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The System of the World 140

Posted by timothy
from the advance-word-of-past-events dept.
maximino (Shawn Stewart) writes "Due to a shipping error at Amazon.com, I received my copy of this book early. I like everything Stephenson has written, but this one, although well written, just leaves me cold. Anyone who is contemplating reading this book has either already read Quicksilver and The Confusion, or is entering a world of confusion and pain. The System of the World holds up all right under its own substantial weight, but is simply incapable of shoring up the whole trilogy. I think it reads better than the first book, but cannot stand up to the second for sheer manic joy. As far as the whole work, I find it disappointing at the last." Read on for the rest of Stewart's review.
The System of the World
author Neal Stephenson
pages 892
publisher William Morrow
rating 7, 5 for the trilogy overall
reviewer Shawn Stewart
ISBN 0060523875
summary The Baroque Cycle crosses the finish line, but like all of Stephenson's books, finishes ugly.

The third book in Neal Stephenson's epic Baroque Cycle shares its name with the third volume in Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica; this is no coincidence, as a large part of this book deals with Newton himself. The vast majority of this volume follows Daniel Waterhouse, aging Fellow of the Royal Society, occasional foil and possibly the only friend of Newton, as he attempts to complete the charge assigned to him by Princess Caroline, his future monarch. Of course, Waterhouse doesn't really believe in the monarchy, but he has an agenda of his own, and can see the wisdom in trying to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

The System of the World is the most chronologically compact of the trilogy. Quicksilver took place over a sixty-year time period and The Confusion over a decade and a half. Most of the action in this book takes place in the middle of 1714, as the ailing Queen Anne nears death, and the question of who should be the next monarch brings England near to another civil war. On one side of the debate are the Whigs, supporters of the Hanoverian succession, free trade, and industry. On the other side are the Tories, who would undo the effects of the Glorious Revolution and bring back the Catholic James III from exile in France -- supporters of landed aristocracy, unlimited monarchy, and slavery.

The Tories seem to be winning, due in no small part to the machinations of Louis XIV, whose support has allowed "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe to build himself into the most powerful counterfeiter and criminal mastermind in London. Shaftoe has matured, though, and gained a powerful gravitas. Waterhouse also is not the indecisive young man or even the uncertain old man of Quicksilver; he has accepted his old age and his mortality and for once in his life shapes events rather than being borne along by them.

There is real pathos in Waterhouse's character. The choices that he has made will lead England toward steam and industrialization, and in two powerful scenes he has the chance to see the downside of the future he has made. At one point he visits a large-scale industrial operation that has left the earth around it poisoned and wasted, finding nothing to compare the scene to except Hell. At the other he witnesses workers toiling around a machine that might explode at any point, and wonders how many other dangers will be created by inventors simply trying to get things done a little faster. Still, he perseveres; for as near as the Baroque Cycle has one point, it is to explore how the nation-state, modern banking, and modern scientific method arose from the chaos of the 17th century.

In Stephenson's world, this is accomplished by plots, dueling, daring escapes, bribery, and the occasional disruption of orchestral concerts. As always, when writing a thrilling action scene, he is second to none. When this book is moving, it moves really well.

Stephenson's writing style is essentially the same as in the first two novels, although he does seem to be engaging in more deliberate anachronisms here (I counted two Monty Python references, and what I'm fairly certain is a scripting language joke). This makes his constant use of Inappropriate Capitalization and Barock Spelling somewhat more tedious to me, but I phant'sy any reader that has gotten this far will probably be able to overlook it. He still has the ability to make the reader smile once per page, and his meticulous attention to detail shows. It's clear that Stephenson is fascinated by the period, and indicative of a good writer that he actually got me to care about it as well -- his books motivated me to read some of his references, and others besides. There are also some classic hilarious scenes, chief among them a duel fought with naval artillery.

The typical flaws of a Stephenson novel are also present, unfortunately. A rather large number of characters are built up for dozens of pages and are then abruptly killed, never to be mentioned again -- and a fair number of established characters meet the same fate. This volume also contains the worst sex scene Stephenson has ever written, which is saying something. And, as is typical of Stephenson, the book goes until the end, and then just stops, after another Deus Ex Aurum ending. This time he's included a few short codas as a postscript, but be warned now: there are many unanswered questions left at the end.

In fact, the ending of the book made me somewhat angry. Fully explaining why would spoil everything, so I will tread lightly. Let me instead go back to Isaac Newton. Newton is a tragic figure because he was a bridge between two eras; he possessed one of the finest rational minds the world has ever known, and yet he spent the majority of his long life with alchemical and mystical researches. Stephenson is too lenient on Newton with regards to his paranoia and murderous rage, but curiously lessens him by suggesting that Newton simply failed to accomplish some of the things he set out to do.

