Is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle "appropriate" reading for a 12 year old?
September 3, 2011 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle "appropriate" reading for a 12 year old?

My 12 year old is addicted to books and I function as his dealer. It's gotten way past the point where I can really read everything he reads before hand... actually, I'm not much of a censor and getting to the point where I won't be a censor at all. At the same time, I'm not interested in pushing a book with disturbing violence or sex on him. He's a voracious reader and has plowed through a lot of science fiction. He also is interested in history and so it looked like the Baroque cycle might be up his alley, plus they're *long*, which is a good thing.

I expect there will be some "adult situations" and some violence but I'd like to know how much of it could be classified as "disturbing," whatever that means...
posted by to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Best answer: One of the primary characters is nicknamed "half-cocked" because a firebrand was applied to his genitals.
The first book features large-scale rape and murder of harem girls in the wake of a lost battle by Ottoman janessaries in one chapter.
Whores are frequented (as if the harem girls weren't indication). STDs abound. Menstruation happens.
Detailed description of vivisection of a dog.
Forced oral sex.

It's not quite Game of Thrones, but it's not exactly Dr. Seuss either. I'd go with "not appropriate" for his age. That said, some series I really liked at that age are "The Dark is Rising" and "The Chronicles of Prydain."
posted by bfranklin at 12:32 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There's is definitely quite a bit of violence in it, some of it graphically described. Not, like Stephen King-graphically, but enough that you really get a good mental image of what's going on. I guess the appropriateness would depend on how

As far as sex goes, all I can recall is a scene where a character missing half his penis -- one of main protagonists who is referred to as "Half-Cocked Jack" quite a bit -- is given an orgasm via manipulation of his prostate. And another scene where a young woman is called into the King's chambers and asked to fake sex-sounds while the king receives hemorrhoid surgery. I don't remember how graphic those are, but they stand out pretty well in my memory.

Personally, I think he'll get a lot more out of it when he's a teenager. Even if the sex and violence isn't terrible, there's a lot of worldly stuff in there that a 12 year old just won't get and, worse still, may be bored by and not come back to the books, which are unequivocally excellent.
posted by griphus at 12:33 PM on September 3, 2011

Detailed description of vivisection of a dog.

Oh, yeah, this too.
posted by griphus at 12:34 PM on September 3, 2011

Not to thread sit, but I'd hardly describe the books as unequivocally excellent. I found them entertaining at points, but large sections were absolutely torturous and dull.
posted by bfranklin at 12:35 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, the third book is really heavy on the numismatic history and he has to be a quite special 12-year-old indeed to not be bored by it.
posted by griphus at 12:35 PM on September 3, 2011

I think a lot of the sex and violence could be properly described as "disturbing," for a reader of that age. In addition to the examples mentioned above, there are also several scenes of torture, brutal beatings, and an extended voyage across the Pacific where a group of characters rather slowly and horribly starts dying from malnutrition. As people have already been doing, it's pretty easy to amass a long catalog of scenes from the books which might make you uncomfortable at the thought of your 12-year-old reading them, especially since there are so many of them.

I don't want to derail this thread, but since you say your son has already read a ton of sci-fi, perhaps it would be worth trying an AskMe next week asking for new, age-appropriate recommendations?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:38 PM on September 3, 2011

I don't know that much about Neal Stephenson, but I read everything I could get my hands on at 12, and my parents didn't police this at all. All I can say is that most of the really gross/violent stuff I just got bored or squicked with and put the book down. I moslty think it's funny now that I was trying to read adult themed books with such little real life context. I think kids can judge these things for themselves.
posted by sweetkid at 12:40 PM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

As those above have mentioned, the Baroque Cycle really doesn't hold up in this situation. (The Game of Thrones obvs. does not. Nor does most of Iain M. Banks, fwiw.)

Good on you for being his book "dealer". Nothing upset me more as an advanced reader when I was a kid than to have a book taken from my own parents' (literate but whitebread) bookshelves disallowed to me. I wish I had specific suggestions at hand for you.
posted by vers at 12:41 PM on September 3, 2011

Best answer: I am not prudish in my reading at all, but the depiction of the Eliza character in these books was one of the reasons I quit reading them about halfway through the second. I usually love Stephenson's stuff, but I strongly suspect he has some very deep issues with women. This generally describes the character. It's on the list of a very few books that bother me both personally and as a feminist. I can't describe very well just why it makes me angry but it does. It's sort of like he worships smart women as mysterious witches who will manipulate you with their demon sexuality. A few of his other books (Cryptonomicon particularly comes to mind) have similar issues.

