The System of the World

by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Series: The Baroque Cycle #3
Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 0-06-052387-5
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 892

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This is the third book of the three-volume Baroque Cycle. I think you could, if you really wanted, read it without reading the previous volumes; Stephenson is certainly long-winded enough that you can pick up most of what's going on while you read. It's been a year since I read the second volume, and I only resorted to Wikipedia a couple of times to remember plot elements (and mostly from the first book). However, I wouldn't recommended starting here. Many of the character relationships, and most of the underpinning of the plot, is established in the previous volumes and given more significance by them. You would also miss The Confusion, which is the best book of the series, although none of this series rises to the level at which I'd recommend it except under specific circumstances.

Quicksilver establishes the characters of Daniel Waterhouse, a fictional Puritan whose family was close to Cromwell and who became a friend to Isaac Newton in the days following the Restoration; Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond who wanders Europe in a sequence of improbable adventures; and Eliza, who becomes a friend to Leibniz and a spy for William of Orange. The Waterhouse sections are prominent in Quicksilver: full of the early history of the Royal Society, alchemy, and a small amount of politics. Of those three characters, Eliza is by far the most interesting, which meant that I was delighted when The Confusion dropped Waterhouse almost entirely and mixed Eliza's further story with more improbable but entertaining sea adventures of Jack Shaftoe.

You will immediately sense my root problem with The System of the World when you hear that it is almost entirely about Daniel Waterhouse. While Eliza and Jack both appear, they play supporting roles at best, and Eliza's wonderful sharp intelligence and pragmatic survival skills are left out almost entirely.

Instead, this is a novel about Waterhouse's return to England after spending quite a bit of time in the American colonies working on calculating machines. He is almost immediately entangled in dangerous politics from multiple directions: the precarious national politics in England near the end of the reign of Queen Anne, Isaac Newton's attempts to maintain the currency of England as Master of the Mint, and a bombing attempt that may have been aimed at him, may have been aimed at Newton, and may have been aimed at someone else entirely. Much of the book consists of an extended investigation of this bombing plot, skullduggery involving counterfeiters, and attempts to use the currency and the Mint as part of the political conflict between Whigs and Tories, mixed in with attempts to construct a very early computer (this is Stephenson, after all). Leibniz and Eliza come into this only as confidants of the Hanoverians.

All this may sound exciting, and there are parts of it that hold the attention. But this book sprawls as badly as Quicksilver did. There's just too much detail without either enough plot or enough clarity. Stephenson tries to make you feel, smell, and hear the streets of London and the concerns of an idiosyncratic group of semi-nobles during one of the more interesting junctures of British history, but he does that by nearly drowning you in it, and without providing enough high-level guidance. For most of the book, I felt like I was being given a tour of a house on my hands and knees with a magnifying glass. It's a bad sign when the reader of a historical novel is regularly resorting to Wikipedia, not to follow interesting tangents of supporting material, but to try to get a basic sense of the players and the politics involved because the author never explains them clearly.

If you're more familiar with the details of British history than I am, and can more easily follow the casual intermixing of two or three forms of address for the same historical figure, you may not have that problem. But I think other structural issues remain, and one of the largest is Waterhouse himself.

Jack Shaftoe, and particularly Eliza, are more interesting characters because they're characters. They're not always particularly believable, but they attack the world with panache and are constantly squirming into the center of things. Stephenson's portrayals of Newton, Leibniz, the Duke of Marlborough, Sophia of Hanover, Peter the Great, and the other historical figures who show up here are interesting for different reasons: Stephenson has history to draw on and elaborate, and it's fascinating to meet those people from a different angle than dry lists of accomplishments. History has a way of providing random details that are too bizarre to make up; Isaac Newton, for example, actually did disguise himself to infiltrate London criminal society in pursuit of counterfeiters while he was Master of the Mint!

Waterhouse, for me, has none of these advantages. He is an invented character in whom I have no pre-existing interest. He drifts through events largely through personal connections, all of which seem to be almost accidental. He's welcome in the councils of the Royal Society because he's apparently a scientist, but the amount of actual science we see him doing is quite limited. His nonconformist background allies him squarely with the Whigs, but his actual position on religious matters seems much less set than the others around him. What he seems to want, more than anything else, is to help Leibniz in the development of a computer and to reconcile Newton and Leibniz. And he's not particularly effective at either.