I have been an avid reader of each Neal Stephenson book, and I will probably read the next book he writes. Still, I hope that his editor cracks down on him in his next endeavor, and that he doesn't allow his fondness for some characters to override the point he's trying to make.


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The System of the World

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  • Huh? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:13PM (#10302280)
    This book fails to shore up the otherwise good trilogy, and yet this book is rated higher than the trilogy as a whole? Is this that new math?
    • Re:Huh? (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:15PM (#10302306)
      This book fails to shore up the otherwise good trilogy, and yet this book is rated higher than the trilogy as a whole? Is this that new math?

      Welcome to Slashdot, may I take your order?
  • It's out this month? I thought it was November! I need to pay attention better...

    That said, according to this review it looks like it will be a disappointment. Ouch. That disappoints me...I'll read it anyway though.
  • by girls (624572) on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:15PM (#10302308)
    Godammit! Why couldn't Amazon screw up my order instead.
  • by Tackhead (54550) on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:16PM (#10302314)
    > A rather large number of characters are built up for dozens of pages and are then abruptly killed, never to be mentioned again -- and a fair number of established characters meet the same fate.
    >
    > I have been an avid reader of each Neal Stephenson book, and I will probably read the next book he writes. Still, I hope that his editor cracks down on him in his next endeavor, and that he doesn't allow his fondness for some characters to override the point he's trying to make.

    Ah, don't worry. Half the fun of a Neal Stephenson novel is knowing that all the characters he abruptly kills off get to come back to life in the next series.

    • Half the fun of a Neal Stephenson novel is knowing that all the characters he abruptly kills off get to come back to life in the next series.

      I like the mounting tension as you wonder who'll get the diarrhea in this book.
      Bonus points if the same guy gets covered in shit. ;-)
  • FP (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:16PM (#10302315)
    Due to a shipping error at Amazon.com, I received my copy of this book early.

    So, he means he's got first post!
  • Sidetracked... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by seanellis (302682)
    Stephenson is a great writer, but this so-so review does not surprise me.

    I liked Zodiac, I found Snow Crash interesting and funny, Interface was workmanlike but engaging, and The Diamond Age is one of the books I have re-read most often.

    But I just didn't "get" Cryptonomicon. Yes, lots of running around, intrigue and so on. But in the end I didn;t find it satisfying. I'm afraid that, for the Baroque trilogy, I haven't even made it past the cover blurb.

    I'm sure many others will disagree (and I apologize to
    • I'm with you on this one. I "liked" Crytonomicon but only because of its WWII historical elements . If not for that I'd probably be where I am now with Quicksilver, only reading it when I have absolutely nothing else to do. I remember an interview with Stephenson somewhere, he said the next book would be set somewhat in the future, which should elliminate some of the 17th Century navel gazing that made the Baroque cycle a tedious for me.
    • ...I just didn't "get" Cryptonomicon. Yes, lots of running around, intrigue and so on. But in the end I didn;t find it satisfying.

      Similar experience here. After reading about 600 pages I just couldn't read any more. The cryptography and the math were interesting but the characters were just so cold. Lots of gory, senseless death, which I don't seem to enjoy as much as most, but without much examination of how these things would/should affect the characters. Most of the characters had the emotional dep

    • That's funny, because Cryptonomicon was my favourite work among all his books :)

      Snowcrash was good, but it read more like a Hollywood Action movie. Ditto for Diamond Age, lots of cool tech stuff, some nice action and the like.

      But Cryptonomicon - it was his first piece of work that was deep - so many different things, and they all come together in the end. His analogies to various things (deities, science, tech) and his narrative that aptly fit in with the times they were set in, was simply beautiful.

      And
    • I'm currently reading "The Confusion"--picked it up a few days ago. It strikes me as a book on baroque economics more than anything else.

      • There is much to be said about changes in how the world worked between the 16 and 17th centuries. Stephenson tries to capture many aspects and solidify in a narrative form. The changes in finance are particularly interesting (see also Cryptonomicon...) so they pretty much occupy the whole second book.

        It got me really interested in my economics classes...
    • I'm with you also. I started with Snowcrash and loved it, backtracked to Zodiac and the Big U, and liked The Diamond Age better each time I read it. But Cryptonomicom just never hooked me. My theory was that his target audience narrowed with each book he wrote, eventually leaving me outside of it.

      I'm not a hacker, or a guy. His previous books nevertheless had characters that I could relate to and find interesting. In Cryptonomicon, when the hero saves the day and receives the dreadful wounds of carpel tunn

  • by Anonymous Coward


    The first book by him that I read was Snow Crash. Pretty good book with lots of cool ideas. I really liked the idea of burbclaves but I thought that the rollerskates and skateboards were kind of stupid.

    Then I checked out The Diamond Age. I loved it. The idea of the primer was really cool as was the world that he described. I must have read that book a dozen times at least and it is easily one of my top twenty favorite SF novels.

