The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3)
by Neal Stephenson
Review by Colleen Cahill
William Morrow & Company Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0060523875
Date: 01 October, 2004 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The Baroque Cycle comes to a close leaving plenty of room for another trilogy before the story picks up again in Cryptonomicon. Neal's books keep getting longer, but except for certain difficulties fitting them in the overhead bins of aircraft, he says fans don't mind at all. Considering the SRO crowds that came to see him at the National Book Festival (see feature) we're sure he's right.
Everything comes to an end and in the case of a book series, this is a good thing. The reading might have been fun, but with the finish comes a sense of completion and satisfaction, all tie up with answers to at least the big questions. In this third and last fat volume of The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson?s The System of the World delivers a finale that does all the above without being trite or sweet.
Many readers will applaud the return of Daniel Waterhouse after his smaller part in the last book. He arrives in England on a mission from Princess Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach to bring an understanding between her mentor, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and the famous English natural philosopher Isaac Newton. These two have been fighting over various things for decades, with the focal point being which of the men developed calculus first. While fulfilling this errand, Waterhouse also has his own agenda and sets some plots in motion, starting with his supporting the joint stock company for "the Engine for Raising Water by Fire". Once he reaches London, he receives the unusual welcome of having his luggage blown up. Was this an assassination attempt on Waterhouse, or was another party the intended victim? London is the center of trouble and has not only Daniel in residence, but Eliza de la Zeur and Jack Shaftoe, better know as Jack the Coiner. While Daniel moves pieces and prepares for his unknown goal, Eliza divides her time between the abolition of slavery and watching out of the interests of the House of Hanover, soon to be the ruling family of England. For Queen Anne is slowly dying, stirring the city into a frenzy as politicians duel with words and schemes on whether Sophie of Hanover or James Stuart will succeed her on the throne. The agitation has London on the edge of a riot and the country teetering on civil war.
Seemingly oblivious to all this turmoil is Newton, who spends his time controlling the Mint, searching for any of Solomon's gold ?which is heavier than other gold? and rabidly hunting down the notorious counterfeiter, Jack the Coiner. These events make London a vortex of trouble and action and Jack contributes to this by leading a Mission Impossible style break into the Mint, done with all the high technology of the early Eighteenth Century. The success of this episode leaves Newton accused of treason and puts Waterhouse in the curious position of trying to help his old friend without giving him the special gold he seeks. Not only does Waterhouse know where this gold is, he is using it to work with Leibniz on delving into the mysteries of natural philosophy and revealing the system of the world.
In a series that spans decades, one would hope the characters would change and grow. Stephenson does not disappoint, as a older and crankier Waterhouse gains a bit of confidence while a wiser Eliza learns to be more cautious. Even Jack shows a bit of wisdom, not totally allowing the ?imp of perversity? to sway him from his goal. All are slowing down, being more focused and less willing to take careless risks, but are also sharper at the game, not tipping their hands nor taking on more than they can handle.
Yes, we do find out more about Solomon's gold, see the meeting of the Newton and Leibniz, watch Eliza and Jack's star-crossed relationship, and wonder at Daniel?s mysterious goals. Stephenson does not hold back, delivering excitement, romance, greed, politics, lust, wonder and a really good read. You must read the earlier two volumes, Quicksilver and The Confusion to understand this work, but it is well worth the journey. Once there, you will find The System of the World is fascinating, informative and fun.