Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle

I got to know of Neal Stephenson from a good friend in the winter of 1999, some months after Cryptonomicon was published. He used to read it during the long boring lecture days at Imperial and over the course of a couple of weeks I got to catch a glimpse of the interweaved stories Stephenson eloquently presented in that book; enough of a glimpse so that when the summer of 2000 came and I was killing time at Heathrow, waiting for my return flight to Athens I picked up a paperback copy myself from an airport bookstore.

Love for Sci-Fi. Aversion to Cyberpunk.

I used to read a lot of literature when I was a child and until my early to mid teens. Yet by 2000 my relationship with literature had largely given its place to countless hours spent with technology, music and other interests; perhaps it was the thirty odd hours of lectures per week plus the constant progress reports, coursework and weekly tests the university required, along with my numerous other interests, friends etc. that relegated reading literature books to the backburner. It certainly was not what it used to be some years earlier. During those years most of my reading was either purely technical or scientific or involved history.

Nevertheless, I was never a fan of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre; no matter how original, William Gibson’s works seemed excessively stylised, detached from reality and — ironically — alien to real technology, the central theme around which they were founded, the subject they were meant to describe. I had heard that Stephenson was ‘a bit’ like William Gibson, part of the post-cyberpunk genre of writers. Friends told me of Snow Crash and the Diamond Age and from their descriptions I wasn’t really enthused enough to go and get the books. Yet the small parts of Cryptonomicon that I’d read was quite different; it centred around a significant historical theme, setting WWII and the work at Bletchley Park as a central premise, as well as cryptography and computer security in general (both of which are longstanding interests of mine). It also provided an excellent view into the ‘geek’ culture from the inside as opposed to the outside view of perceived social normalcy that is commonly presented. The book seemed interesting.
During the four hour flight from LHR to ATH I read most of the approximately 900 page book; the following day I finished it. It had been quite a while since I’d read so much in so little time. Cryptonomicon is an eloquently written book about technology, cryptography, history and while it’s easy (simplistic perhaps) in terms of structure and language it would probably be demanding to the non-technical reader. After finishing the book I didn’t bother looking up Stephenson’s earlier works until years later; they seemed uninteresting examples of the cyberpunk genre I didn’t care for.

Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I started reading Quicksilver, the first of the eight books that comprise of The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s three volume series of books that came out between 2003 and 2004. It’s no surprise I had completely missed them; at the time my mind was elsewhere and there was a huge backlog of books I had to read before looking for new ones. The Baroque Cycle books are largely set in renaissance Europe, although the characters seem to travel in countries beyond the European Continent, such as the american colonies (the U.S.), India, Japan and Mexico.
Although I haven’t really finished the first book yet, it is already absolutely clear that the Baroque Cycle, although self-contained, shares enough of the characters, topics and universe with Cryptonomicon to be considered a prequel of that book. (Stephenson seems to have evolved considerably as a writer both between his earlier ‘cyberpunk’ works and Cryptonomicon and between the latter and Baroque Cycle)
For those that have already read and enjoyed Cryptonomicon I think starting on the Baroque Cycle would be a good summer reading proposition. For those that haven’t, but are interested in technology, history and science fiction, I can only wholeheartedly recommend Cryptonomicon; I’m quite certain that many of you would probably find it to be an excellent light reading. If the Baroque Cycle proves to be as engaging as its ‘sequel’ I may eventually follow this post up with a complete review when I get to read all 8 books in the series.