on 19 January 2006
I've almost finished this book, only a few precious pages remain. In truth I'm dreading the moment that I do. Stephenson's characters have lived in my mind for many a month now, since I first picked up Quicksilver in April last year, and I'll miss them terribly. During that time I've come to know the streets of London in the last part of the 17th century almost as well as I know the London of today, and I've travelled across Europe, the Middle East, India, and the American colonies. I have come to know Isaac Newton and Louis XIV as real people. I have been made to think, and to laugh out loud, and to cry. Stephenson's skill with language is such that one constantly notices the beauty, power, and skill of the writing, and yet it never draws attention away from what he is describing, which comes across in almost cinematically atmospheric scenes. If you liked the war scenes in Cryptonomicon the best, this is the book for you; only start with Quicksilver!
on 30 October 2004
Neal Stephenson has written a fine ending to his Baroque Cycle Trilogy. Despite being a little fragmented it held my attention and engrossed me right to the end (886 pages!)The stories all conclude in satisfying and appropriate ways. Nearly all my favourite characters were present to push their stories forward. Many loose ends were tied, some were only recognised as stray plots when the extra details arrived to tie the bow!
As usual, Stephenson has pushed the action into the entertaining and only just possible.The action is so gripping that it had me reading into the night. His grasp of period detail is such that it can be hard to realise that he didn't live in the period he is descibing. I found it hard to pick out his exaggerations and fabrications, so for me, the only jarring is his persistant use of american vocabulary. (Which I try to forgive as Daniel lived for so long near Boston!)
However, I'm not sure that a reader could enjoy to this book without reading the previous volumes (Quicksilver, The Confusion). There is too much assumed knowledge for the plot to be comprehensible at this stage of its development.
This trilogy is recommended reading for lovers of a good tale, enthusiasts of military, scientific, nautical, medical and social history,and everyone who enjoys an intelligent book with a fabulous plot. Read all three volumes!!!
on 4 August 2006
It's taken me roughly 6 months to read all three books of the `Baroque Cycle' and I have just finished the last one, 'The System of the World'. Neal's accomplishment (and by reading the acknowledgements (as if another couple of pages reading matters by this stage!) is by no means his alone; centuries of historical records have been Alchemically morphed into a work of fiction that binds commercial, social and technical markers in the West's trajectory, creating a glimpse of a world back then where and when it all happened, so that today we enjoy the fruits of change and progress. All in all, if you like a touch of romance, intrigue, technology and trade - this is a fine collection to devour over a long winter.
I could rave on for hours about the depiction of London - because I live and work there - and this in itself gave me much delight.
All in all, I feel I'm a better person for reading `Baroque Cycle', purely because it might have never come my way and it wasn't thrust down my throat by some advertising blitz. I chanced upon the first book in my local library, and like all good treasures, it took a hold of me. I'd read `SnowCrash', so new of Mr Stephenson's work, and also new that as a writer it would be a gamble for him to write so intensely of a past period, and thankfully he took up that gamble because it's a great read.
on 10 December 2004
Neal Stephenson has done it again: just under 1,000 pages of dense, dark, glittering prose. If you've read the preceding two novels - Qucksilver and The Confusion - you'll be hard pressed to resist The System of the World. Why it lurks in the sci-fi sections of bookshops is a total mystery. More than just the last in his saga of science, politics and money in the 18th century - The System of the World is also a novel of ideas, a thriller and a slice of vividly imagined history in its own right. It's great to have the hugely entertaining Jack Shaftoe back and soaring over the heads of the London "mobile" scattering cash, the sinister Edouard de Gex, beautiful Eliza and the priapic Ravenscar. Daniel Waterhouse developes, too, and the Club he sets up to discover who's got it in for the Royal Society is a comic masterpiece - sort of geriatric, argumentative Bow St Runners. It's just as well the Baroque Cycle is titanically long, though. So few other writers comes close to equalling Stephenson in breath and range, that everything after this seems rather unexciting. Thankfully Luther Blisset (Q) and Patricia Finney (The Firedrake's Eye) can take up the slack.
