System Of The World Baroque Cycle #3 Hardcover – Sep 21 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
The colossal and impressive third volume (after Quicksilver and The Confusion) of Stephenson's magisterial exploration of the origins of the modern world in the scientific revolution of the baroque era begins in 1714. Daniel Waterhouse has returned to England, hoping to mediate the feud between Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz, both of whom claim to have discovered the calculus and neither of whom is showing much scientific rationality in the dispute. This brawl takes place against the background of the imminent death of Queen Anne, which threatens a succession crisis as Jacobite (Stuart, Catholic) sympathizers confront supporters of the Hanoverian succession. Aside from the potential effect of the outcome on the intellectual climate of England, these political maneuverings are notable for the role played by trilogy heroine Eliza de la Zour, who is now wielding her influence over Caroline of Ansbach, consort of the Hanoverian heir. Eliza has risen from the streets to the nobility without losing any of her creativity or her talents as a schemer; nor has outlaw Jack Shaftoe lost any of his wiliness. What he may have lost is discretion, since he oversteps the boundaries of both law and good sense far enough to narrowly escape the hangman. In the end, reluctant hero Waterhouse prevails against the machinations of everybody else, and scientific (if not sweet) reason wins by a nose. The symbol of that victory is the inventor Thomas Newcomen standing (rather like a cock crowing) atop the boiler of one of his first steam engines. This final volume in the cycle is another magnificent portrayal of an era, well worth the long slog it requires of Stephenson's many devoted readers.
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Stephenson, enjoying cult status for his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon as well as the first two installments in a trilogy he calls the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver [BKL S 1 03] and The Confusion [BKL F 15 04]), brings the long-winded but compulsively readable series to its conclusion. All three volumes have been lengthy but also effective as the author delves deeply into European history in the late-seventeenth and early-nineteenth centuries, eras of great intellectual and political ferment. Daniel Waterhouse, who was introduced in the first volume, has come back to England from the American colonies to mediate a dispute between two scientists, Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz. Around this continuing struggle, which has a side story encompassing Newton's desire to find a time-bomb-armed criminal gang, led by his archenemy, a counterfeiter called the king of the vagabonds, swirls a larger arena of contention: the probably sooner rather than later death of Queen Anne and whether the Whigs or the Tories will dominate the court in the reign that follows. Obviously--given the book's length--details are profuse, but each detail speedily draws readers into the narrative rather than impeding it. The language, to correlate with the times in which the novel is set, is done in a stately but not overwrought style. Expect considerable demand. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Inside This Book(Learn More)
"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. Read the first page
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Top Customer Reviews
Where Volumes 1 and 2 made use of detail to enrich the readers' experience, Volume 3 merely seems to overwhelm, and even sometimes bore. The endless descriptions of London landmarks and geography take away from what is otherwise a book with thrilling action sequences (the taking of the Tower of London especially standing out), the foundations of long-term friendships being shaken (with Daniel and Isaac drifting apart as Isaac become engrossed with minting coins and prosecuting counterfeiters, while Daniel pursues morally ambiguous ends), and a good old fashioned [attempted] murder mystery.
Volume 3 culminates with the inevitable: Jack being led to Tyburn Cross, to be executed for soiling the Pyx and casting the authenticity of the coinage into doubt; Daniel and Isaac attending the Trial of the Pyx, with Newton's career, good name, and life literally hanging in the balance; Eliza, seemingly unfazed by Jack's death sentence, continuing to wield her influence across borders, seas, and loyalties. A satisfying finale it is, but its readability is severely hampered by less than judicious use of detail, which was well-calculated before, but seems excessive this time around.
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Conflicts galore weave together into a complex tapestry: the power struggle between the Whigs and the Tories, the battle between Newton the Minter and Jack the Coiner, the feuding calculus inventors, and the clash between alchemy and science. In the end it all boils down to this: will the new system of the world be based on free markets and science? Or feudalism and alchemy?
