by Marty Demarest
Neal Stephenson is known to millions of readers as the author of Snow Crash, the dazzling, funny novel with the unforgettable main character -- Hiro Protagonist -- who was a pizza delivery man in an age of corporate glut and technological efficiency. It's a modern classic, and deserves to be the first book anyone reads by Stephenson.
The Confusion, on the other hand, would make a terrible book for anyone not already acquainted with Stephenson. That's not to say it's bad. Rather, The Confusion is the second book in The Baroque Cycle, which began last year with the novel Quicksilver and will conclude this autumn with The System of the World. And even though I'm only two-thirds of the way through the entire project, it's clear that, unless he makes a supreme error, Stephenson will have written a masterpiece.
The Baroque Cycle is set in a period of history -- the late 17th century -- in which everything mankind knew was in a state of turmoil and revolution. Newton had discovered ways to describe and predict natural forces that had previously been viewed as mystical and mysterious. He and Leibniz created calculus, giving a working vocabulary to the manipulation of ideas and paving the way for centuries of science and technology. The first thing that we discover from The Confusion is that if Newton could transform a falling apple into numbers and ideas, it was only a small step for someone to do the same thing to money and goods. Economics as we know it owes a great deal to the revolutionary way of thinking that arose in the 1600s.
An 800-page economic satire from almost anyone else would be unbearable. But The Confusion has the assured, bold ring that has always marked great satire, from Swift to Pynchon. When a boatload of galley slaves asks "Where do you want to row today?" it's hard not to get the joke.
Perhaps the best thing about The Confusion, however, is how undeniably fun the book is. Pirate battles and international espionage are abundant, detailed with historical accuracy and presented with modern wit. The two main characters -- a courtesan and a rogue -- are flush with life. Their love/friendship is truly the making of an epic. And Stephenson, with his extensive writing, has given them a world unlike any other in which to live. Immersion in it is pure enchantment.
Publication date: 05/13/04