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The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
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The System of the World (2004)

by Neal Stephenson

Other authors: Nick Springer (Cartographer)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Baroque Cycle (Vol. III, Books 6-8)

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My favourite way of describing Neal Stephenson as an author is that his ambition vastly outstrips his talent; and the Baroque Cycle is a good point in case, I think. It is fairly obvious what he wanted to do here (mainly because Pynchon already did it before him) and it is even more blatantly obvious that this is not the chef-d’oeuvre describing the emergence of an age and short-circuiting that age with our present time that Stephenson wants it to be.

The first novel, Quicksilver had three protagonists, the second, The Confusion, had two of those, Jack and Eliza, with Daniel being mostly relegated to the background; so it is probably no great surprise that in The System of the World we see Daniel take center stage again, with Jack and Eliza moved to the wings. Also, this third novel takes almost exclusively part in England (and most of that in London – as world-roaming as The Confusion was, so confined is The System of the World), and generally this is by far the most focused novel of the Baroque Cycle, one could almost call it tightly constructed. But only almost, as this probably would just not be Stephenson if he would not go on long tangents at every occasion that offers itself, culminating towards the end of the novel in a moment-by-moment description of the “Trial of the Pyx” (basically, a test of the validity of British coinage) that rambles on and on and on over hundreds of pages (felt pages – actually it’s more like several dozen, but still absurdly long).

There also is some mumbling about the threatening chaos of quicksilver being contained into a solid system of the world – a weak and totally unconvincing bit of legerdemain to make readers believe there is some kind of Deeper Meaning at work in the Baroque Cycle rather than a random agglomeration of pointless facts by which of course nobody is taken in. The thing is that you just might get away with piling up heaps of facts and pieces of information in a non-fiction work, but if you want your text to work as a novel, you need to somehow connect that facts in a way that infuses them with significance – take a look at Moby Dick if you want to see how it’s done properly, or Gravity’s Rainbow (or really anything by Thomas Pynchon who is the supreme master of turning facts into metaphor). Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, just keeps shovelling facts, facts and even more facts into his novels in the hope that they’ll magically cohere into something meaningful – which of course they don’t. At best, the facts are curious in interesting in themselves, at worst they’re just a heap of boring pedantry that – except for the, in this case really minor, difference of their being historical rather than made up – could have comfortably fitted in any of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels and that only distracts from what remains at heart a rip-roaring adventure story.

Thankfully, that heart beats strong enough in The System of the World to make itself felt through all the intellectual waste Stephenson piles on it, and its rhythm is compelling enough to keep the reader turning the pages even when they are filled with tedious descriptions of irrelevant detail. This third novel of the Baroque Cycle is to my taste at least the most entertaining, with two major struggles driving the plot forward – the rupture between Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz about the authorship of the calculus which Daniel tries to mediate on one hand, and the struggle between Master of the Mint Newton and master forger Jack Shaftoe in wich Daniel also is involved. It is mainly the second one (no surprise, as Jack plays a central part) which keeps things going and the reader interested as Daniel first hunts down the forger with a group of unlikely investigators (most of which turn out to have – at least! – a double agenda) and then once again becomes a mediator trying to unite the opposing factions in a common purpose. We get a big heist (targeting the tower), a duel (with cannons), a wild chase (with coaches) and quite a few colourful and exciting things more.

Summing up (or well, repeating my sermon for the umpteenth time), The Baroque Cycle could have been such a wonderful book if it wasn’t for Neal Stephenson’s delusions of grandeur. Someone really should rescue the fun adventure novel hidden in the trilogy by pulling an S. Morgenstern on Stephenson and make an abridgement with just the good parts.
  Larou | Jul 22, 2015 |
An excellent finale to the Baroque Cycle. This was (in my opinion) the most dynamic book of the series. ( )
  grandpahobo | Mar 23, 2015 |
This is my second time reading this book. Though it starts out slow, I'm looking forward to the meatier parts in the middle. ( )
  fabooj | Feb 3, 2015 |
The System of the World is Volume III of the author’s Baroque Cycle. Volume I contains the first three “books” of the cycle, while The Confusion contains Book 4 (Juncto) and Book 5 (Bonanza). The System of the World contains the final three books of the Cycle, Solomon’s Gold, Currency and The System of the World.

