|The System of the World|
|rating||7, 5 for the trilogy overall|
|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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