System of the world by neal stephenson Review and Opinion

System of the world by neal stephenson Review and Opinion

The System Of The World
Neal Stephenson
William Heinemann hardcover £16.99

review by Patrick Hudson

So, here it is, the final volume of Neal Stephenson's immense Baroque Cycle, which has consumed 3,000 pages, spans a period of 60 years, a cast of thousands, and nearly a year of my life. It's been a long trip and I can't help feeling that my critical distance has dwindled to nearly nothing before reaching The System Of The World, for Stephenson has taken me to such exotic places and shown me so much that my head is spinning. I can't really believe it's over, and reading other books now has that odd, unreal feeling one experiences returning to work after a long holiday.

If you've already read the previous books in the series, Quicksilver and The Confusion, then you'll know what to expect. This time, the action begins in 1714, several years after the climax of the previous volume. The focus this time is on Daniel Waterhouse who has arrived in England at last, to pursue the mission he was assigned by Princess Caroline of Hanover, via the enigmatic Enoch Root, at the very beginning of volume one: to establish whether Isaac Newton or Gottfried Leibniz was the first to discover calculus. In pursuit of this goal, Daniel soon finds himself embroiled in much else besides disputes of scientific precedence.

His old friend Isaac Newton has been appointed Master of the King's Mint in charge of ensuring the purity of the British coinage. In this task, he is challenged by numerous counterfeiters and clippers, not least of which is the notorious Jack the Coiner, soon revealed to be a familiar vagabond from the previous volumes. It quickly becomes clear that Daniel's mission is intertwined with the strength of the currency, the succession to the British Crown, the scientific ambitions of Tsar, Peter the Great, the development of steam engine technology, assassination plots against virtually every major character in the novel and the search for the Solomonic Gold and the alchemists' Philosopher's Stone. In short, it is business as usual in Stephenson's Baroque age.

As in the previous volumes there are too many pleasures here to easily summarise. The enjoyably circumlocutious prose, the intricate plotting, the clever dialogue, and not least the fascinating and often amusing sidetracks into matters of politics, science and economics. Daniel Waterhouse remains an engaging and sceptical viewpoint character and the characterisation of Newton - not to mention the incredible adventures that Stephenson has him pursuing - really make me want to read a life of Newton to discover how much of this is true, and how much is invention. I know enough to make me suspect that there is more truth in Stephenson's depiction than really seems decent given Newton's place in the history and physics textbooks.

As the final volume of the series, expectations have been high for Stephenson to pull something pretty special out of the bag, and given the weak endings in many of his previous novels it's always been 50/50 if he was going to manage it. Here, however, he has time and history on his side. Events must end a certain way - we know that the Hanovers, not the Stuarts, end up on the throne, and that as time passes the characters will get beyond an age when they can engage in the sorts of adventures that they have been occupying them up until now. Stephenson does, however, manage to bring things to a satisfying conclusion and long-time readers will be happy at the fates of the main cast.

There are a few weak spots in this volume, however. In the first third, the extended description of Jack's invasion of the Mint in the Tower of London, mixed with Daniel and Newton's wild goose-chase to the mouth of the Thames, drags unforgivably, and takes up over 100 pages of the novel. Dappa's antislavery storyline lacks dynamism, conducted as it is chiefly through the handbills he writes and that are conveniently found here and there for Daniel to read, and the enmity between him and Charles White never quite convinces. Certainly White has been a vile character since his memorable debut in The Confusion, but his demise is bathetically absurd and, again, described at too great a length.

Most disappointingly, Eliza, such a powerful force in the previous two novels is particularly underused. She has no motivation here but to see through the machinations begun in the earlier volumes. There is one memorable occasion when we see a flash of the old Eliza, and she is certainly influential in some of the important aspects of the plot, but she tends to act behind the scenes. This is Daniel and Jack's novel, and I guess that this is fair turnaround, as Daniel had little to do in volume two and Jack is clearly the series' star. Seeing as this is the grand finale, however, I was hoping she'd get more of a look in.

The settlement of the dispute between Newton and Liebniz is also something of a damp squib. The necessity to unite the two greatest minds in Europe to present a united face in the preservation of Christian belief doesn't garner much reader sympathy, as Daniel continually undercuts it. Stephenson despatches the dispute in a single scene that seems very much tacked on, almost out of a sense of duty - having raised the issue as a mission to get Waterhouse back to England, Stephenson needs to make some effort to resolve it. Inevitably, he doesn't (the question is still debated today) and so the scene sort of peters out rather than arriving at any conclusion.

This is perhaps the weakest of the three volumes - I think I enjoyed The Confusion the most - but even so there is much to enjoy. At the very least, the Baroque Cycle has been a rollicking historical adventure. I've been ranting and raving about this series to anyone unfortunate enough to enter my sphere of influence since starting Quicksilver a little under a year ago. If you've read the previous volumes you'll definitely want to read this, and if you haven't then you really should.

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