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In Neal Stephenson's The Confusion, the character Van Hoek narrates a story to the crew of Minerva whilst in the habour of Manila.

At the end of the chapter, "Japan to Manila," it starts (pg. 701):

"A great ship for a great voyage," van Hoek said, referring to the Spanish behemoth. "That is the Manila Galleon, and soon it will be laden with all the silks of China and spices of India and it will sail out of this bay and commence a voyage of seven months, crossing half the terraqueous globe."

As best I could follow, van Hoek here is narrating a story of the Manila Galleon's passage to Mexico.

During this narration:

Jack noticed at about this time, that the blue-green light had grown much brighter, and had become steady and silent as if some eldritch Neptunian sun had risen out of the water, casting light but no warmth. Fighting a powerful instinctive reluctance, he forced himself to look up into the spars and rigging of the mainmast. Every bit of it - every splinter of wood and fiber of cordage - was aglow with crackling radiance, as if it had been dipped in phosphorus.

I've been able to follow the events of the Cabal so far, but this section had me stumped as to its significance and was a bit hard to follow as a result.

Is van Hoek simply spinning a fanciful tale to inspire the crew to stay with them on their next voyage, or is there a deeper meaning to this tale? Is it possibly referring to some true events of a real-life Manila Galleon?

Also, what exactly is the blue-green light? Is it bio-luminescent algae or is it light coming from the lightning in the sky mentioned in this section of the chapter?

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  • 1
    I assumed the weird glow to be St Elmo's Fire, but would have to check the text
    – alexg
    Jan 25, 2023 at 21:14

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Is van Hoek simply spinning a fanciful tale to inspire the crew to stay with them on their next voyage, or is there a deeper meaning to this tale?

That's it, there's no deeper meaning. The next stage in their voyage is even more fraught with danger than it has so far been, and the men need a motivational speech.

"...the rest of us [will] journey onwards. You sailors will disperse into Manila tonight. Some of you will return to this ship in one month's time to prepare on our great voyage. Others will think better of it."

Van Hoek goes on to describe an example of what the Galleon voyage might be like, emphasizing the dangers and negatives. You are not the only listener to be puzzled by van Hoek's long winded diatribe; as Jack points out, van Hoek has emphasized the dangers but not dangled the prizes in front of the crew:

"Er, excuse me there, Cap'n," Jack said, "your description of the voyage's terrors was most affecting, and I'm sure every man jack has shited his breeches now... but you have forgotten to include any countervailing material. Having aroused the fear, you must now stimulate the avarice, of these sailors or else they will jump overboard and swim to shore right now, and will never enlist again."

Van Hoek then circles back to discuss the benefits for the sailors:

"Of all the enterprises to which a man can devote his energies," van Hoek began grudgingly, raising his voice, "long-distance trade is the most profitable... [no other trade route] exceeds the Manila-to-Acapulco run in sheer profit."

After this new direction for the motivational speech, the men react positively, and van Hoek acknowledges that Jack was right about needing to feed the greed of the crew, not just the fear:

But then [the sound] grew into a heavy, stomping roar, and he recognized it as applause. Dappa thrust both index fingers into his mouth and emitted a piercing noise. Van Hoek seemed startled at first; then understanding dawned, and he turned to Jack, removed his hat, and bowed.

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Also, what exactly is the blue-green light? Is it bio-luminescent algae or is it light coming from the lightning in the sky mentioned in this section of the chapter?

As described a couple of paragraphs later, it's St. Elmo's Fire, a good omen for mariners:

The weird Fire of Saint Elmo had crawled down the mast to dance round the fringes of his tri-cornered hat, and even the curls of his goat-hair wig had become infected by sparks that buzzed and ruffled as if alive.

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  • Thank you! That's a brilliant break down! Appreciate the effort to get quote further. I had never heard of St. Elmo's Fire, so I figure it was a biblical reference. Now I know!!
    – Algamest
    Jan 27, 2023 at 7:23

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