    In the Beginning was the Command Line was a cool little book.

    Unfortunately
    • by VendingMenace (613279) on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:57PM (#10302657)
      Unfortunately everything else that I have read by him has sucked. The guy just went off in directions that I have no interest in.

      Of course what you mean, is that he started writting about stuff that you dont care about. That is to say that his books do not nessesarily suck, just that you are not interested in them. This is a very different kind of statement.

      I don't particularely like mystery novels (lets say). that doesn't mean that the whole genre of mystery sucks -- just that it doesn't appeal to me, personally. In fact, becuase i don't like the genre of mystery, i am even less qualified to make statements concerning the quality of any particulare mystery novel. I just don't have the knowlege of the subject, the exprience, nor love of the genre to make statements about them that would matter to those who would be interested in the book.

      He also really really needs an editor. His latest books could be, no should be, trimmed down to at least half their current size.

      Again, this is a personall prefference. You are saying that you do not like reading books that are that long-winded. Stephenson has just changed his writting style (really apparent starting with cryptonomicon). He is much more wordy now than he was earlier in his life. Is this inherintly a bad thing? Of course not. He is changing and maturing as a writter. As such, his style and genre is changing with him.

      I don't really mean to pick on you here, it is just that all to often, i see people making absolute statements (ei. that movie sucks) when what they really mean to express is an opinion (ie. I didn't like that movie). It is just somewhat annoying. Espcially, when poeple don't seem to realize that they are just expressing an opinion.

      How do i konw that what you stated was just an opinion? Well, for one I liked the book. And i know many people that like his barouque cycle so far. I also like the fact that Stephenson is changing. Personally, I don't really like reading the same type of thing all the time. that is one reason why i can't read anymore asimov, heinlien, anthony, ect. After a while all the books start to be the same old same old. Dispite the fact that i really enjoy the way the author expresses himeself.

      I am simple delighted that I have found an author (stephenson) who changes. That way i can enjoy the expression that that author has, but not be bored to death by the same type of story all the time.

      but then again, that is just my opinion :)

      • He is much more wordy now than he was earlier in his life. Is this inherintly a bad thing? Of course not.

        "Of course not"? Hold up there, pardner. It may not be "inherently" a bad thing, but I'm sure the parent and many other people would agree with me that it's definitely a very bad sign.

        Speaking as an editor myself, "wordiness" all too often obscures the point, leads the reader astray with needless details, bogs down narrative pacing, and generally distracts from the point of the book. This isn't alwa

        • Speaking as an editor myself, "wordiness" all too often obscures the point, leads the reader astray with needless details, bogs down narrative pacing, and generally distracts from the point of the book.

          You have some serious professional jading there.... Stephenson is wordy, not because he is trying to fill a book, but because he is exploring ideas. Reading cryptonomicon was a wonderful tour of a huge number of topics technical and non-technical alike. It's not that it was a bad story, but some of us aren'
      • He is much more wordy now than he was earlier in his life. Is this inherintly a bad thing? Of course not. He is changing and maturing as a writter. As such, his style and genre is changing with him

        If evolving as a writer means having a terminal case of Diahrrea of the Pen, leave me out of it.

        I'm a pretty calm guy, but the 200+ pages of meandering (although the description of the experiments were interesting) in Quicksilver made me want to break something. How anyone could get past that and even onto two
        • I'm a pretty calm guy, but the 200+ pages of meandering (although the description of the experiments were interesting) in Quicksilver made me want to break something. How anyone could get past that and even onto two other books needs the literary equivalent of the purple heart for grace under incessant crap

          Stay away from Foucault's Pendulum [amazon.com]. You have been warned.
        • Yeah, the first 200 some odd pages of quicksilver were fairly hard to read, but before page 300 it really picked up. At least i thought so.

          But really, in a series that is going to be over 2,500 pages long, having the first 200 pages be slow is not that bad. 10% of a book devoted to a introduction is not all that bad. And historically, it has been hard for me to get into Stephenson's books. But once i am, oh man, it is worth the payoff. In my opinion, the baroque cycle has been no exception. Once i w
      • I also like the fact that Stephenson is changing. Personally, I don't really like reading the same type of thing all the time. that is one reason why i can't read anymore asimov, heinlien, anthony, ect. After a while all the books start to be the same old same old. Dispite the fact that i really enjoy the way the author expresses himeself.

        I'm not sure how you come to that conclusion considering that the Baroque Cycle is essentially the same story (with the same characters!) as Cryptonomicon, only told wit

      • I always thought Snowcrash was a good book written in a horribly amateurish fashion. In a sense, the book being so badly written was one of the things I ended up liking best about it. The rough edges it had, set it apart from slick bestseller fiction.

