Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review of "The System of the World" by Neal Stephenson

A large portion of science fiction writers attack from typical angles - alien species, spaceships, laser battles, and so forth the name of the game.  In writing the Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson instead went for the sci-fi jugular.  Turning a few fictional characters loose to mingle with the historically accurate - Newton, Leibniz, Handel, and Locke among them - in Europe around the turn of the 18th century, the Baroque era is by far a more challenging arena for a sci-fi writer to create, and one, which Stephenson presents, is key to understanding our current scientific and economic paradigms.

The System of the World picks up 15 years after events from The Confusion.  Despite the time bridge, Stephenson continues exploring the era for the themes he presented in Quicksilver, foremost among them the primal root of binary logic and numismatics in relation to its importance to today’s society.  It’s also a chance for Stephenson to let loose the little boy inside and play with all the kings and queens, poisons and pirates, and castles and treasures.  There are shoot-outs in the Tower of London, clockwork bombs, Solomonic gold, jailbreaks from infamous prisons, duels with cannons—not sabers or pistols, and Alchemy.  All are part of The System of the World, the fitting and more than satisfactory finale to the Baroque Cycle.  

Certainly not science fiction in the strictest sense, The System of the World - and the Baroque cycle as a whole -  are instead “written in the spirit of sci-fi”, according to Stephenson.  Numerology, virtual economics, metallurgy, calculus, and astronomy are only some of themes at work, and as such, one can’t help but agree, despite the historically accurate setting.  Quicksilver and The Confusion having positioned the pieces and motivated the plot respectively, The System of the World takes the overall story arc to the next level, concluding the plot threads of the main characters – Jack, Eliza, Daniel, Bob, Dappa, etc. - in a satisfying fashion.  That Stephenson also hones the thematic point of the Cycle to expose the financial and mathematical system underlying our modern world only heightens its literary importance.  The genre of science fiction now extends into the past as well as future.

The warning: Stephenson is not a writer for everyone’s tastes.  Much of the density of the Baroque Cycle can be chalked up to digressions on the geography, fashion, culture, and lifestyles of Europe in the late 17th/early 18th century.  Named the Baroque Cycle for more than just the tail end of the era portrayed, the title is also an allegory to the level of detail and ornamentation Stephenson grafts onto the storylines.  Wigs, street layouts, etymology, social hierarchy, architectural styles, the filth of the poor,  etc. are all fair game in the text.  Thus, if you are not interested in learning about the era as well as participating in a great story, don’t bother reading.

The digressive nature of the Cycle aside, Stephenson has under-appreciated skills as a writer.  Woven effortlessly through the informative content is a plot so subtle, less attentive readers will complain of the lack thereof.  Rest assured that on the occasions it does occur, what was a quietly susurrating story takes on levels of excitement one could never imagine when examining the motif of coins, mathematics, stock exchanges, etc. at face value.  The various climax points scattered throughout The System of the World will have readers effortlessly turning pages.  Though an old man may not seem a likely character to carry the action of such a story, Daniel’s life is suffuse with subtle action and intrigue in carrying the lion’s share of the plot.

A Toronto newspaper has been quoted to the effect that the Baroque Cycle will be studied for years.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In the way of theory and concept, it offers nothing new or overtly controversial – and nor did it intend to.  The only research people will be doing is to double check Stephenson’s facts.  Was Newton in fact a diehard alchemist who allowed his irrational thoughts to be polluted by the rational?  Did the virtual nature of economy actually begin so long ago?  Is that truly the fashion in which a German became king of England?  These and a host of other questions will have the truly curious checking history books to confirm what has been under all of our noses for so long, it just took Stephenson to spice it up with a dynamite story to make us interested.

In the end, the Baroque Cycle is a brilliantly conceived series of books that goes to great lengths to expose the roots of computing and numismatics which found our current economy.  Simultaneously weaving a fictional yarn through the immovable landmarks of time, the interstitial historical trivia which fleshes out the story will either have the reader bored to death or reading with pleasure.  True nerds will love the manner in which Stephenson takes the historical sandbox of the turn of the 18th century plays in it like a mad scientist with all the toys at his disposal – gunpowder, nautical mimitations, historical landmarks, kings, metallurgy, etc. in this case.  Never to be studied conceptually, The System of the World, and the Baroque Cycle as a whole, use the mode of story to describe precisely why knowledge is power by highlighting the historical transition in Europe from irrationalism to rationalism in a fashion textbooks never could.  From history to mathematics, wordplay to plotting, Neal Stephenson is the nerd’s nerd, a true natural philosopher.  Highly recommended.


  1. Bloody good review, I agree completely with your views on The System of the World and on the Baroque Cycle as a whole. Especially your observation about how it makes you want to fact-check and read the actual history that Stephenson uses for his narrative. Thank you!

    1. No, thank you for visiting my blog. :) Glad to know there are still curious people in the world who look beyond just entertainment!