age, most notably trade. Against this Jack and Eliza are figures in a landscape; and when, for instance, deus-ex-Enoch turns up and drops some more hints that he’s engaged in (or the motivator behind) Leibniz’ utopian project to lift humanity up and better us, they seem truly improbable because of the vastness against which they are cast. That said, I have to admit there’s a whole level of information in this novel that I’m missing, because my eyes glaze over at the gossipy way in which Stephenson tends to have his characters relate Royal politics and high-level shenanigans. But for whole pages at a time, the sprawling messiness of the Baroque Cycle seems like it might actually be worth something, it seems that the absurd — I can’t think of a better word for it — excess of historical detail might be intended to draw just such a contrast between the landscape and the figures in it. Unfortunately, that theory gets dashed late in the book, when Stephenson suddenly elides part of Jack’s story to get him back to Eliza, and has him comment on it as like “a play, where only the most dramatic parts of the story are shown to the audience, and the tedious bits are assumed to happen offstage” (578), as though Stephenson actually believes that everything he’s told us up to that point is important and directly relevant to the story of Jack, when it so patently isn’t.
I suggested that King of the Vagabonds was the practice to Quicksilver’s theory, and I think it inverts the earlier novel in another way, too. If Quicksilver was about the developing systems of the world, King of the Vagabonds asks simply: what does it mean to be free? And in particular, what does it mean to be free when the world’s web is tightening around you? Jack’s answer, for most of his life to the point we meet him, has been the freedom to roam, the freedom of the vagabond; through his experiences with Eliza (after freeing her), he comes to appreciate the importance of economic freedom. And of course Leibniz’ maths would give humanity as a whole more freedom, freedom to do and act in the world. In its approach to examining this question, King of the Vagabonds feels less like an attempt to convey a historical agenda, and more like an attempt to translate its period for a particular audience. When Jack claims that “I know the zargon [zargon being to this book what phant'sie was to Quicksilver, i.e. annoying] and the code-signs of Vagabonds who, taken together, constitute a sort of (if I may speak poetically) network of information, spreading all over the world, functioning smoothly even when damaged …” (387), it’s still transparently artificial, but because it’s even further removed from the reality of what’s being described than were similar statements in Quicksilver, it’s easier to see it as a gloss.
And you can see the same sort of approach in Stephenson’s descriptions of 17th-century Amsterdam:
In the end, it took Jack several minutes’ looking to allow himself to believe that he was viewing all of the world’s ships at one time — their individual masts, ropes, and spars merging into a horizon through which a few churches and windmills on the other side of it could be made out as dark blurs. Ships entering from, or departing towards, the Ijsselmeer beyond, fired ripping gun-salutes and were answered by Dutch shore-batteries, spawning oozy smoke-clouds that clung about the rigging of all those ships and seemingly glued them all into a continuous fabric, like mud daubed into a wattle of dry sticks. The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news. (477)
Stephenson clearly fell in love with this setting — more, I would say, even than with London — and though there are awkward bits in paragraphs like this (is that “on the other side of it” really needed? For starters), you get occasional perfect images, such as that last line. “The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news”. It’s a clear and very precise evocation of the Amsterdam of Stephenson’s imagination: a place of fluidity, a place of trade, and a place where information is king. If the Baroque Cycle can be reduced to anything, this early in reading it, it seems to me that it’s reducible to this: that it’s an expression of information theory; that it’s at pains to show how every human transaction can be described as an exchange of information; and that the process of modernization is the process of learning to recognise and use that fact.
Next up: Odalisque. Date: Friday 6 June. In the meantime, I’m reading the Mundane Interzone, and expect to post about it this time next week.