        That being said, it's been fascinating to read Stephenson because you can really see his evolution as a writer.

        I actually have really enjoyed Quicksilver and The Confusion as they deal with historical fiction in a way that I like (James Michener and Umb
      • Again, this is a personall prefference. You are saying that you do not like reading books that are that long-winded.

        The longer the book the better if it's a good story, but he really does need an editor. It's not that he's too verbose, it's that he loses focus. Most of his recent doorstops could use some tightening up, plotwise. For an author who can crank out the pages while keeping tight reign on his characters, see Tad Williams [amazon.com].
    • This sounds exactly like my story. I mean I really REALLY loved Diamond Age. But yeah, he's kind of turning into another Stephen King type (wrong genre I know and I am painting with broad strokes...)

      He came out of the gate very strongly, but then went into these really indulgent, slow paced heavy volumes.

      His attention to historical detail was fascinating and was really the only thing keeping me reading (besides a chuckle every 25 pages or so). But, like the time i tried to read "It" 15 years ago, I g
  • Neal Stephenson really needs to learn how to shut up. I put about 2 months into reading Quicksilver, and I absolutely loved the characters, the individual scenes and even some of the subplots. But the main plot of the book was such a pointless, endless and rambling mess that I never had the desire to stay up until 4AM reading it. The historical detail was wonderful, and this was a great book to geek out on, but I felt like I was reading an ancient, endless tome and there's only so much of that one can take.
    • There's an abridged "Snow Crash"? Holy crap, that must be like a meth/caffiene/taurine/ginko/nyquil injection.
    • Bladder stones.

      The whole book is about the systems and social processes at the time - How fatal disease was common and the way people reacted to it, the role of revolution in the growth of economies, etc. There was this problem at that place and time with bladder stones. They killed a _lot_ of people. Today, there's none: Why[0]? It's just something jarring that he can bring up to remind you that the characters aren't modern people in funny clothes. The central thrust of the series, to me, is an atte
  • by RichDice (7079) on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:28PM (#10302422)
    ... but I'm still waiting for the real follow-up to Cryptonomicon.

    I admit that I haven't been following what's going on with Stephenson's writing plans, but it just seems to me that there were so many loose ends at the end of Cryptonomicon, all of them fertile ground for more work...

    • What's to become of the Epiphyte corporation and its data crypt plan?
    • The relationship between modern-day Waterhouse and Ms. Shaftoe?
    • The impending creation of the NSA under (recently-post) WWII-era Waterhouse and the evil, scheming ex-IBM-er military intelligence officer?
    • What's up with Grandma Waterhouse, who is spoken of reverentially by modern-day Waterhouse?
    • Gotta be more good stuff with (WWII) Waterhouse and Turing...
    • The rebuilding of Japan under McArthur and Goto Dengo?

    I don't even feel like I scratched the surface with this list.

    Cheers,
    Richard

    • What's to become of the Epiphyte corporation and its data crypt plan?

      They filed for bankruptcy while the founders ran away to spend idle lifetimes sipping margueritas in the Bahamas. :-)

      Sorry, couldn't resist, but it's obvious that Cryptonomicon was written during the dot-com bubble. We all know what happened to that bubble, therefore all follow-ups must depict a technology-pessimistic view.

      Well, unless said follow-ups are set in a distant future. :-)
    • Hmm, personally I think Cryptonomicon ended where it had to.

      The ending is just like the endings of all other great works -- Asimov's Foundation, Herbet's Dune, Scott Card's Ender's Game and what not.

      The ending is left at a point with infinite possibilities, and most of them good. And I sincerely hope he leaves it that way, especially since my mind has come up with some pretty nice scenarios of what happened next ;-)
      • The ending is just like the endings of all other great works -- Asimov's Foundation, Herbet's Dune, Scott Card's Ender's Game and what not.

        I'd agree with this, but for different reasons all around. The Foundation series never ended because (a) Asimov had painted himself into a corner, and (b) he believed that he wouldn't die until he finished it. Thank god he was wrong. Sorry, no tears for Isaac; he was a fucking horrible writer.

        The Dune books finished in part because Herbert died not long after

        • Brilliant Penny Arcade link, thanks..

          Also, maybe you know this, but there are now nine books [wikipedia.org] in the Ender saga.
        • Card illustrates what might have happened to Herbert if (a) Herbert had written every book as a piece of proselytizing Mormon propaganda, and (b) wanted to convince everyone that Russia is the source of all evil.

          Seriously, Card has two storylines: the one where trusting in Jebus is the answer to everything, and the one where Russians want to take over the world. Sometimes (see "Ender's Shadow") it's both.
        • was originally conceived as an introduction to Speaker for the Dead, and reads like it. Ender's Game (the book, not the novella) was largely created to serve as an introduction to Speaker for the Dead, and is incomplete without it. Speaker truly ends the story with symmetry, Ender having turned his power of understanding to the nurturing of life rather than its destruction.