Has he read Anathem? I love that book and it has pretty much none of the above issues.
posted by pekala at 12:44 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe take these things people have mentioned and talk with him about it before you let him start the book?

"There's this guy in the book who has a mutilated penis. He's called Half-Cock Jack. You know you can't use the word 'Cock" in school, right? It's not a polite word. And there are some disturbing scenes in here, too: there's a graphic scene where a dog gets cut up, and people go through really horrible stuff. If any of it bothers you, show me the section and I'll read it and talk with you about it. And I won't mind if you decide to stop reading because it's boring or some of the images are getting to you. It's a pretty advanced book, but I think you're a good reader, and I'm here to help you understand the novel whenever you want."

These are massive books, and contain a lot of interesting information. If he's capable of slogging through it, he's certainly abnormal compared to most 12 year olds, and is likely able to "deal" with the stuff that happens. Violence and "cocks" and junk are likely much more a part of his media than you realize, and I doubt he'll be scarred from any of this.
posted by jsturgill at 12:45 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yup. Not so interested in foisting large-scale rape and murder on my kid.

I don't know that much about Neal Stephenson, but I read everything I could get my hands on at 12, and my parents didn't police this at all. All I can say is that most of the really gross/violent stuff I just got bored or squicked with and put the book down. I moslty think it's funny now that I was trying to read adult themed books with such little real life context. I think kids can judge these things for themselves.

I was the same way. I'm not interested in taking books away from him it's just I'd rather not hand him a book with legitimately disturbing stuff and say 'Here, I think you'll like this."

Thanks all. It's just that he's done so much (reading) at this point that it's getting hard for me to procure any good shit for him.

I strongly suspect he has some very deep issues with women.

Yeah, I got the feeling from Cyptonomicon (in addition to some of the worst literary sex ever) that he wasn't very comfortable with women. Will check out Anathem.
posted by at 12:47 PM on September 3, 2011

I think you can find better books for him. Any other Stephenson is a better start, honestly; Anathem is probably most aimed at a teenage audience, or maybe The Diamond Age. I still think Snow Crash was fun, though I recall it insisting on some weird facts about language -- with Stephenson, it's hard to tell what are facts and what's made up.

(I actually skipped through the Baroque Cycle books to read up only on the history of money parts.)
posted by jeather at 12:49 PM on September 3, 2011

I think "no", but only because it's so boring. But then I'm one of the people that think Stephenson peaked at the awesome Snow Crash and then got 15% worse with each volume that followed.
posted by w0mbat at 12:54 PM on September 3, 2011

Thanks all. It's just that he's done so much (reading) at this point that it's getting hard for me to procure any good shit for him.

posted by griphus at 12:59 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I think a 12-year-old would probably get lost fairly easily in the prose. There's just so much stuff crammed into each line in those books that requires one to have a fairly good knowledge of history, science, politics, etc. of the time. Without some background, a 12-year-old is probably not going to "get" a lot of the references, and miss a lot of necessary detail and color.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:08 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

A shot in the dark -- would he like Richard Powers, perhaps? Serious writing, often about the threshold between technology and humanity, brilliant writing. The novel of Powers that I might most avoid at his age is Plowing the Dark. The one I might start with is Galatea 2.2.
posted by vers at 1:25 PM on September 3, 2011

Vetoing Baroque Cycle, suggesting Anathem.
posted by Sternmeyer at 1:52 PM on September 3, 2011

William Gibson? Or is that too old school? Definitely not goody two shoes, but not as disturbing as the Baroque Cycle sounds.
posted by instamatic at 2:44 PM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

They are not especially disturbing or odd but they are also not particularly good. As per suggestion up-thread you might get more value from asking for recommendations for his age and taste. At his age I was churning my way through Moorcock and PKD with great delight.
posted by zemblamatic at 3:09 PM on September 3, 2011

A bit off topic... but Redwall is great, and I started the Robert Jordan books around 12-14ish

re: stephenson. He is falling victim to 'too sucessful to edit' So.. no :D
posted by Jacen at 3:51 PM on September 3, 2011

Also: A French aristocrat getting a hand-job under his sleigh robe in the King's presence. Prisoners being thrown off the city wall to fall randomly onto hooks mounted on the wall, to be left there until they rot off. Galley slaves being forced to row so long and hard that many of them die of it. Rigorous interrogation in a Mexican prison. Etc.