In short, he has little in the way of memorable character or dynamism, despite being the primary viewpoint character, and seems to exist mostly to know everyone and be everywhere that's important to the story. He feels like an authorial insertion more than a character. It's quite easy to believe that Stephenson himself would have loved to be in exactly the role and situation that Waterhouse finds himself in throughout the book, in the middle of the councils of the wise and powerful, in just the right position to watch the events of history. I can sympathize, but it doesn't make for engrossing reading. Novels live and die by the strength of their characters, particularly their protagonists; I want more than just a neutral viewpoint.

The third major structural problem that I had with this book is that I think Stephenson buries his lede. After finishing it, I think this is a book with a point, a central premise around which all the events of the story turn, and which is the philosophical culmination of The Baroque Cycle as a whole. But Stephenson seems oddly unwilling to state that premise outright until the very end of the book. For the first half, one could be forgiven in thinking this is a story about alchemy and the oddly heavy gold that's been a part of the story since The Confusion, or perhaps about foundational but forgotten work on computation that preceded Babbage by a century. But those all turn out to be side stories, sometimes even without a proper conclusion. I appreciate honoring the intelligence of the reader, and I presume that Stephenson would like to guide the reader through the same process of realization that the characters go through, but I think he takes this much too far and fails to make the realization clear.

I'll therefore state what I believe is the premise outright, since I think it's a stronger book with this idea in mind: The System of the World is a continuation of the transformational economics shown in The Confusion into the realm of politics. Specifically, it's about the replacement of people with systems, about the journey towards Parliamentary supremacy, central banking, and the persistent state, and about the application of scientific principles of consistency and reproducibility to politics and economics (however fitfully and arbitrarily). Quicksilver was about the rise of science; The Confusion was, in retrospect, about the rise of economics; and The System of the World tries to be about the rise of technocratic modern politics, barely perceptible among the squabbles between Tories and Whigs.

I think that's a fascinating premise, and I would have loved to read a book that tackles it head-on. That's a concept that is much more familiar from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the context of Marxism, early socialism, technological utopianism, and similar attempted applications of scientific analysis to political and human behavior for the betterment of human civilization. Shifting that 200 years earlier and looking at a similar question from the perspective of the giants of the Enlightenment feels full of of potential. There are moments when I think Stephenson captures the sense of a seismic shift in how economies are run, knowledge is established, and civilizations are knit together. But, most of the time, it just isn't clear. There's so much other stuff in this book, and in the whole series: so many false starts, digressions, abandoned plots, discarded characters, and awkward attempts at romance (as much as I like the characters, Stephenson's portrayal of the relationship between Eliza and Jack is simply ridiculous and not particularly funny) that the whole weight of the edifice crushes what I think is the core concept.

Stephenson is never going to be sparse. When you start a Stephenson novel, you know it's going to be full of chunks of partly digested encyclopedia and random research findings that may have nothing to do with the plot. But his best books (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, even Cryptonomicon) have an underlying structure off of which all of those digressions are hung. You can see the bones beneath the flesh, and the creature they create is one you want to get to know.

I'm not sure there are any bones here, and that may be the peril, for Stephenson, of writing historical fiction. I wonder if he felt that the structure of history would provide enough structure by itself that he could wrap a few plots around the outside of it and call it good. If so, it didn't work, at least for me. A lot of things happen. Some of them are even exciting and tense. A lot of people meet, interact, and show off their views of the world. A great deal of history, research, and sense of place is described in painstaking detail. But at the end of the book, I felt like I had to reach for some sort of point and try to retrofit it to the story. Lots happened, but there wasn't a novel. And that makes it quite hard to get enthused by the book.

If you adored Quicksilver, I suspect you will also like this. I think they're the most similar. If, like I did, you thought The Confusion was a significant step up in enjoyment in the series and were hoping the trend will continue, I'm sad to report that it didn't.

If you were considering whether to read the whole series and were waiting to see what I thought of the end, my advice is to give The Baroque Cycle a pass unless you absolutely love Stephenson's digressions, don't care if they're about history instead of current technology, and cannot live without 3,000 pages of them. It's not that they're bad books, but they're very long books, they take a significant investment of time and attention, and I think that, for most readers, there are other books that would repay a similar investment with more enjoyment.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-05-01

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21