Saturday, April 23, 2011

Stranger than Fiction

I'm in the middle of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. It's a rip-roaring adventure story of life in the late-1600s, as the Enlightenment was coming about, the scientific method was developed, calculus was invented, and finance took shape. The main critique of the books (3) is that they tend to be a bit logorrheic, but they are amusing in their own way, and, because it's so steeped in history, has me constantly typing search terms into Google to see just what was true and what Stephenson made up.

A fair amount of the story takes place in the Netherlands, which is worth mentioning because there are several instances in which a modern reader, modestly acquainted with Dutch culture, thinks, "Tja, ik hou van Holland."

Instance the first: Jack Shaftoe gets conscripted into the task of digging more land out of the North Sea, for reinforcing the dike. I'm not sure if the Dutch actually did this--my superficial research into the matter suggests that the democratically-elected waterschappen (water boards) were responsible for collecting the fees and the labor for maintaining the dikes, but has been inconclusive as to whether or not any random, healthy-looking stranger would be grabbed off the steets and handed a shovel. You don't run the risk of being forced to do a hard day's labor any more, but people still pay taxes towards maintaining the dikes.

The second instance is in the description of the VOC. At one point the VOC had more ships than the entire continent of Europe. But that's not what makes the VOC so recognizably Dutch. In The Confusion, Jack Shaftoe explains, "'It seems that in the days of Vroom's apprenticeship, shipwrights were held in high esteem by the VOC and Admiralty, and given a free hand. Each ship was built a little differently, according to the wisdom--or, as some would say, whim--of the shipwright. But recently the VOC have become prideful, thinking that they know everything about how to build ships, and they have begun specifying sizes and measurements down to a quarter of an inch--they want every ship the same.'" The modern-day manifestation of this desire for uniformity lies in the everyday miracle of being able to tell which black omafiets is mine in a rack of 50 similar bikes.

The last example is when the Bob Shaftoe (Jack's brother and sergeant in the English army) realizes that the main reason that the Dutch aren't dropping dead from dysentery is because they keep their camp so clean. I haven't had any luck verifying the cleanliness of the Dutch military (historians, feel free to chime in), but the cleanliness of the Dutch had been alternatively admired and ridiculed for some 200 years by the time the story takes place, and would continue to be admired and ridiculed for another 150 years or thereabouts after the 1700s. My own experience in the Netherlands has left me with mixed opinions about the fanatic cleaning--I like being able to coexist with Noodle without antihistamines, but I don't think I'll ever learn to keep the kitchen as clean as Karel would like it.

It's fascinating, to be immersed in another culture, and then read about what an outsider sees fit to comment about. It's also a bit funny that what outsiders have been commenting on hasn't changed all that much in 300 years...and gives me pause to wonder what on earth I will be writing next.


  1. I was a huge fan of SnowCrash, one of the best cyberpunk books ever.I haven't gone back to his novels in years, though - the reviews never as glowing and they do take a very engaged effort to read. But you're getting me interested in going back for a run at this one.

  2. Might I recommend Cryptonomicron instead? Alan Turing is far more interesting than Isaac Newton.