          The final sentence of Speaker for the Dead is one of the greatest I have read in any genre.
          "The sunlight on her back, the breeze a

        • I'm fairly certain that Herbert died before finishing the last book. The plot was outlined in relative depth, and much of the prose was written, but not all of it.

          His nephew finished it. If you're really careful, I hear you can spot the point where the writing changes. I've not tried finding it myself.

          This is the same nephew that went on to write the prequels. They suck, of course, but that's not so much the nephew's fault as it is Kevin Anderson's, who has the God-given ability to come into any ru

          • I think you might be confusing two different stories. Frank died before The Ascension Factor was printed, and Bill Ransom (who was co-writing it with him) finished the book. You can tell; Ransom's a poor writer by comparison. The first two in that series, The Jesus Incident and The Lazarus Effect, are quite good though.

            Brian Herbert, the talentlesss waste of oxygen currently raping the Dune franchise is Franks's son. How sad is that? Frank and Brian wrote one book together before Frank's death. I d
      • A seventh book was planned by Frank Herbert and his notes are being used to write the sequel to Chapterhouse Dune. Judging by the new prequels, the writing will be mechanical, the plot will be uninteresting and the dialogue and characters will be flat.. but dammit, we'll finally find out who the mysterious couple guiding humankind were and what happens to Duncan and Serena. :)
    • by 2short (466733) on Monday September 20, 2004 @06:18PM (#10302897)
      So basically, you liked Cryptonomicon, and want more of the same. Based on Stephensons past work, whatever he writes in the future, what it will not be is the same as anything before. Except in the sense that it will, in my opinion, rock.

      But I don't think any of your loose ends are particularly loose:

      "What's to become of the Epiphyte corporation and its data crypt plan?"

      Having aquired the requisite huge pile of gold, they establish the crypt, and it's chief initial application, secure digital cash.

      "The relationship between modern-day Waterhouse and Ms. Shaftoe?"

      Goes swimmingly, but probably isn't so interesting to read about. Their kids may have interseting adventures, being the unification of the technologist and adventurer archetypes.

      "The impending creation of the NSA under (recently-post) WWII-era Waterhouse and the evil, scheming ex-IBM-er military intelligence officer?"

      It gets created and is headquartered at Fort Meade. I didn't think he was necessarily evil though. Perhaps from Douglas MacArthur Shaftoes POV. In the WWII timeline I don't see it though. Sure, he tries strenuously to kill a bunch of our heroes, but they are aboard an enemy submarine at the time.

      "What's up with Grandma Waterhouse, who is spoken of reverentially by modern-day Waterhouse? "

      Where's the mystery? She groes up on a sheep farm in Australia, meets and maries Lawrence, has a very nice, if boring life in Washington State, is well loved by her Grandchildren. Sounds like a nice lady, but I don't want a novel about her.

      "Gotta be more good stuff with (WWII) Waterhouse and Turing"
      That was really good stuff, but it's not really a loose end. It would be fun to read more of it, but I think I'd rather have something different that Stephenson chooses to serve up. variety is the spice of life and all.

      "The rebuilding of Japan under McArthur and Goto Dengo?"

      It gets rebuilt.

      • by RichDice (7079) on Monday September 20, 2004 @07:40PM (#10303677)

        I find your reply not to be very helpful. Allow me to push the envelope in the same vein...

        "The Universe?"

        Tipler's Omega Point proves infeasible and/or it is found to follow a hyperbolic expansion. So, between Heat Death and Proton Decay, it eventually becomes very boring.

        Well... umm... yes, I suppose. But I figure there's some good (and not entirely obvious) stories that could be told about what happens along the way.

        Cheers,
        Richard

        • It's true that my reply was not very helpful. Mainly I get frustrated by the constant refrain that Stephenson can't write endings. All his endings have seemed entirely satisfactory to me. So the parent poster presented a list of "loose ends", none of which seemed like any mystery to me at all. Perhaps Grandma Waterhouse was actually far more fascinating than she appeared. Perhaps her harmless facade was merely cover, so no one would suspect she was a highly trained assassin. But in the absense of evid
          • I didn't think I said anything about the end of Cryptonomicon. What I was trying to say was that the story-arc started by Cryptonomicon didn't to me seem to be finished, and I think it has great, great potential. I'm just frustrated that he went off in another direction for his next few books. I see Cryptonomicon as being the first book of a triology. But of course that's just my opinion, and I could be completely wrong.

            I actually quite liked the ending to Cryptonomicon -- I thought it was the best o

            • "I didn't think I said anything about the end of Cryptonomicon"

              You mean besides:

              "but it just seems to me that there were so many loose ends at the end of Cryptonomicon"

              Anyway, I'll admit I'm quick to jump on criticism of Stephensons endings, because I have no idea what people are talking about. It's like they picked a criticism at random, except that a lot of people seem to pick the same one. I don't get it.

