EPS Review #176 - The System of the World

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3), by Neal Stephenson, William Heinemann, 2004, 892pp.

London Map

I got my wish and there is a lot more of Isaac Newton in this book, and his friend Daniel Waterhouse. Not everyone might identify with a hero as old as Waterhouse (everyone has aged a decade or more in this volume), but I liked him: "Both men were of an age when they were in no great hurry to make friends and share confidences. Starting friendships, like opening up new overseas trade routes, was a mad venture best left to the young."

Or this, which made me laugh: "[...] Peer exclaimed. Then he got a look on his face as if he were thinking. Daniel had learned, in his almost seventy years, not to expect much of people who got such looks, because thinking really was something one ought to do all the time."

Lots of the action takes place in an area (see right) where I spent a good 15 years of my life working. I had no idea that the Royal Society had once been but steps away, although I did know that the Fleet Ditch was an open sewer. One evening commute I ran across masked people in leotards planting mudballs from the source of the long-buried river, as some sort of artistic exercise.

One passage reminds me of the flashing "author's message" subtitle in What's New Pussycat:

"The question is, shall we be ruled by Money, and the Mobb which are one and the same to me, as neither serves any fixed principle -- or by one who serves a higher good? That is the point of Royalty, Roger."

Roger paused. "'Tis an attractive prospect," he said. "And I do understand, Henry. We are at a fork in the road just now. One way takes us to a wholly new way of managing human affairs. It is a system I have helped, in my small way, to develop: the Royal Society, the Bank of England, Recoinage, the Whigs, and the Hanoverian Succession are all elements of it. The other way leads us to Versailles, and the rather different scheme that the King of France has got going there. I am not blind to the glories of the Sun King. I know Versailles is better than anything we have here, in many ways that count. But for every respect in which we are inferior to France, some compensation is to be found in the new System a-building here."

The only problem with the final volume of these 2700 pages is that it ought to be tying things up in an impressive way. Instead I found myself wondering about the whole plot about the Solomonic gold. It actually made very little sense to me, and the Hollerith cards punched from it. It adds a Science Fiction element to a story that had got along fine without it. Also a few of the set pieces, like Jack Shaftoe's aerial raid of the Mint, were literally over-the-top and a bit eye-rolling.

Still there are plenty of incidental pleasures. The exquisite Eliza appears occasionally, with her son. The scene where Isaac was outwitted by wily politicians, and some of the mistrustful, even inimical moments of his friendship with Waterhouse, resonated with me. If you read the first two volumes, you have to read the last. I look forward to anything new from Mr Stephenson.