Neal Stephenson’s The System Of The World

cover, The System of the World… I think it’s clear why science fiction offers scope for people who want to explore the … great dramas of ancient history but don’t want to write historical fiction. Because if you have an enormous galactic empire, you can make play with that in a way that you can’t … down on Earth. – Tom Holland, The Rest Is History podcast, episode 412, “Romans in Space: Star Wars, Dune and Beyond…”

Once again Neal Stephenson, the prolific contemporary SF author, has confounded the experts by writing a great piece of historical fiction. He has, to paraphrase historian Holland, explored one of the great dramas of early modern history with a work that is primarily historical fiction, but with elements of SF.

With The System of the World Stephenson wrapped up his 1,000 page (give or take) Baroque Trilogy, which follows three disparate characters through the tumultuous period at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, when changes in politics, economics, and what we now call the sciences sent Europe careening toward the Enlightenment. It’s the final piece of the story of how the era’s “natural philosophers” slowly began to reject the accepted beliefs about how the universe was ordered, many of them based on classical Roman and Greek writings and others on the Bible. And of how the best thinkers of the day debated and fought – sometimes literally – over how to describe the new reality they were seeing through their telescopes and microscopes.

That makes it sounds like a book on the History of Science, and of course Stephenson has drawn heavily on the writings of others on that topic. But we don’t come to Neal Stephenson for non-fiction. He uses the tools of fiction to tell a rollicking and engaging tale of those momentous times, people, and places. (Some parts of it are more fun and engaging to read than others, but that’s nearly inevitable in a story this long.) As I recounted in reviews of the first two books of the Cycle, Quicksilver and The Confusion, three fictional characters are our tour guides to the High Baroque:

Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher who is the Forrest Gump of his day, rubbing elbows with kings and queens, the nobility, soldiers, pirates, vagabonds, and of course the best minds of the era. Men like Newton and Leibniz and Pepys and Marlborough and Comstock, all of whom have minds or fortunes superior to his, but nevertheless he plays a key role as a catalyst.

Eliza, a former Barbary slave from a fictional island off the English coast who has a sharp mind for numbers and money and trade, and who has risen into the minor nobility on the basis of these skills.

And Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, who rescued Eliza from slavery and is in love with her but has offended her greatly. He’s spent many years traveling the globe having adventures and now has taken it upon himself to pull a great caper on the English Royal Mint, currently under the control of one Isaac Newton.

A fourth invented character is one Enoch Root, who first appeared in Cryptonomicon. He’s an apparently eternal human who acts as a sort of catalyst of catalysts, appearing and disappearing in the lives of Daniel, Eliza and Jack at key junctures. There are hints as well that he may have appeared as a character in the Bible, and also may have had something to do with the creation of the Solomonic gold, a humongous stash of alchemical precious metal that was purportedly smelted by King Solomon himself and which Jack Shaftoe has come into possession of through a series of increasingly unlikely machinations.

There are oodles of supporting and minor characters as well, including London itself. The plot is as convoluted as a four-dimensional map of that city, but at its heart is Daniel Waterhouse’s mission to attempt to reconcile Newton and Leibniz, who have developed competing philosophies of Life, the Universe and Everything. Newton’s remains based on the ancient principles of alchemy while Leibniz’s is based on monadism, which is a bit closer to our own current molecular and atomic system, which was developed over the ensuing couple of centuries.

Complications abound, of course. Some involve the momentous political changes that were in the air, as Catholics supported by France were still jockeying for a return to England’s throne, which was about to fall into the hands of the Hanovers. Others involve the developing European monetary system, global trade in enslaved persons, gold, silver, mercury and luxury items, and the various ongoing wars and skirmishes across the face of Eugope.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find the part of this story featuring Dr. Waterhouse to be much more interesting and entertaining. Fortunately, The System of the World returns him to a more central role after he was offstage for much of The Confusion. Still, I found this book to be more of a slog than the others. I didn’t count the pages that were given over to a description of the Tower of London as it existed in 1714, but it there were many; I’ll grant it was interesting to learn that the Tower isn’t just a tower at all, but almost a small city inside the City. Stephenson impressively varies his writing style to match the inner character of his three main characters, and as the Tower chapters are Jack Shaftoe chapters, their tone just kind of grates on me. But that’s just me. YMMV, as the kids say.

However, the passage in which the theme of this third volume of the trilogy is summarized comes in one of Jack’s chapters, on page 773 (of the paperbound HarperPerennial edition) as he is in prison awaiting execution. It is in fact an enunciation of the common understanding of metallurgy at the time, as part of the system of beliefs that was on the verge of being slain by Newton, Leibniz and their peers. It’s a bit too long to cite here, but should you read this and the rest of The Baroque Cycle, look sharp for it.

And you should read these books. It’s quite a commitment of time and energy. At times I found it taxing or exasperating, sometimes confusing, occasionally boring. But, like history, it always keeps moving, and you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. And in the end it is a fun way to learn about a period that’s really not covered in undergraduate history courses, in the U.S. at least. Pro tip: Have some sort of reference at hand.

(HarperCollins, 2004)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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