The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson

HarperCollins, 832 pp, $39.95, hardcover.

A friend of mine once wondered what would happen to the banks--which drive profits higher with growing service charges--if everyone in the country decided, on the same day, to withdraw everything from their accounts. He reasoned that the system would collapse. But in reading science-fiction author Neal Stephenson's The Confusion, I realize that the system was built by people who knew such a thing would never happen.

In this second tome in his Baroque Cycle, Stephenson continues the story of Europe in the late 1600s, presenting two novels, titled The Juncto and Bonanza, in alternating plot lines. So Stephenson has con-fused--mixed or blended--them. Clever, eh?

The Juncto sees Eliza--former slave, former trader, now French duchess, economist, and spy--navigating her way through French society and capitalizing on the recession that plagued Western Europe when the hard currencies, minted from silver and gold, had seemingly run out.

At the same time, Bonanza relates how Jack Shaftoe--former Vagabond now freed slave and perennial rogue--and a merry band of men go from being galley slaves to kings; from being penniless to having the riches of the world and then losing it all; from Africa to Japan to Manila to Mexico. Never before have pirates been so witty. As with Quicksilver, the first book in the cycle, Stephenson had me laughing out loud.

Toward the end of The Confusion, natural philosophers Leibniz and Waterhouse scheme to build the first computer, replete with a binary engine, which circles the book back to the beginning of Quicksilver, where, presumably, this all started in the first place.

But although part of the same story line, The Confusion is a better book. It's better organized, in particular. I found myself, in the midst of The Confusion, flipping back through Quicksilver and appreciating that first book much more.

And it ends with a twist, does The Confusion, leaving me eagerly awaiting the concluding volume, The System of the World, due in October, when all of these antics will, hopefully, come together in some baroque climax. From Stephenson, I expect nothing less.