The third and final book in the Baroque Cycle is just as weighty as the first two. It features a quick synopsis of Quicksilver and The Confusion for those who need a refresher. Even with the summary, I wouldn't advise starting with the third book. Each of the books in the series has its own character. Quicksilver was all about set-up, so while it was rich in detail and characters, it could be slow and a bit disjointed at times. The Confusion was full of madcap adventures and the pieces just flew around the board. The System of the World wraps all of the previous threads together, and strikes a nice balance between philosophy, intrigue, and action.
Stephenson keeps up the expected torrent of words, but as with the other two books, he keeps your attention with an iron fist of plot in a velvet glove of delightful prose. Stephenson manages to seamlessly combine serious discussions, obscure trivia, and profound silliness. As a reader, you have to pay the same attention to all, because you never know what small detail the plot is going to hang on next.
Daniel Waterhouse is the driving character for most of this book. If you loved The Confusion because it centered on Jack and Eliza, you might be disappointed in the smaller roles they play in the third book. But if you can get past that disappointment, you will find that Daniel has evolved into a more interesting and active character than he was in Quicksilver.
The Baroque Cycle requires a substantial investment of time and attention, but it is well worth the effort. The System of the World is a satisfying end to a great series. With Stephenson, as in life, the journey is more important than the destination, and he definitely gives you a lot of journey in the 3000-or-so page trilogy.
WHO SHOULD READ THIS:
Anyone who is reading this review has probably already invested a substantial amount of time in reading Quicksilver and The Confusion. It is unthinkable that, after reading those books, that they will not attempt System of the World. We will not deter them--they should run forth and purchase because it is refreshing to see such a work of astonishing scope come to a sort of satisfactory conclusion. The Baroque Cycle as a whole we feel will ultimately become a defining work in literature marking the early 21st century. The only thing that may hold it back is its length, which is daunting but wholly necessary.
WHO SHOULD PASS:
There may be a certain segment reading this series only for Jack Shaftoe and his exploits. While he is here in this book, he is not the focus and he seems somehow diminished in his age. We can't imagine anyone continuing to read these books only for adventure narrative but, if that was your main draw, it is largely absent in System and is much more focused on philosophy, economics, and politics.
READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AT INCHOATUS.COM
In the acknowledgements, Stephenson refers to a mid-course correction with regards to his writing approach. He does not describe what it is, but I think I know. In the first book, there are many passages that are so oblique, tangential, and orthogonal only to style that I found it difficult to stay with the program the whole way through. This tendency lessened in The Confusion and nearly disappears here in System. Good for him, good for us.
My only real complaint for this book is Mr. Stephenson's need to provide painfully detailed driving directions of old London. I appreciate his descriptive powers (I really do!) but describing what street flows into which, where, and whether to turn left or right, &c. [ ;-) ] is a bit irritating. His map on the inside cover is not detailed enough for following along, assuming that you accept such embellishment is necessary for advancing the story. E.g., one of the two climaxes is at Tyburn, the streets around which are described for PARAGRAPHS. Go ahead and try to find it on the map.
Why am I bitching? I have no idea. I loved the characters, loved this book, enjoyed the Confusion and had faith through Quicksilver. Maybe I'm put off because he's SO CLOSE to being a true literary genius of my generation, but he's not QUITE there yet. Hey, there seems to be a 200 year gap for him to work with now...
So why is NS my favorite now? He does everything my favorite writers do--word play and dialogue like Shakespeare, philosophy like Lewis, weird distinct characters like Heinlein, truly surprising and novel ideas like PKD, wit like Chris Buckley, swashbuckling adventure like Howard, and living breathing history like Keegan.
