Reviewed by DAVID LARSEN

I have on my bookshelf a monologue on computer operating systems. I have no interest in computer operating systems, but as soon as I found out this little volume existed, I had to have it. I've read it twice. It was written by Neal Stephenson.

I also have on my bookshelf two copies of Quicksilver, the 900-page opening volume of Stephenson's gargantuan Baroque Cycle, which is continued in the newly released The Confusion. I bought one from Amazon the week before I was offered the other for review. Had I not had the review to write, I would most likely not have finished reading either book.

Stephenson is the kind of writer who inspires extreme loyalty in his readers, but Quicksilver is the kind of book the most loyal reader on the planet might have trouble with.

Some background: in 1999, Stephenson published Cryptonomicon, a 900-page extravaganza of a novel set around the birth of computer science in the code-breaking units of World War II.

I could wax lyrical about Cryptonomicon for pages, and so could many other people. The first great
military-historical-cryptographic science fiction thriller/love story, it was very briefly a cult sensation, and then burgeoned into an international bestseller.

And at the start of chapter two, it contained this tantalising hint: "Let's set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belaboured."

A later volume? Cryptonomicon 2? High excitement among fans.

The later volume turned out to be a trilogy, and also a prequel. The Baroque Cycle is the three-book tale of the true birth of information theory, as one component of modern science, during the late 17th century. Quicksilver begins it, and for about 600 pages of its length, it's really boring.

But the other 300 make wonderful reading. Good news, Stephenson fans: Eliza and Half-Cocked Jack, the heroes of Quicksilver's fabulously entertaining central third, dominate The Confusion.

The over-story remains byzantine, but there's very little of the ponderous historical backgrounding which left readers of Quicksilver so well informed and so disappointed.

This is, in fact, the book which justifies all Quicksilver's flaws: rich, clever, as dryly funny as ever, and drawing upon its predecessor to tell a truly complicated tale.

The title is a praiseworthy piece of truth in advertising ... but don't be deterred. Bring on volume three.

William Heinemann, $49.95

* David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.