This is a very, very, very good book. Get your hands on it as soon as you can and read it. For best effect, read its predecessors, "Quicksilver" and "The Confusion", first. It is the third and (apparently) final volume in a series - the Baroque Cycle - and the overall impact builds up steadily over the three books.
The entire cycle (the author apparently doesn't like the term "trilogy") is set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and views its characters though a number of themes - Natural Philosophy, war, money, commerce, alchemy, slavery, religion and many more. My impression was that in this volume, the themes go deeper, and Stephenson works harder on them, than in the preceding volumes. Despite this he succeeds in maintaining the pace, a trick which the earlier two (especially "Quicksilver") didn't always manage quite so well (though they were still excellent overall). It could be though that those earlier books did the hard work and set the scene.
Anyway, "System of the World" brings things to a tidy(ish) conclusion. There are suprises. There is a detective sub plot (along the lines of Samuel Pepys meets John Rebus). There is minute detail on London. (Please, someone, organise a Baroque Cycle walking tour - I'm sure it would be more rewarding than for certain bestselling historical novels I could name).
Actually this is the third in a series of four - the fourth, Cryptonomicon, which is set in the 20th century, was published first. The relationship with Cryptonomicon is loose - broadly the characters here are ancestors of those in the later (er, earlier) book and there is geekish fun to be had in watching Stephenson dispose everyone correctly by the end of "System". However many of the themes are the same, and in fact the ending of "Cryptonomicon", which I have seen some reviewers here criticise as just too implausible, fits better with the earlier volumes - where fortunes are gained and lost through treachery and chance - as background.
I do hope that Stephenson will follow up this story, in some way - I think I see hints in the text that he might: at least one character remains a real mystery and some of the themes are left open. Perhaps, though, for reasons of symmetry, that would have to be set in the far future.
on 17 September 2006
It takes weeks to read "Quicksilver", "The Confusion" and "The System of the World". Is it worth it? Definitely yes. Whatever it is you seek in a book, you are going to find plenty of it here. A great story that will bring you from Boston to London, from Versailles to Amsterdam, from Africa to Asia and through more adventures than any Indiana Jones film. A fantastic cast of characters, real ones and fantastic fictional creations like Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, the ultimate adventurer despite a certain anatomic shortage, and Eliza de la Zeur, virgin odalisque, financial genius and all-around epitome of feminine brilliance and determination. And masterful writing that manages to unravel a magnificent yarn of love, hate, revenge, betrayal, political intrigue, scientific discoveries and financial speculation borrowing styles from Defoe, Choderlos de Laclos, Stevenson and John Ford with a welcome touch of humor in the direst situations. And while you're having great fun reading, you are going to absorb along the way also plenty of interesting information about a momentous passage of age happened 300 years ago, and reminiscent of a similar phenomenon that may be happening nowadays. Is the Baroque Cycle perfect? No, sometimes it really is too long-winded, and probably the almost homonymous Robert Louis Stevenson could have told the same story in half the words. But this is really the only thing in which Neal Stephenson can get any better: the Philosopher Stone of his narrative would be more synthesis. Next time cut it short, Neal... that didn't make a lesser man of Jack Shaftoe, nor will it lessen your novels if not in size.
on 8 August 2010
Stephenson called it the Baroque Cycle for a reason. Dismissing it on the grounds of indulgence is like bemoaning the furriness of cats or the sheen of gold. The obsessively detailed world within is a microcosm for the desires, whims and machinations that have produced the modern world. Any novel with such a grandiose, ironic, title that can deliver substantially on any of that promise must be deemed a success. TSOTW does so, breathing life into legendary characters who birthed the Renaissance while giving us some of the most fascinating characters in modern literature; the ageless maven Enoch, the lovable rogue Jack Shaftoe, his soul-mate and economic innovator Eliza and the technological mediator Daniel Waterhouse. These are archetypal characters required to influence any revolution in thought.
Insights into modern economics, financial crisis, computing, information theory, warfare, geo-politics, the rise and fall of nations, linguistics, city planning, horology, I could go on. Stephenson has marshalled them all into a compendium of nerdishness. This is no bad thing. If we can have sagas about vampires then why not sagas about geeks? I don't believe this is intended to be a mass market book.