If you read Volumes I and II, then you are familiar with the characters and the historical landscape (late 17th, early 18th century). While the historical fiction contained in these works is highly educational and at times fascinating (at others, somewhat confusing), this is not my favorite Stephenson effort. Nevertheless, as in his cyberpunk and sci-fi stories, a certain level of attention and effort is required in order fully grasp the author’s work. Some may not want to put forth the effort, but I appreciate it.

By its conclusion, the Cycle will have consumed between 2,500-3,000 pages; quite an undertaking, especially for a work that demands the reader’s attention and commitment. Having read it in its entirety, I can definitely say that I have a far better feel for the history and events of the period and geographical landscape. While the story certainly includes historical figures of significance (several English monarchs, English and French nobility, Continental rulers, Sir Isaac Newton and others) it also contains an assortment of fictional characters, some of whom are fascinating. Eliza, Jack Shaftoe and Daniel Waterhouse alternate as primary characters, though Eliza fades into the background through the final two books.

Most of the action in this final volume takes place in and around London. If the author’s writing can be believed, London of the period must have been one of the most miserable places ever on the face of the earth. Abominably crowded, absolutely filthy, disease and pest ridden, it would seem that a majority of the inhabitants walked around covered in sewage or industrial waste at all times. While overall, it is very entertaining and educational reading, at times it bogs down into relatively deep philosophical discussions between the characters. However, the final 200 pages are absolutely engrossing. If you have the time and are willing to put in the effort required, it is definitely worth it. ( )
  santhony | Dec 12, 2014 |
The third installment of the Baroque Cycle, this book does not disappoint. As with all Neil Stephenson books, however, you need to be prepared for detailed narrative and lofty dialogue, but if you let the confusion you occasionally suffer wash over you, it turns out to be an exceptional read. Thoroughly researched and highly detailed, Stephenson successfully recreates a fascinating time in history. Also of note is that he wrote the entire trilogy with ink-point felt pens, and parts of the original manuscript is on display in a museum that the publisher details at the end of the novel. ( )
  Meghanista | Dec 1, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
Neal Stephenson spent nearly 2,000 pages setting his convergent plots into motion in The System of the World, and they all collide brilliantly in the third and final installment of his Baroque Cycle.
 

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Neal Stephensonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Springer, NickCartographersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aquan, RichardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maestro, Laura HartmanGlobe illustrationsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sarkar, ShubhaniDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
But first whom shall we send
In search of this new world, whom shall we find
Sufficient? Who shall tempt with wandring feet
The dark unbottom'd infinite Abyss
And through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way, or spread his aerie flight
Upborn with indefatigable wings
Over the vast abrupt, ere he arrive
The happy Ile...
— Milton, Paradise Lost
There was the usual amount of corruption, intimidation, and rioting.

— Sir Charles Petrie, describing a Parliamentary election of the era.
It remains that, from the same principles, I now demonstrate the frame of the System of the World.

— Newton, Principia Mathematica
Dedication
To Mildred
First words
"Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold," said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This is the third volume of the three-volume edition. Please don't combine with the eighth volume of the eight-volume edition with the same title.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060750863, Paperback)

England, 1714. London has long been home to a secret war between the brilliant, enigmatic Master of the Mint and closet alchemist, Isaac Newton, and his archnemesis, the insidious counterfeiter Jack the Coiner. Hostilities are suddenly moving to a new and more volatile level as Half-Cocked Jack hatches a daring plan, aiming for the total corruption of Britain's newborn monetary system.

Enter Daniel Waterhouse: Aging Puritan and Natural Philosopher, Daniel has been on a long and harrowing quest to help mend the rift between adversarial geniuses. As Daniel combs city and country for clues to the identity of the blackguard who is attempting to blow up Natural Philosophers, political factions jockey for position while awaiting the impending death of the ailing queen, and the "holy grail" of alchemy, the key to life eternal, tantalizes and continues to elude Isaac Newton.

As Newton, Waterhouse, and Shaftoe each circle closer to the object of Daniel's quest, everything that was will be changed forever ...

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:51 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

In the wake of a power struggle between the throne-seeking Tories and Whigs in early eighteenth-century England, Daniel Waterhouse teams up with Isaac Newton to hunt down a shadowy group that uses time bombs to kill Natural Philosophers.

» see all 3 descriptions

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