At long last, I offer a review of The System of the World, the final part of The Baroque Cycle, which also includes Quicksilver and The Confusion . All three form a prequel of sorts to Cryptonomicon. The Cycle runs nearly 3000 pages and represents a stunning achievement by a writer.
But is it worth the effort to the reader?
Title: The System of the World.
Author: Neal Stephenson
Original Publication Date: 2004
The novel depicts events in 1714 that relate to the birth of the modern world—- the development of science, contemporary economic systems, and modern political thought—- through the experiences of actual historical figures and fictional ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon. We see the need for newer systems, and the evils of the past ones. At the same time, Waterhouse, harbinger of the coming age, also perceives the evils of the future world he champions.
The final chapters– which take on a certain SF aspect– suggest an explanation for how Enoch Root, already aged in The Baroque Cycle, remains alive in Cryptonomicon.
The final third features the book’s best moments. We follow an investigation to catch a counterfeiter, a highly original escape from jail, a duel fought with cannons, and the superb juxtaposition of Halfcock Jack Shaftoe’s execution day with the Trial of the Pyx.
I also admire Stephenson’s ability to recreate in such detail the dirty settings, convoluted history, and arcane ceremonies of a past era….
….The problem is that the dirty settings, convoluted history, and arcane ceremonies of this past era are not consistently interesting.
Too much of this novel—- more so than the first two volumes– depends on Daniel Waterhouse, and he’s neither interesting nor complex enough a character to carry a novel of this length.
I’m no big-book wuss. I have read Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Joyce’s Ulysses, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow more than once apiece. In each case, the return trip proved worthwhile. I enjoyed much of The Baroque Cycle, but don’t know that I will be making my way through the trilogy again.
Some readers will love the anachronistic gags: such as the Monty Python references. Others will likely roll their eyes.
Characterization: 4/6 In The System of the World, Stephenson proves he can create and recreate settings in fine detail, and draw upon a couple degree’s worth of information in a paragraph. His earlier works handled character better, however. I was especially disappointed by the depiction of Sir Isaac Newton, who plays a major role in this novel. Given the depth and breadth of Stephenson’s research, I’m surprised he could not present a more developed and broadly-drawn picture of this historical figure.
Imagery: 6/6 Would-be writers (and many successful ones) should study Stephenson’s techniques for rendering and contextualizing the past.
Emotional Response: 4/6
3/6. I really believe that, after reading the next two volumes, I will still feel that much could have been edited, and would improve the story… I will crank up the scores on Parts 2 and 3 if I’m proven wrong.
–Me, my original Quicksilver review.
Y’know, I don’t believe I was.
Overall Score: 5/6. Despite my criticisms, Stephenson’s ability to create this trilogy deserves respect. When The System… works, it works very well indeed.
In total, The System of the World receives 31/42