The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson

From the erudite to the swashbuckling
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The future has got so dull these days. All those androids and supercomputers, pollution dystopias and corporate planets, have become so familiar they are simply part of the fictional furniture. It's not surprising so many writers who made their literary bones in science fiction have tired of boldly going back to the same old future, and prefer to head forward to the past. Last year, it seemed as if all fictional roads led to ancient Rome.

The future has got so dull these days. All those androids and supercomputers, pollution dystopias and corporate planets, have become so familiar they are simply part of the fictional furniture. It's not surprising so many writers who made their literary bones in science fiction have tired of boldly going back to the same old future, and prefer to head forward to the past. Last year, it seemed as if all fictional roads led to ancient Rome.

Some authors create alternative histories which depict a mutated past. Others weave their creations into and around history as we, broadly speaking, know it. Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which began with Quicksilver and continues with The Confusion, gleefully takes the latter approach. His characters amble in and out of the 17th and 18th centuries as fluidly as Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duck and dive through Hamlet.

Stephenson crashed into the forefront of Nineties SF with Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, which redefined William Gibson's cyberpunk template in a zestful orgy of wide-screen, baroque prose. Then he ventured into the murkier bits of the 20th century with Cryptonomicon, oscillating between the Second World War and the "present". In that book he established, as collective protagonists, the paired dynasties of the Shaftoes (military types in search of riches) and the Waterhouses (scientific types in search of wisdom).

In the Baroque Cycle, Stephenson turns the clock back to the dawn of the Enlightenment to bring us the misadventures of earlier generations of Shaftoes and Waterhouses, plus a third principal in the form of Eliza, the ex-harem girl turned high-society adventuress. It is Eliza and the avaricious rogue "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe who occupy the bulk of this second instalment. Daniel Waterhouse and his fellow "natural philosophers" recede somewhat into the background, with the cliffhanger which ended the previous volume resolved off-stage.

The Confusion primarily concerns the travails of Eliza and Jack. The former manoeuvres her way through the intrigues of the French court in a maze of Machiavellian betrayals and bodice-ripping rivalries. Meanwhile, the latter assembles a multinational posse - including a Japanese Christian, an African linguist, the one-handed Dutch seaman Captain Van Hoek, and the Jewish polymath Moseh de la Cruz - to rob and hustle around the globe in a trajectory of swashbuckling and plunder. Considering Stephenson's penchant for chucking anachronism-grenades into his narrative, you almost expect Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow to lurch into the action.

Moseh's rhapsodic speech propounding his theory of the Invisible Hand of the Market is a delight, as is Jack's question to him later on in their travels: "Have you been chewing those Peruvian leaves the Spaniards are so fond of?" Like its predecessor, but louder, The Confusion is stuffed to the bowsprits with action, erudition and good gags.



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