Review: Neal Stephenson – The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Book 3)

My review of Book 1 of The Baroque Cycle, ‘Quicksilver’.

My review of Book 2 of The Baroque Cycle, ‘The Confusion’.

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The temptation to two-star this work out of spite was immense, but let’s accept it for what it is. A well-written book by a brilliant writer which proves, nonetheless, disappointing.

Stephenson as an excellent but disappointing writer has been the theme of my reviews since – oh, so long ago, my darlings – I began reading him first with the Cryptonomicon and then, in its immediate wake, (or ‘aftermath’ may here be a better word), headed down the difficult road of reading all three volumes of his Baroque Cycle of which this, thankfully, is the last.

In common with its predecessors it is a massive tome, effectively three novels: ‘Solomon’s Gold’; ‘Currency’; and ‘The System of the World’. The period is that of 18th-century England, (for the most part), the early Enlightenment period, and with characters touching upon science, philosophy, and politics, it is historically accurate, albeit with some considerable license taken along the way. Given its themes, many of the characters are known to history – Isaac Newton most notably, of whom more later – and the central character through whose eyes we see most of the events is, as in the preceding two novels, one Daniel Waterhouse who qualifies both as a philosopher and as a politician.

Before I launch into my criticism, which is going to require at least one more cup of coffee and several cigarettes, it’s worth noting that I was led to read ‘Cryptonomicon’ followed by the Baroque Cycle by another reviewer. Should you be inclined to read them all, I would suggest reversing that. The characters in the Baroque Cycle are the ancestors of those in the ‘Cryptonomicon’ and, though Stephenson himself in one of his manifestations of the pointlessly annoying doesn’t tend to stick with the chronology, I wish I had taken advantage of that fact by at least tackling them in the appropriate order.

Right, coffee… cigarette… and perhaps some preparatory shouting at the cat…

… and we’re off.

Want to know the plot? Well, largely, forget it. To my certain memory I started reading this volume when dinosaurs roamed the earth, began the entire Baroque Cycle when the sun was nothing more than a ball of gas still coalescing and yet to ignite, and the Cryptonomicon was tackled in that timeless zone of non-existence just before the Big Bang. It is not that I’ve failed to tackle long works before. Heavens, my dears, I’ve read Proust and, unlike most people, I didn’t stop with the petite madeleine and then wander around talking about it at great length in an effort to kid everyone I’d read the whole thing. Well okay, Proust is a poor example, that was turgid, but I managed Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and, except for the horrendous political diatribe section, it kept my attention as did Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so I can do it my dears, I can do it.

The problem with Stephenson is you get the idea he doesn’t really want you to, or at least couldn’t care less if you do or you don’t.

If there were an Excellent Writers Who Make Strange And Bloody Annoying Choices Award, I would nominate Stephenson. If I could write like him I wouldn’t be talking about piffly things like coffee and cigarettes, I’d be stunning you with my erudition, my intellect and, at times, with a sly, wry humour that would leave you if not stunned, then at least considering the possibility of falling to your knees before me in order to pay homage. Beyond that, he can write intelligent adventure scenes in such a way that you can get into the whole ‘Boys Own’ mindset without ever feeling you’ve sacrificed your higher faculties in order to do so. The man is an excellent writer, no doubt about it.

However, the work is disordered chronologically across the three volumes, flopping you around the years between the two-to-three novel-length works that are put together to make up each volume, and even within them, (though Stephenson appeared to have grasped the conception of chronology by this, the final volume).

Chronology is not Stephenson’s only poor choice. To read Stephenson is to submerge oneself into a boundless ocean all-but devoid of islands. If this sounds like a compliment, try swimming the Pacific. I’ll give you some parentheses.

Back? Done it? No fun, was it? Well, that’s the Baroque Cycle for you – wave after featureless wave after featureless wave of it all coming at you and forgotten in the passing as you try to struggle your way through the next one. I didn’t know where I was half the time. I lost the plot, lost interest in the characters, didn’t even know who or what I should be interested in given it may return later and prove significant rather than being some pointless transgression and so, when events and characters did prove to be important, I was lost all over again.