              I'm not privy to Stephensons writing plans either, but if the past is any guide, the direct seq
    • seems to me that there were so many loose ends at the end of Cryptonomicon

      Stephenson never ends a book, he just stops writing them.
      I always end up turning the last page and being surprised that there's nothing else...
    • Heck, I'd like to read a sequel to The Diamond Age. What happens to Nell next?

  • Stephenson's endings (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chochos (700687) on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:33PM (#10302466) Homepage Journal
    People who have read Stephenson's books know that he's not really good at endings. Most of his stories have a lousy ending, it feels like he just got bored or tired and decided to wrap things up real fast and just leave it at that.
    I think the only Stephenson ending I like is from Jipi and the Paranoid Chip.

    However, he can come up with great stories which I enjoy very much, despite the ending (which is not much of a letdown now, because the moment I start reading a Stephenson book I expect the ending to suck but it doesn't bother me).
    • I find Stephenson to be mediocre at writing the beginnings of books and horrible at writing endings. The lengthier his books, and the more volumes in his mult-volume works, the more "middle" is included, which is where he shines.
    • I think he fails to build up satisfying endings because he's basically a cold-blooded creature. His emotional range is rather narrow, and a good ending needs to be backed by a strong emotional apex. Pretty much like sex. :-)

      In the light of the sex comparison, Stephenson seems kind of frigid to me.
    • Well, I thought all his endings were good.

      In Snowcrash he saves the world and gets the girl, what more? In Cryptonomicon, he gets to be a big man and gets the girl. In Diamond Age, he resolves the central plot, and that's all that's needed.

      See, what makes Stephenson awesome, as you rightly said, is that his books are a journey. He never goes in for the cliched, "... and they lived happily ever after" kinda ending - his endings leave room for anything to happen, a bunch of open possibilities. And that is w
    • His endings remind me of ol' school Kung-Fu movies. Usually after the climatic battle, no sooner than the final blow is struck and the head baddie is dead
      they roll credits.

      Stephenson's endings are like that, after the story is resolved they just end with no post to wrap things up with the characters.
  • Editor (Score:4, Funny)

    by gbaldwin2 (548362) on Monday September 20, 2004 @05:47PM (#10302572)
    Stephenson has an editor? If so he needs to actually get off his ass and some work. Good story, but about 2000 pages too long.
    • Re:Editor (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sTalking_Goat (670565) on Monday September 20, 2004 @06:03PM (#10302722) Homepage
      from Stephenson's website

      Books too Long

      There is a Cult of Brevity that holds a certain amount of sway in the writing world. Some of its devotees are teachers (and students) in formal creative writing programs where the coin of the realm is short stories, or fragments thereof. Others are editors and journalists who, as a condition of their employment, must produce work of fixed length. Among people who follow the Cult of Brevity, the ability to write pieces that are not very long is thought to be the mark of the competent, well-trained, disciplined writer.

      So you can imagine what such people think of people who write longer pieces, such as myself!

      Many of the Cult of Brevity's more hard-core believers feel that writing long stuff is a sign of disgusting incontinence, egomania, pusillanimous editors, the decline of Western civilization, or all of the above. As must be obvious, I am not an adherent of the Cult of Brevity. Personally, I am delighted to read extremely long books, or series of books, as long as they hold my interest. To me it seems self-evident that the Cult of Brevity is grievously mistaken, and am not inclined to dispute it here.

      At first, I agreed with him and then I started reading Quicksilver...

      • Heh. The good news is, if you didn't like Quicksilver, you didn't have to fund the other two thirds of his longwindedness.
      • Judge not a book by its length. I really don't care if a book is long or short provided it's a good read. I do frequently get annoyed by a lot of recent books which seem to be long just for the sake of padding it out. Books that don't really have much to say and take forever to say it are annoying.
        I do love writers who can write long and stay interesting. Dan Simmons Hyperion series was a blast and I also enjoyed his recent Ilium.
      • The problem isn't that his books are too long, as a quote from the review illustrates.

        And, as is typical of Stephenson, the book goes until the end, and then just stops, after another Deus Ex Aurum ending.

        The problem is that Stephenson doesn't seem to know where to end a story, short or long. I sometimes think he ends them too soon, rather than too later, and he may actually be better off leaving the real climax and denoument for the reader to fill in if he can't drag one up from his digital well.