It's refreshing that an author with the skill and downright genius of NS has given nerds a bible, the origins of geek culture in science, technology and economics. Neal is our prophet & I sincerely hope he'll be inspired to write more.
I found myself completely absorbed in Stephenson's previous oustandingly good two novels in this trilogy (essential reading prior to this one), but though I found the period detail, esp. that of London, brilliantly realised, I felt the narrative pace slowed dangerously, so there were occasions when the wealth of detail felt a little like the author ensuring he didn't waste any of his research. To be fair, this volume is driven largely through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse, now in his sixties, while the two most engaging and dynamic characters, Eliza and Jack are relegated to much smaller parts, and the momentum of the whole suffers. There are consolations in the character of 'Saturn', and a wonderfully evoked London, and the commensurate politicing (wheeling & dealing), but a more static overall plotline. Still well worth the read, but a sense of the author losing something of the red-hot inspiration which fuelled, and drove the 'cliffhanger' action of the first two truly superb volumes. A satisfactory 'tying together' of the loose odds and ends of the trilogy overall, but not quite the full cigar.
on 7 April 2005
Having just finished this last volume in an absolutely magnificent trilogy, I have to say that these are the best three books I've read for a very long time. Absolutely fascinating, witty, well plotted, thoroughly engaging, full of historical and fictional detail though not at the expense of wonderful characters and unparalleled storytelling.
I might just go back to the libary tomorrow and borrow the first two to read again!
on 8 February 2010
This is the third book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - well, the last three books, since Stephenson actually wrote eight books that made up the cycle which were then published to form a trilogy. Here the majority of the action takes place in London, where virtually all of the protagonists we have been following end up bringing the story to a mighty conclusion.
The basic plot is that of a murder mystery, but comprises many other components. Daniel Waterhouse has completed his epic trip back across the Atlantic at the urging of Princess Caroline. She wished him to bring about the reconciliation of those two mighty Philosophers Leibniz and Newton. In the process of which he ends up stumbling across Jack's scheme to debase English currency (which he is being blackmailed into by the King of France and the dastardly Edouard de Gex). Trying to summarise the plot - the many strands and the different events - is difficult without having to repeat what happened in earlier books or flick through many pages trying to remind myself of exactly who Saturn was and why the Tsar of Russia made an appearance.
The cast of characters is enormous and it can be difficult to keep them separate at times, although our main characters have become extremely three dimensional. Daniel, Eliza (although she makes a small appearance in this volume), Jack, Isaac Newton, Dappa, Bob Shaftoe, Ravenscar, Princess Caroline, Leibniz - all these characters become beloved and it is of interest to see what happens to all of them.
The three volumes as a whole - the Baroque Cycle - are a truly amazing achievement. It is nigh on 3000 pages dense with facts, with ideas, with characters, with exciting escapes and political machinations. We are shown the beginnings of the world system that we know today - with law enforcement, political parties (Whigs and Tories), real estate and, of course, currency. Either this was written as a fact or Stephenson came up with an extremely clever idea in that currency is called such because of the current of money flowing into London, in this case. There are many such moments during all three books, where you marvel at the level of research and detail that has gone into every element of the story.
It is interesting that these books are almost always shelved in the fantasy/sci fi section but, barring the presence of Enoch Root and his little procedure (I shall not say more, for fear of spoiling certain things!) they are more historical in nature.
One of my disappointments in this and the previous books is the pacing - we can go from thrilling page-turning events into a deep philosophical discourse and this can make the reader grind to a halt. Despite the exciting nature of the plot in general, there were times when I felt as though it was a struggle to read any further, and this is a sad fact when considering that this should be a series read by everyone. It is a classic in the making - or would be, barring the slow and turgid prose at times. Having said that, it didn't do Tolkien any harm and some people may, in fact, find this one of the charming aspects of Stephenson's writing.
I am extremely glad that I read this series, but I shall not be embarking on a re-read for many, many years - if at all. However, I do have the notion that the characters and events will niggle and stay with me - the mark of a book that has had a big effect on me. This should have been a five star experience, but I keep it to four stars purely because of the difficulty of the reading. Recommended (with reservations!)