A System after the mess

Neal Stephenson: The System of the World (Volume Three of The Baroque Cycle)

The last of the three volumes in the Baroque Cycle, The System of the World, is both a detective story set in London in 1714 and a phantasy on the very early beginnings of the industrial age, where the natural philosophers leave their roots in alchemy and become real scientists. Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibnitz figure prominently here, with much rivalry but also some interesting philosophickal discussions, as do the personages from the earlier volumes, The Confusion and Quicksilver: Jack and Bob Shaftoe and various of their relatives, Eliza, Dappa, Van Hoek, Daniel Waterhouse, and the enigmatic Enoch Root.

The System seemed to me the most worked through of the three volumes – there are fewer digressions and meandering descriptions, the intrigue is tighter though perhaps more predictable. The language is less modern, the backdrop of old London interesting, and the research into the outline of the Tower of London or the details of justice metered and rendered is deep and more relevant than in the other volumes. I enjoyed The System the most of the three and found it the easiest to read.

Overall, there has been progression through the three volumes – somewhat unusual, though I wonder whether not sales have suffered because the Quicksilver was comparatively hard to get through, with more historic personages and less progression in the story. I like long books, philosophy of science, and enough magical realism (we never get an explanation for the denseness of the Solomonic Gold, for instance, as well as Enoch Root’s longevity – he shows up in Cryptonomicon, too) that you get a sense of the playfulness of the author.

Recommended – though some perseverance is necessary with the first volume. Have fun.


3 thoughts on “A System after the mess

  1. Jesse

    I enjoyed all three books, and I’m grateful that Stephenson finished them all before publishing them. I wasn’t so happy about the magical realst aspects, as you term them — I’d very much like to know where Stephenson was going with the Solomonic Gold, Enoch Root’s longevity, and a certain scene with Newton that is prefigured by a congruent scene with Daniel Waterhouse (to avoid a spoiler, but try to point out the scene in question, near the end of _The System of the World_). Maybe it’s just the literalist in me.

  2. Espen

    Not sure I understand which scene you are talking about, but as I see it, there is plenty of time between The System and Cryptonomicon for Enoch Root and various Shaftoes, Waterhouses, Hacklhebers and others to get involved. The question, of course, is which scientific or technological sea change to pin the story on – The Baroque Cycle is really about the birth of the industrial age, with Newcomen, financial instruments, and trade. The Cryptonomicon is about the transition from an industrial to a digital age (yes, I know it is a trite comparison, but it is early Sunday morning here). So, what do you pin the story in in the 1800s? Railroads? Radio? Various revolutions – French I or II, US, Russian? The British Empire? Darwin? Steamships? All of them?

  3. Jesse

    I guess I was too obscure — it’s the scene that has the most to do with alchemy. (It would be a shame to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, hence my continued obscurity.)
    I don’t know where Stephenson is planning on taking the series, but I would like some explanation of the major reality-defying elements, specifically the Solomonic gold and Enoch Root’s longevity. That’s all 🙂

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