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The Confusion, The Baroque Cycle Volume II

by Neal Stephenson

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The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 2004
ISBN: 0060523867


The Confusion is the second volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, following last September’s Quicksilver and preceding The System of the World, to be released this fall. It is about halfway through this central book that Stephenson puts the apparent central metaphor of the trilogy into the mouth of Roger Comstock, Marquis of Ravenscar, who is discussing recoinage with Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher:

"(…) Daniel, you know that I think Alchemy is nonsense! Yet there is something in the idea of Alchemy; the conceit that we may cause gold to appear where ‘twas not, by dint of artfulness and machinations up here." He pressed the tip of one index finger delicately to his forehead. "We have no mines, no El Dorado. If we want gold and silver we must look not to treasure-fleets from America. Yet if we conduct commerce here, and build the Bank of England, why, gold and silver will appear in our coffers as if by magic—or Alchemy if you prefer." (p. 488)

Mercury—quicksilver—
is used by alchemists attempting to turn lead into gold; quicksilver is used to extract silver from the rocky ore that contains it; and quicksilver has driven Newton, that arch natural philosopher and alchemist, half mad. But Newton is appointed head of the British mint, and will lead the sort of financial alchemy that Roger advocates. And Mercury, the God, is the messenger, carrier of information, the ebb and flow of knowledge, which enables trade, modern banking, stock markets, and the financial maneuvering attendant to all of these technologies.

In The Confusion, Stephenson continues his exploration of this cluster of metaphors which he began in Quicksilver, but also adds another: Confusion, or Con-Fusion, the melting-down necessary for recoinage:

The notion of recoinage made [Daniel] strangely sad, and he was desirous of figuring out why. It would mean calling in all old coins—as well as the plate, candlesticks, bullion, et cetera—and melting them in the great crucibles of the Tower. Crucibles that purified and separated the genuine metal from the dross of the counterfeiters but thereby melted all those discrete objects together, destroying their individual characters.

(…) The coin had been passing from hand to hand and purse to purse for more than a hundred years, and probably had more tales to tell than a ship full of Irish sailors—yet it was just a single mote in the dust-pile that was the English money supply. In a certain way to take that dust and shovel it into the maw of the crucibles was monstrous, like burning a library.

But imagine the glowing rivers that would spring from the lips of those crucibles when all of that tarnished silver was made clean, and made quick, and con-fused, and all of its old stories driven off as clouds of smoke that the river wind would carry away. (p. 487)

This con-fusion represents, in part, the remaking of the world’s financial system—and also the remaking of Renaissance Europe’s multitude of autonomous and semi-autonomous kingdoms and principalities into modern nation-states, largely through the power of centralized banking.

Stephenson extends his metaphor of Con-fusion to the organization of this volume: The Confusion contains books four and five of The Baroque Cycle, and alternates between sections of each book, which an author’s note indicates are two separate novels.
By the end of the book, the two novels have melded almost seamlessly into one, despite Stephenson’s note to the contrary.

Book Four, “Bonanza,” is comprised of the continuing adventures of “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, “King of the Vagabonds,” who was last seen in Quicksilver as a galley slave on a pirate ship. This swashbuckling tale brings Jack through the near East, the far East, and Central America before bringing him back to Europe.

As in book two of Quicksilver, Jack’s tale is used to establish pieces of the underlying intellectual infrastructure of the novel, but the story feels loose and casual—so much so that it frequently seems improvised, though clearly it was not. “Bonanza” is fun, rollicking, and quick to read—perhaps nearly as much fun to read as it must have been for Stephenson to write.

“Bonanza” is interleaved with “Juncto,” Latin for “joint.” As the Marquis of Ravenscar helpfully points out, “A scholar might say it Latin-style: yuncto. Or, a Spaniard thus: hoonta!” (p. 486) The Juncto is the Tory government in England at the end of the seventeenth century, for which the Marquis is the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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