I recommend it unreservedly.
posted by Bruce H. at 3:55 PM on September 3, 2011

In Snow Crash the 14? year old female protagonist has violent and graphic sex with the gigantic adult musclebound thug assassin Raven. I love the rest of the book, but yeah - something to be aware of.

I think Diamond Age and Zodiac are free of those elements? But can't recall with certainty. Zodiac has drug use iirc.

There are a lot of books I read around 12-13 which I would, with the benefit of hindsight, reserve for a somewhat older kid. I think you're doing just fine if you wait on encouraging him to read this stuff. (Eg - the rape and sex stuff in eg Clan of the Cave Bears and that series is the first that comes to mind, but there are others. And a lot of classic SF or tough-guy SF has some pretty effed up sex and gender stuff in it that would maybe be better encountered later on. Rule of thumb: if it was written to appeal to young men in the 1960s, by men who came of age in the 1940s and '50s, it is maybe not the best model of gender roles.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:19 PM on September 3, 2011

When I was 12, it was all about Heinlein. And Dune...
posted by and for no one at 4:35 PM on September 3, 2011

Zodiac has some fairly graphic sex, too. I don't remember if Diamond Age does.
posted by zvs at 4:48 PM on September 3, 2011

Diamond Age has a rape and torture scene towards the end. It's not graphic, but it's not great, either.
posted by jennyb at 5:36 PM on September 3, 2011

N;thing Anathem. Has that Stephenson complexity but it still easy to follow, along with a fantastic sense of adventure for a young reader.
posted by token-ring at 5:55 PM on September 3, 2011

A middle-schooler interested in speculative fiction will probably enjoy Gordon Dickson's "The Dragon and the George" series, Frederic Pohl's short stories and short-short stories, Connie Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog", Asimov's crime-solving robots, the Tolkien canon, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game". If he's an especially good reader, try him on Ursula K. LeGuin, Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz", and maybe Heinlein ("Stranger in a Strange Land" does have a couple sex scenes, but I'm pretty sure they're neither anti-sex nor terribly graphic nor anything other than enthusiastically consensual). Maybe he's getting a little old for Redwall and Prydain (though another way to put that would be: this is just about your last chance to expose him to Redwall and Prydain). Do not get tricked into giving him anything by Piers Anthony or Terry Brooks.

My parents scored big by getting me old stacks of "Amazing Stories" and similar sci-fi magazines from the 1930's-1960's -- age-appropriate not only because they were meant for kids but also because they were meant for a more prudish era (I take it the occasional oblique reference to sex isn't a problem).
posted by foursentences at 6:46 PM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would have absolutely loved the Baroque Cycle as a 12 year old girl - but that's not to say the books are right for your son. Has he been exposed to literary sex before, and how would he react? Does he have an interest in in the history of science? Is he bright and a bit pretentious? If any of the above are true, then he will enjoy them, otherwise encourage him to wait.

I don't know about being his 'book dealer'? My parents were hardcore fundy born again Christians and I still managed to read everything in the house (including what was boxed away in the garage) plus what I wanted from the library and bought from the local secondhand book shop - with the internet he is exposed to a lot, if he wants to read them he'll find a way.
posted by goo at 7:00 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Terry Pratchett's books would be an excellent fit for a good reader of that age - Reaper Man, Mort, The Colour of Magic, The Wee Free Men to start; David Eddings' Belgariad series; Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time Series; Ann McCaffrey's dragon books; T.H. White's The Once and Future King and other stories of Camelot and King Arthur.

There are a few ideas, at least.
posted by aryma at 7:13 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Anathem (just finished re-reading it, in fact). It's the only Stephenson novel that isn't R-rated or worse on the sex/violence front, and as a bonus it's his best novel to date, IMO.
posted by neckro23 at 7:59 PM on September 3, 2011

I wish I was introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was that age.

how the hell does my spell check know how to spell Terry Pratchett?
posted by BurnChao at 12:39 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get him some stuff by Dave Duncan.

