Few novelists can delve with equal relish into lengthy descriptions of the bloody impact of a musket ball between the eyes and the intricacies of 17th-century international currency exchange. Neal Stephenson's settings and excessively descriptive passages may be baroque, full of filigreed architecture and well-mannered brutality, but he uses a postmodern touch to chart the evolution of science, market systems, and society's dependence on codes -- whether for cryptography, data storage, or etiquette. That's why he scratches his core fans' geek itches so well: The adult in them loves the social anthropology; the kid in them loves the frosted, violent fun.
Picking up where last fall's equally hefty ''Quicksilver'' left off, the 815-page Confusion flits from the Barbary Coast to Paris, from Ireland to India, juggling two separate but intertwined stories. One follows Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, and a group of ex-slaves after they make off with a boatload of mysterious stolen gold. The other follows Eliza de la Zeur, an ex-slave-turned-duchess who navigates the shoals of noble French society, tries to reclaim her lost child, and places herself at the center of a swirl of events -- including the further, fitful development of Natural Philosophy, as science was called back in the day. More happens here than can be easily summarized. But when Stephenson completes his ambitious Baroque Cycle (the third and final installment is due to arrive in September), he might just have created the definitive historical-sci-fi-epic-pirate-comedy-punk love story. No easy feat, that.