Review: The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

(Originally posted at Blogcritics on 11/17/2004)

The System of the World is the third book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, following Quicksilver and The Confusion. Like Lord of the Rings, you really can't consider one book separately -- for it's all one big story, with big being the operative word, given that each book is around 800 pages. And since I just finished an all-consuming seven week read of all three in a row (uh, who won the World Series? And wasn't there supposed to be an election this fall?) I consider this a review of all three.

The trilogy is a prequel to Stephenson's earlier book Cryptonomicon. Ancestors of the protagonists from that book (the Waterhouses and Shaftoes) mix it up in a sprawling work of historical fiction, mixing with Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibnez, and members of the Royal Society; Louis XIV, various kings and queens of England and assorted aristocracy; Peter the Great and even a ten-year old Ben Franklin makes an appearance. By rough calculation, the action in the trilogy takes place over about fifty years (the 1660s to 1715), and spreads over England, continental Europe, Africa, Asia, North America and Central America. Some of the side characters even make a trip to South America, leaving Australia and Antartica the only places that aren't covered in this book.

OK, that covers the characters and the setting -- what's the subject matter? Well, here is a partial list: alchemy; the battle between Newton and Leibnez over who invented calculus; the founding of the Royal Society; the development of money and the banking system; Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution, and the Hanover succession in England; the battle of Vienna; galley slaves; piracy; the development of steam power; and a really big batch of gold that gets stolen and taken around the world. I'm sure I'm missing a few side threads, too.

Obviously, I'm a fan -- why else would I have read them all back to back? (In fact, since I read Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon over the summer, you may think that I've become a little obsessed.) I'm a former economics professor, and when I used to teach Money and Banking I incorporated something called the Goldsmith's Story, parts of which show up in this book. There's swashbuckling action mixed in with the history of science; important military battles mixed in with sex. And all of its done in Stephenson's expressive prose. Some might consider the prose a little too expressive -- for that's how you come up with 2400 pages of trilogy. I also enjoy the way that the fictional characters (Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, Eliza the Duchess of Arachon-Qwghlm being the most notable) interact with the historical figures. Entirely by coincidence, this spring I had read a biography of Isaac Newton, so I could appreciate how Newton's varied career is knitted into the trilogy.

Blogcritic Jim Carruthers has already posted a review; like him, I feel that a problem that Stephenson has had with endings isn't so bad here. His suggestion of a spin-off movie called Redneck Ronin made me think of another idea. Half of the second book involves a daring theft of gold by a multi-ethnic band of criminals. Sounds like Ocean's 13 to me.