        Of co
  • Would someone mind telling me what Deus Ex Aurum means? Google gave me nothing. Is it similar to Deus Ex Machina?
    • Re:Deus Ex Aurum (Score:5, Informative)

      by reignbow (699038) <{ed.bew} {ta} {neffets.m.a}> on Monday September 20, 2004 @06:12PM (#10302827)
      Digging into the results of six years of latin class, it means "God from gold," similar to "deus ex machina," which means "God from (a/the) machine."
      • Correct, but the original phrase is wrong. "Ex" takes the ablative case, and expresses

        It should thus read "Deus ex auro." - cfr. the medical term "ex vivo," as opposed to "vivum."

        Pretty naive mistake on the author's part (I'm assuming it's in the book).
        • Correct, but the original phrase is wrong. "Ex" takes the ablative case, and expresses

          Er... Let's say great minds mistake alike... I meant to say it expresses an idea of sudden appearance, or a motion from the inside to the outside of something.
      • Like gold is Au on the periodic table.
    • IANALS (I Am Not A Latin Scholar), but I'd hazard a guess that it means "the ghost in the gold," or something similar. The chemical symbol for gold is Au, which is derived from its Latin name, which we can posit is something resembling "aurum" (although of course, as with all Latin nouns, the ending changes depending on the grammatical case of the word).

      So, most likely, Deus Ex Aurum refers one of two things:

      1) The sudden and inadequate resolution of all outstanding affairs upon the conclusion of the stor
      • Deus is Latin for God, not ghost.
        • Thanks. :) I'm so accustomed to seeing the phrase "deus ex machina" translated as "[holy] ghost in the machine" that I didn't pause to consider meaning of the actual Latin word deus -- which can't be mistaken for anything other than God, when you think of it. ("Deity," and so forth.)

          Armchair etymology is fun!
    • It's a play on deus ex machina [wikipedia.org] - a god appearing out of the heavens, as it were, and cleaning everything up. In this case, it's a sudden wrapping-up of the story through gold. If you've read Cryptonomicon, you'll understand.
  • by wdavies (163941) on Monday September 20, 2004 @06:08PM (#10302778) Homepage
    Anyone else find "The Buy It Here" Barnes & Noble link ironic, given that it was Amazon that provided the original copy ...

    I'm desperately resisting the temptation to place my own AWS id in here...
  • Lucky error (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GileadGreene (539584) on Monday September 20, 2004 @06:10PM (#10302804) Homepage
    Due to a shipping error at Amazon.com, I received my copy of this book early.

    Lucky for us Amazon's shipping error resulted in the book being sent to someone actually capable of writing a cogent and coherent review.


    • I agree. It's even going to be an educational review for me, because I don't know what "Aurum" means. I've heard a lot of Deus Ex phrases, but this is a first.

      So, "deus ex aurum" is...? Anyone?

  • by mi (197448)
    I liked the first book more than the second...
  • ...a Neil Stephenson book that ends unsatisfyingly?

    After reading Cryptonomicon I thought that was the whole point of the man. To make cool works of fiction and then have them end in arbitrary and sucky ways. The ol' "Set-em up and fail to knock-em down" technique.

    -Pinkoir
  • The Point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kozar_The_Malignant (738483) on Monday September 20, 2004 @07:01PM (#10303269)

    >Still, he perseveres; for as near as the Baroque Cycle has one point, it is to explore how the nation-state, modern banking, and modern scientific method arose from the chaos of the 17th century.

    Indeed, the trilogy is the story of how modern money and banking arose. The protagonist is capital, and how it arose from its former life as coveted metals, like silver and gold. Empiricism is seen as being dragged along by the pragmatic bankers (and hustlers like Shaftoe and the Duchess of Several Places.)
  • Watered steel blade (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Xeger (20906) <slashdotNO@SPAMtracker.xeger.net> on Monday September 20, 2004 @07:02PM (#10303285) Homepage
    Dovetailing nicely with this review, an antique katana of "Damascus steel" has recently gone up for auction on eBay. Readers of the Baroque Trilogy will be familiar with watered steel after wading through dozens of pages of Stephenson's discourse on its nature and origin. If you'd like to see what watered steel looks like for yourself, check it out [ebay.com]!
    • "No doubt ,this is a excellent idem within our collections.If you enter this page ,I must say you are a professional antique collector."

      Ah... they're joking right? This has got to be the single most suspicious auction I've ever seen, and I've seen some doozies.
      • Keep in mind that the guy lives in mainland China, so his English is not only sub-par, but anachronistic as well. When's the last time we shipped a crop of English teachers over there?

