The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson
William Heinemann, 2004, Hardback, 624pp, 16.99
ISBN 0434011770

See also my reviews of Cryptonomicon and the first two parts of the Baroque Cycle

First off: have you read Quicksilver and The Confusion? If the answer is 'No' then I suspect you're reading this review to find out whether or not to bother even trying to read the Baroque Cycle in its entirety. Here's a very quick review especially for you.

The Baroque Cycle, though a very good read indeed, is without doubt not for the intellectually or literarily faint-hearted. Think hard about your future calendar before launching upon such an endeavour. Now off you go; those of us who have read the first two books have things to discuss.

Right, well, The System of the World rounds off the stories of Jack Shaftoe, Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton, Eliza and Leibniz. It would seem somewhat pointless to trace the arc of the story here: given the great multifarious reams of story that have already passed either you're going to read this book or you aren't. I rather doubt many are wavering now, not since we've come so far. Let us say that matters are, by and large, brought to a highly entertaining and satisfactory conclusion. There are thrills and spills, daring plans, awful bloodshed, strange secrets, inspired lunacy, pyrotechnics that Hollywood would be proud of, vengeance served both hot and cold, the fruition of plans long laid and even a spot of naughtiness. Which is to say, there is once again something for everyone here. The System of the World is an easier and more entertaining read than the aptly-titled The Confusion; less burdened with quite so much exposition of matters contemporary than Quicksilver, and even wittier than those two exceedingly witty books. Stephenson seems to have really hit his stride here.

All three sections of the Baroque Cycle have, for me, cast a positively revelatory light upon certain developments of this civilisation we now live in and now, mostly, regard as an inevitable outcome of history. This, I think, has been Stephenson's triumph: the way it has revealed, in a jolly rollicking, rip-roaring narrative, some of the more complex steps that lay behind History with a capital 'H'. If only school history lessons could have been so easily digestible. Thanks to him I feel I'm now far better informed about the past than ever before, more respectful of its achievements and better able to comprehend how it worked - its system, if you will. I've read interesting and educational books before now, of course, but none of them have ever had quite such breadth and given quite the same feel of dirt beneath the fingertips. Far from laughing at how incredibly dull and superstitious our ancestors sometimes seem to have been, I now have an inkling of how remarkably clever and tenacious and inventive and original they were;I now have some greater comprehension of 'why things are as they are', which I hope you'll agree is not something you come across everyday, and even less seldom in a piece of fiction.

In this sense The System of the World, and indeed all of the Baroque Cycle, is a glorious triumph of popular science and history. In the sense of being an intensely entertaining piece of fiction, it is less of triumph - but not very much less. Only in a third sense did I begin to feel this monumental work had failed somewhat in its promise, a failure ironically stemming mainly from its tremendous size. The Baroque Cycle has taken up a significant chunk of my reading time in 2004 - a very significant chunk. Had it taken up less I would be inclined to be less strict with it, but the problem is that having now emerged, blinking, into the sunlight from between these well-separated covers I'm wondering exactly what the result of my labours is. How has my time been repaid? What has the Cycle's denouement taught or revealed to me? And the answer is: not much. This may sound a little churlish given that I've just been praising its educational value and wit to high heaven, but having spent so long saying not-quite incomparable things not-quite incomparably, what I wanted from Stephenson was some kind of disclosure - or at the very least some kind of closure - and in truth there is a distinct lack of the former and hardly a surfeit of the latter.

These books gallop along leaving enlightenment and wit in their wake, leading the reader expecting to encounter the source of such wisdom and humour, when sadly there is no such thing. Again, this might seem a rather petty complaint, and post-modernists amongst you might be gearing up to argue that fiction is essentially its own meaning, but Stephenson's intelligence throughout these books seems always to suggest that there is more, that he had something up his sleeve...and yet perhaps one of the real reasons he has appeared quite so clever was with the benefit of 300 years of hindsight.

If you can be post-modern about it though, and simply enjoy the moment of the story and the lessons of the history then The System of the World will not disappoint. And to give a more generous reading in conclusion, the events and story depicted therein do not, as we know (from Cryptonomicon) simply end, they are unwinding now, as we speak. History is still being extruded and perhaps it is not such a bad thing for authors to reach back, gather it up and re-present it here in our seemingly eternal 'now' for us to reconsider. If there is no conclusion, no wrapping up and no careful putting away of all the elements of this story, then maybe that's because this is how history really is - it's unwilling to be 'finished', and Stephenson is trying to be as true to life as possible. I'm not convinced that this is the case here, but I'll forgive Stephenson quite a lot for keeping me so formidably entertained for such a length of time.

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