Excellent fantasy and world building. Nothing too graphic sex or violence wise that I recall.
posted by jefftang at 7:44 AM on September 4, 2011

I love Stephenson, but no, it's not appropriate for a 12-year-old. Anathem was great, but you'll need some other options after that. I'd research the Biblioracle's past recommendations atThe Morning News.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 10:05 AM on September 4, 2011

Seconding DON'T give him Piers Anthony. Fun silly puns intermingle with creepy awful gender stuff.

I would also say don't give him Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein's views on sex and gender in that book, and his female characters, are from a weirdly different era and are just ... bleh.

Seconding Terry Pratchett - his young-adult novel Nation is awesome and isn't fantasy-based, so a big different from the Discworld novels (which are terrific, and best to start in the middle of the series rather than at the beginning).

Ender's Game is awesome, there's no sex, but having just reread it the psychodynamics/machoness of it are DARK - so talk with him about it!
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:11 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also secondign Douglas Adams of course; Asimov, Clarke, and others of that era and style; Bradbury obviously; Sleator; Once and Future King.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:13 PM on September 4, 2011

a few other suggestions for good long books -
The 13 and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear - long, fun for a kid
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - might be too dry? but long and haunting
The Stand (Stephen King - long, engrossing, might be too scary? I loved it when I was around that age)

Series -
the Master and Commander series? Horatio Hornblower?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:19 PM on September 4, 2011

Don't forget that creepy prosthetic finger, too. *shudder*

No, these should wait a while yet.

The Hornblower and Bolitho books are cool, though there's some floggings in both. But I read them all at that age and LOVED them. And he can move on to O'Brian when he's a little older.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:41 AM on September 5, 2011

No, The Baroque Cycle is not appropriate. And although I loved the crap out of Anathem and definitely agree it has a YA element to it I would say it's a little too much for a 12 year old, so I would veto that as well.

> Thanks all. It's just that he's done so much (reading) at this point that it's getting hard for me to procure any good shit for him.

Does your son maintain a list somewhere of what he has read, e.g. GoodReads? If so, I could probably make a bunch of fantastic recommendations based on that.
posted by dgeiser13 at 6:50 AM on September 6, 2011

I usually love Stephenson's stuff, but I strongly suspect he has some very deep issues with women.

I haven't read Stephenson's more recent stuff, but here's the rundown from his earlier books:

The Big U: main female character is drugged and nearly gang-raped; rescued at the last minute by a lesbian character who murders the would-be rapists.

Zodiac: no sexual assault, but the main female character nearly dies from exposure to nerve agents that cause her to lose control of her bodily fluids.

Snow Crash: main female character has sex with the main antagonist, who doesn't obtain her consent first (although her internal monologue indicates that she's willing), and he loses consciousness thanks to an anti-rape device that she has in her vagina.

The Diamond Age: main female character is repeatedly raped; this becomes an important factor in the resolution of the plot (no, really).

Cryptonomicon: depicts rape of Filipino women by the occupying Japanese during WWII, including the suicide of one woman; it's revealed that one woman avoids being raped by virtue of having contracted leprosy and being disfigured.

So, um... yeah.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:53 AM on September 7, 2011

Yeah, those books really aren't kid friendly. There is a fair amount of sex and violence. Also, Anathem is a really shitty book. (It reads like he asked his fans on slashdot for ideas: super-nerds living in super-convents away from the rest of the dumbaclots have a giant adventure—featuring kung-fu monks. And the stupid-ass 'twist'. Fuck it makes me angry just remember how much time I wasted reading it.)
posted by chunking express at 11:39 AM on September 9, 2011

Response by poster: Just for the sake of posterity I wanted to add that I read about 2/3 of the way through Anathem before giving up in disgust, not because of the immensely silly mangling of mathematics and physics (word salad and deus ex quantum (and then screwing that up too...)), or the ridiculous (and I mean ridiculous) misogyny e.g. and i paraphrase: "she was ugly, but she had the mind of a beautiful girl because she grew up in a monastery" in the midst of a sequence where during a worldshaking crisis, the author takes the time (from time to time) to mention which of the incidental female characters is bangable, but because of the shear volume of completely terrible attempts at Socratic dialogue (his grasp of philsophy is worse than his understanding of mathematical physics.) I will not read Plato fanfic and won't give it to my kid. he can read this crap on his own. if i had a daughter, i would burn this book.
posted by at 2:44 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yes, yes, a thousands times, yes.
posted by chunking express at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2011

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