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!
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 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.
on 11 January 2016
“Quicksilver” wanders round much of Europe and has a timespan of decades. “The Confusion” takes us around the world, and covers several years. Both have three or four main viewers (Jack, Bob and Eliza plus Daniel). “The System…” in contrast has a much narrower focus. Beyond a brief excursion to Hanover, the action is entirely in England (and almost entirely in or near London). The viewer is mostly Daniel until near the end when he shares the role with Jack. And the timescale is months. But this literary transition from picaresque to formalism acts as a counterpoint to what was happening in the arts at the time when the book is set – the transition from Baroque formalism to Rococo playfulness, and I can’t imagine this is accidental.
The move from entropy to order also “informs” an important theme in the book – the beginnings of Information Theory. And I loved the conceit of bringing Newcomen into the story. The idea of a steam powered computer is surely a nod to Sterling and Gibson’s “The Difference Engine”.
The whole trilogy is a triumph, and I hope Stephenson revisits his world at various times between the Baroque and the Second World War/Turing parts of “Cryptonomicon”
on 1 December 2015
This is the conclusion of a very remarkable trilogy. Neal Stephenson has obviously done a heroic amount of research into an enormous number of arcane subjects relating to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; he tells a very interesting tale (or in fact, many tales); his characters are rounded and believable and undergo a lot of development; he can be very funny; his digressions on all sorts of themes are very interesting in themselves and outstandingly well written - the explanation of Leibnitz's monad theory for example; he shows a very wide range of emotions very convincingly, so his writing is far more humane than much speculative fiction; his prose style seems impeccably English - quite different from the style of his US-based stories, and even with the (often very witty) anachronisms is believably that of the period - in my experience the only other writer who makes such a good job of period feeling in his prose is Patrick O'Brian. Of course the book is long and discursive, so if you want a short sharp story, don't bother. But I think it's a masterpiece.
on 6 August 2013
This trilogy is one of those rarest of things, an entertaining masterpiece. It combines a story which is rich and strange with characters who are fun to follow around and incorporates information about a key moment of history which is enriching to absorb useful to have and fun to play with forever. It looks at lots of big issues such as the nature of knowledge, it's development into science, its relationship to religion morality & truth, the bullying manipulations of politics, the nature and consequences of mortality. And yet, it's STILL fun to read! Amazing.
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.