        Nonetheless -- point taken. I'd never dream of bidding on this (or any other antique) without being able to inspect it in person. So look -- don't touch -- and thereby get some value out of the scam.
    • by dbIII (701233)

      Readers of the Baroque Trilogy will be familiar with watered steel

      I can't remember what Stephenson wrote about it, but the whole layered steel method is a way of taking two different types of very crappy metal to make something very good. You take something very hard that cracks easily and layer it with something very soft that doesn't crack easily, and make the layers very thin by pounding it a lot. With modern steel production we can get something just as good (effectively the same thing only in micros

      • Stephenson went on for pages about how beautiful it is, how uncommonly strong, etc -- in the context of the book, of course. I guess I assumed we've developed better materials and metallurgic processes by now, but I fell hook, line and sinker for Neal's yarn about how the process had been lost. Thanks for clearing things up.
  • ortho/paradoxy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Monday September 20, 2004 @07:03PM (#10303293) Homepage Journal
    "Newton is a tragic figure because he was a bridge between two eras; he possessed one of the finest rational minds the world has ever known, and yet he spent the majority of his long life with alchemical and mystical researches."

    There's no contradiction in a rational mind researching alchemy and mysticism. Especially in the 1600-1700s, when science was built on a the techniques and pursuits of those prior investigative models. Four centuries from now, quantum mechanics will be indistinguishable from alchemy in "rationality", or whatever mental mode practiced by generators of new information about systems of events. It will either seem too deterministic, or clumsy guesswork, depending on future evolution of science. Newton applied his fine instruments to fuzzy material, both from his lab (and orchard ;) and from his history. And how are the legitimate questions of alchemy and mysticism to be answered, except by experimenting with their subjects, however skeptically?
  • by cryptochrome (303529) on Monday September 20, 2004 @07:56PM (#10303891) Journal
    Those guys blow. At least Stephenson has written some good stuff.
  • by energylad (53932) on Monday September 20, 2004 @08:08PM (#10304010)
    Did anyone discover an encrypted message in any of the Baroque Cycle books? I noticed that they were relatively free of typos, but a friend of mine (who gets involved in too little sleep and too much thinking as a result) began to see a pattern in the typos in Cryptonomicon.

    And while I remembered a lot of typos in that book, I wondered what would happen if I made note of them. I mentioned this to my friend, and he naturally had already written them all down. Between first and next e-mails on the subject, he'd done a bit of experimenting.

    "I find deliberate errors on pages 43, 86, 129, 155, 283, 319, 341, 342, 357, 385, 430, 437, 462, 477, 479, 481, 483, 526, 534, 535, 539, 574, 585, 611, 620, 887, and 918. Hope I didn't miss one there.

    "take the delta between each page number and run it through a mod 26 function - like solitaire, from the book? - there's first a block of 16 seemingly garbage letters (two bytes?) beginning with a Q, followed by three Bs in a row (spacing characters?) and another Q, then the words HADIK ZIMTER. whattf?!"

    Another friend of mine, Douglas Barnes, read the first draft of Cryptonomicon, which had a lot more text than the final printed copy. The eerie thing is, and this is what makes me think it worth mentioning to the slashdot crowd, early drafts had none of the typos that the first-printing hardback ended up with. Doug swears that the text was actually very clean, and that he wondered what was up when he saw the first edition, as though the typos had been inserted on purpose.

    Enoch Root care to weigh in on the matter? Any budding young crytologists think they can answer Mr. Stephenson's message? Who or what is HADIK ZIMTER?

    energylad
    • This probably won't be noticed so late in the thread -

      I asked Stephenson at a signing after _Quicksilver_ if he had hidden messages in the text. He said he hadn't. (I could ask him again when he passes through the Bay Area next week, though.)

      I wondered this because of Eliza and her letters; it turns out that one crypto system she used was dependent on handwriting quirks that weren't reproduced.

      I'd check the line numbers of the typos next, by the way.
  • by fuctape (618618) on Monday September 20, 2004 @08:35PM (#10304214)

    ...when it comes to Stephenson. Many people love him and don't even *see* those flaws as flaws, and many think he's just an overblown researcher with diarrhea of the pen. Read him for yourself, but don't expect a Hollywood ending.

    I, for one, love his endings, beginnings, and middles. As the about reviewer said, he makes me grin like a maniac on a very regular basis. But hey, to each their own -- I hear Pam Anderson book is positively scintillating. Or you could pick up a Dan Brown and relive the stress of hundreds of events and encounters packed into less than a week. Neal's not for everyone, but he *is* an excellent author.

  • The man's a genius, and he has produced a series of masterpieces. His endings are just right, unless you're a short-attention-span geek who thinks Hollywood makes good films. Go away, all of you.

  • "but like all of Stephenson's books, finishes ugly."

    Hmmm ... that's a big statement. The ending of Cryptonomicon apparently had a different effect on you than it did on me.

    As for The Baroque Cycle .. I've read half of the trilogy so far .. My reaction? .. Each book is way too long, but is OK once I get into it .. If each of the books were cut in half (while keeping the same essence), they'd be better books (IMO).

The use of anthropomorphic terminology when dealing with computing systems is a symptom of professional immaturity. -- Edsger Dijkstra

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