I say all-but devoid of islands. Fortunately, there are sections, chapters, developments which provide not only relief in all this interminable swimming, but also underline what this work could have been had Stephenson not made all his strange choices. Doubtless its these Stephenson’s fans remember because truly, they are worth remembering, they are more than mere respite from the endless waves. In these scenes – some conversational, some adventurous, some revolving around some intrigue – I was left with the feeling of ‘set pieces’ entire unto themselves, divorced from the waves around them. The sea may be their broader setting, but these islands are packed with coconuts and monkeys worthy of exploration while the sea itself most assuredly isn’t. Unfortunately, these islands aren’t worth all the swimming between them. Stephenson’s a good writer, but he’s not [em]that[/em] good. I doubt anyone could be.

Even here, however, Stephenson once again proves himself the master of the poor choice. Consider – classic Stephenson – two poor choices right at the end of the volume which is, remember, the final volume of three, all exceptionally long. Stephenson, quite rightly, allows two of our loose ends amongst many to be tied up with sufficient drama. Indeed, he interweaves them towards the close of the book, and I found myself hastening through each chapter in my desire to see what was happening in the other scene. So it is that we approach the long-awaited climaxes… and in both instances, one with the second-hand reporting of an observer in a few paragraphs, the other with barely a word, the climax itself comes as a wet lettuce. Splat. That’s it. That’s your lot. Expected drums and cannons? Forget it. I mean, for heaven’s sake, why? It’s as if Shakespeare had ended ‘Romeo and Juliet’ not with its closing scenes, but substituting them with ‘PS. It didn’t work out in the end and they both died anyway.’

Such lost opportunities abound in the cycle. Again and again we encounter a familiar character in an unexpected situation and, after a few pages, Stephenson tells us something really great and exciting happened to put them there, but he couldn’t be bothered to write it all down. Well, he doesn’t actually say that, but that’s what I read. Entire adventures are lost in that fashion. For heaven’s sake, why? Weren’t those the perfect opportunity for a few less waves and a few more islands?

The poor choices make for poor characterisation. After a while you just get bored with these people for the most part. I have listened to a passably-dry thirty-minute lecture on Sir Isaac Newton that had me more captivated by the man than I was at any point in the Baroque Cycle and I’m sorry, but that is quite literally true.

Which brings us, finally, to Enoch Root. At this point in the review, were I a Stephenson aficionado, I would go glassy-eyed and assume a look of transcendence. Enoch Root is Stephenson’s Gandalf. He is either extraordinarily long-lived – his turning up in the ‘Cryptonomicon’ set some three-hundred years later rather underlines the point – or is actually immortal, though Stephenson never tells us which. And that’s symptomatic of the problem. Stephenson tells us pretty much nothing about Root at all. I get the feeling that, somehow, the spirit of Enoch Root is supposed to hang over the Baroque Cycle and ‘Cryptonomicon’ both, but in reality he’s like one of those characters in a play who is listed as ‘Second messenger’ or ‘Cleaning lady’. On the very rare occasion he makes an actual appearance he doesn’t seem to do much of anything at all – certainly nothing that couldn’t be done my ‘Second messenger’ or ‘Cleaning lady’. That he is occasionally referenced by one of the central characters in awed tones doesn’t rescue him from his deserved obscurity, and the one time he’s given the story – right at the very beginning of the cycle – he doesn’t come across as anything much at all. Later we find out that we’ve been viewing the world through the eyes of an immortal, but I’m blowed if I could see the kind of perspective I would expect to see flowing out of the mind of such a being. He may as well have been anyone. It’s as if Stephenson felt he had to have this bloke just hanging around, even though he didn’t belong in a largely realistic and historical novel, out of some strange obligation. Yes, alchemy is one of the themes of the work, but until near the very end it may be readily dismissed as nothing more than a preoccupation of some of the characters given their timezone. Only at the very end does Stephenson say ‘Actually, it works’, and then so briefly he may as well not have said it at all.

It may be that, at some time in the future, some editor may come along and prevail upon Stephenson to permit the cycle to be edited down into its highlight moments, a not inconsiderable volume of islands connected by bridges as interlinked short stories. Such an editor may even prevail upon Stephenson to write some of the unwritten adventures, or to finish those written properly. Were that to happen it would be a volume I’d highly recommend, but as it stands… no, sorry. As it stands, it’s one of those ‘If you must’ reads. A fuss has been caused, you really ought to find out what the fuss is about. If you do, unless you find something I’ve managed to miss, prepare yourself for the likelihood of disappointment.

One thought on “Review: Neal Stephenson – The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Book 3)

  1. Pingback: Review: Neal Stephenson – The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Book 2) | Pete Marchetto

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