I just finished the cycle, over 2,400 pages, and I want to read it all over again from start to finish; in fact, I did just that today, at least in bits and pieces, re-reading the first meeting of Jack and Eliza, Waterhouse's first appearance as an old man, etc. The cycle shows a rich love of continuity and depth of meaning in which I stand in awe, especially as an aspring author myself. The entire cycle begins and ends with a hanging. It begins with Waterhouse being summoned on a mission we (and he) understand not for 2,000+ pages, but, just as in life, eventually we can make out some purpose to it all once we arrive.
While some passages SEEM long-winded, it all matters. Every description of the streets of London, etc. have meaning to the entire book. Those who say the plot of the cycle could be told in 50 pages are correct. This is just one of the many things I love about the books--they are distinctly not about plot. Rather than discursively going on and on with plot, the cycle focuses on thematics, character, and development of an idea. Those who read the last discourse between Leibniz and Newton (arguably the whole point of the cycle itself) and think NS fumbles the ball in the scene miss the whole purpose of the cycle. Everything in the cycle is about reconciling fact with faith, science with religion. Not only does NS not fumble the ball in that later scene, he amazingly makes the point of the book real to modern readers as the princess sets the ball--er, globe on fire, pointing out that if we humans cannot settle the classic argument of L. and N., then we might as well set the world on fire and continue the pointless destruction that makes up the vast core of the plot.
I love the cycle for its high-brow and low-brow moments, and everything in between. Like Shakespeare, one can see it all as swordfights and bawdy wordplay, or one can trust the writer and look deeper and see the agonizing humanity of it all.
I am going to have a hard time reading anything else for awhile because this was so good.
I read voraciously of both fiction, non-fiction and that in-between category of historic fiction in which one can learn considerably about the age but still enjoy the plot of an ideal narrative, or, in the case of the Baroque Cycle, an intertwining of several narratives. In the last say, three years, I have read literally hundreds of books and I can unequivocally name the three most influential works (apart from "Postcards of Nursing," the one I wrote myself, of course,) during that period. They are the 20 Aubrey/Maturin historic novels of Patrick O'Brian, "Shantaram," by Gregory David Roberts, and the three books in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.
I find it hard to critique Stephenson's work. His writing and research genius is so far beyond my poor abilities that if I come across an aspect of his writing which gives me pause, I have to look to my own deficiencies rather than his. But nowhere did I find the book to be condescending. And the subtle (and not so subtle) humor was superb.
And the characters: Ah the characters. When I had finished the books, I felt I *knew* Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, and Wren. Half-Cocked Jack and Dappa were real to me. Eliza lived and breathed.
Also, I began to discover that I was beginning to understand the international monetary system and the trappings of power surrounding it. I began to appreciate the conventions of letter-writing, the mind set when years might go by between a correspondence and its reply. I felt I understood something of the tangled tapestries of royal affairs in the 18th century. I was transported. Utterly. Words fail me.
Each book in the trilogy was better written than its predecessor, and the first one was superb. When I was reading O'Brian's novels, and was on say, novel #5 in the series, I was in heaven, knowing that I had 15 and a half (so to speak) more novels to go. When I was finally finished with 20, I started grasping at straws. I went to see the movie which, to my delight, showed me something of the ship HMS Surprise, but to my extreme disappointment, miscast Maturin so badly that it robbed the film of its portrayal of one of the most complex characters in literature. I read the unfinished #21. Not enough. It was only when I came across Quicksilver that I began to let go of the O'Brian characters and came to "invest" in Stephenson's.
And yet, by the time I was halfway through the "System of the World," the final of the three books, I began anticipatory grieving. I knew I might not see these folks again in such a personal light. They had become my friends. The fact that I had already read Cryptonomicon, a work by Stephenson based in part on one of the descendants of Dr. Waterhouse, was not a consolation. I miss those folks. I will probably read the books again in a year or two, but until then, since O'Brian is dead, and since probably Roberts will not top his first novel, I will have to wait for another of Stephenson's books. By the way, and this is not a spoiler, the resolution of the Baroque Cycle is thoroughly complete and intensely satisfying. It's just too bad it's over.