Books — The System Of The World, Vol. 3

Pirates rejoice, the Cycle is complete

By Glenn Given 

The System of the World, Vol. 3, By Neal Stephenson, William Morrow & Company, 2004, 892 pages.

Neal Stephenson ties up all the loose plot threads but purposefully leaves dangling many of the philosophical inquiries in The System Of The World, Vol. 3: The Baroque Cycle.

Stephenson’s epic cross-imperial metaphysical, mathematical, highly improbable but thoroughly enjoyable 9,000-page pirate/philosopher adventure fiction defines the genre. Granted, it’s the only published work in said genre, and quite possibly the only attempt made at said genre, but still, it’s a damn sight to behold.

Our protagonists collide in London at the end of their 30-year story arcs to set themselves at odds with their respective nemesis. “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, a.k.a. Jack the Coiner, pirate prince, is tasked by Louis XIV, to whom he owes a considerable amount, with debasing the English currency by whatever means possible. To wit Jack’s roguish wit is pitted against the greatest mind of the time, Isaac Newton, newly charged master of the Mint (i.e. the man responsible for the soundness of the pound). Newton while ostensibly concerned with the security of Great Britain’ coinage is secretly obsessed with obtaining the legendary gold of King Solomon which is proported to posses mystical qualities much valued in the shadow science of Alchemy. Additionally Newton is convinced that his philosophical legacy (Principia Mathmatica, specifically the invention of calculus) is under assault by a German philosopher named Leibniz.

Daniel Waterhouse, lately of Boston, has crossed the Atlantic at the behest of Princess Caroline of Hanover (an expatriated — in an extremely complicated manner — royal in line for the English throne) to mitigate the dispute between Newton and Leibniz (who consequently is a member of her court). Leibniz and Waterhouse team up to create the worlds first computer for the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great — a big guy who likes to cut people “in twain” and likes cool stuff like being the owner of the first computer and half of Asia.

Eliza, the lost love of Jack Shaftoe, French countess, British Duchess, companion to the Hanovers, Mother of Princess Caroline’s lover, business woman extraordinare (etc., etc.) fights to abolish slavery worldwide. Simultaneously she seeks to reconcile the Whigs and the Tories in Parliament, financially back the invention of the steam engine (Waterhouse), the aforementioned first computer (Leibniz), and somehow see the man she loves (Jack) on the day he dies (soon).

Trust me it all makes sense. In fact, Stephenson’s concluding book has a tone closer to a really kick-ass heist movie than that of the laborious tome you might imagine. While there is admittedly a whole lot of ground to cover (philosophically, financially, historically et al.) the pacing is determined and meticulous, checking off each relevant inquiry and step, spending just enough time on its tangents to fill out a world and shore up the main plot(s).

Then, we get out first prison break. Which is gloriously realized. These action sequences, (a high-tension stake out, double and triple crossings, three prison breaks, riots, blowing up a tower with clockwork incendiary devices, and breaking into and out of the most secure vault in London) seemingly arrive out of thin air. It’s like, you’re just reading along, sipping some tea and then “Bam” it hits you, those crazy bastards have enlisted a troop of disaffected Scots to storm the Tower of London. That takes balls to write; especially in a novel that also aims (successfully) to explain the basis of all monetary transactions, the role of government in finance, social stratification in the latter days aristocracy, secularism and place vis a vis abolition.

It’s hard to compare System of The World to the previous volumes in the Baroque Cycle (as they are all merely one really long book chopped up), or to Stephenson’s earlier works (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age). Obviously for those who have read the first two volumes (Quicksilver and The Confusion) it’s a must (not in the “I would really like to read this” but more of the “hey can anybody spare me a working lung” variety). For the rest of us, wait, I mean the rest of you, it might seem a bit daunting, but then again every good thing does. It would be best to say that Stephenson does that history/action/intellectualism thing, and he is succeeding spectacularly on all three points. His seven-year labor to hand-write this masterpiece was well spent. The Baroque Cycle is an absolute masterpiece, a compatriot to the greatest fiction epics of the last 50 years. It’s a War and Peace for the hacker set — kind of a The Great Gatsby for pirate lovers. I can only pray that Stephenson spends the next seven years crafting something as astounding as this.

- Glenn Given

 
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