The Baroque Cycle
Quicksilver | The Confusion |
The System of the World
MOST OF THE FUN is over. Most of the bucklers have been swashed; most of the
daring done; most of the battle cries cried and scar tissue healed. The
remainder isn't exactly grim—but what was adventure, once, years
ago, now seems merely perilous. These are old bones
now and crack much more easily. The plots are no more convoluted,
the blades no sharper, the rivals no further entrenched, but in the air
there hangs a palpable sense of finality, of endgame.
Or, in other words, Neal Stephenson has finally learned how to end a novel.
WE BEGAN THE
BAROQUE Cycle two
volumes ago, with the story of Daniel Waterhouse's return trip
to England aboard the ship Minerva. The aged philosopher
had spent over a decade in Boston, tinkering with cogs (and so on)
in a project initiated by Gottfried Leibniz. The balance of that
volume, Quicksilver, and Baroque's second volume,
The Confusion, concerned themselves with a flashback of a
length and breadth perhaps unprecedented in fiction, a flashback about
Waterhouse's youth and middle age, about "Half-cocked" Jack Shaftoe and
his troubling love interest Eliza,
about social climbing, circumnavigation,
and the inverse square law. A flashback that ended before Waterhouse even
arrived in Boston.
The System of the World, Baroque's third and
final volume, begins on the far side of that twelve-year gulf.
The year is 1714, Minerva has just reached England, and Waterhouse,
practically before touching ground, involves himself in the
technologies of the day: He promotes the Engine for Raising
Water by Fire, and spends a good deal of time trying not to
be blown up (again) by a certain Infernal Device. He was summoned to
England by Princess Caroline,
his future queen, to mediate the ongoing
rivalry between Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton—but Daniel has a peculiar,
reluctant way of becoming deeply involved in anything of importance in science
The political question of the day is one of succession: will the next King of
England be the Catholic James Stuart, the
Old Pretender, heir to the throne
by lineage, or George Louis, a protestant German who descended from James I.
The question is crucial
because James is strongly linked to Louis XIV of France, who already won
the War of the Spanish Succession and placed a friendly king on
that throne. The stakes are quite simply whether the Enlightenment
will continue to prosper in England, or Louis win out and crush it.
The question is played out in skirmishes between Whig and Tory Lords,
between the English Mint and counterfeiters, between Jacobite conspiracies and
mohawked militias. Jack Shaftoe, the adventurous young Vagabond King of
the first two volumes, is now a middle-aged counterfeiter. Isaac Newton is
Master of the Mint. Roger Comstock, the Marquis of Ravenscar, is leading the
Whiggish effort to bring the German to the throne. Princess Caroline is
sneaking into England, incognito. The Queen is dying. And Daniel
Waterhouse, tied down by all these threads, only wants to return home and
live out his life in peace.
BUT I SHOULDN'T HAVE to tell you that peace is not meant
to be. The first two volumes split the narrative among its three main
characters, Jack, Eliza, and Daniel. If anything, Daniel had
the short end. In System—from
leading the club (or "Clubb") prosecuting the creators of the Infernal
Device to hunting down counterfeiters and spies, from founding a workshop
of mechanical savants to serving as Regent and fostering the transfer
of power—Daniel takes the starring role.
Many of the characters from the earlier volumes (those still living) seem
to have become content, or at least set in their ways. Eliza spends her
time investing wisely and using her influence to fight the
institution of slavery.
Bob Shaftoe, now a weary sergeant in a time of peace, is
happily married to his hard-won Abigail. Isaac Newton and Jack Shaftoe
have been single-mindedly striking their respective coins for many years.
The small helping of wholehearted adventure in this volume—so plentiful
in Quicksilver and The Confusion—concerns
Princess Caroline and Johann van Hacklheber. A certain torch has been passed
to this younger generation, one that embodies great irrational
romantic gestures. And it's likely they have
stories—epics—of their own, but not in this novel.
This taste of youthful fancy is bittersweet; an echo of a time that,
for this story's characters, will never come again.
This is a story that matures—just as its author, as a writer,
has matured—and it must be played out to the end.
[Princess Caroline] reached out with the candle and let its flame
lave the underside of the globe. The globe was of wood and too heavy to
catch fire readily; but paper gores printed with images of continents had
been pasted over it. The paper caught fire, and a ragged flame-ring began
to spread, consuming the cartographer's work and leaving behind it a
blackened and featureless sphere. "Sophie kept trying to tell me, before
she died, that a new System of the World was being made. Oh, it is not a
terribly novel thing to say. I know, and Sophie knew, that the third volume of
your Principia Mathematica bears that name,
Sir Isaac. Since
she died, I have become quite convinced that she was correct--and moreover
that the System is to be born, not at Versailles, but here--that this
shall be its Prime Meridian, and all else shall be reckoned, and ruled, from
here. It is a pleasing notion that there is to be such a System, and that I
might play some small part in being its midwife. I think of the globe, with
its neat parallels and meridians, as the Emblem of this System--what
the Cross is to Christianity. But I am troubled by the vision of such a Globe
in flames. What you are looking at here is a poor rendition of it; in my
nightmares, it is ever so much more lovely and dreadful."
"What do you suppose that vision signifies, highness?" asked Daniel Waterhouse.
"That this System, if it is set up wrong, might be doomed from the start,"
said Caroline. "Oh, it shall be a wonder to behold at first, and all shall
marvel at its regularity, its œconomy, and the ingenuity of them who
framed it. Perhaps it shall work as planned for a decade, or a century, or
more. And yet if it has been made wrong at the beginning, it shall burn, in
the end, and my vision shall be realized in a manner infinitely more
destructive than this." She gave the smoking globe a nudge. It had
been wholly scoured by the flames and became a trackless black orb.
THE SYSTEM OF THE World is the purpose and
ultimately the subject of The Baroque Cycle. The system of
thought, of science, of precision and power and currency. Sometimes I think
its main characters are London, Hanover, Versailles, and Amsterdam, and
its supporting players Spanish pieces of eight, Newton's near-perfect
guineas, a ship's gold-plated hull, innumerous casks of quicksilver,
a urine-filled pressure-cooker, curious eggs of watered steel, and
little bags of finely-ground gunpowder—and to it, swings in
public opinion and whole entire wars are mere plot twists.
That is, in some ways, the structure of the work. In a more conventional
novel, in practically any story, the narrative would lead to a climax
of violence, of conquest, of escape, of revenge—a sharp and
striking point of resolution. Stephenson has seemed, in his past
novels, incapable of resolving in such a way.
Here, he doesn't have to: Baroque comes
to its climax early, about half-way through this volume, in a long
and satisfying stretch of foundation. It is not an ending so much
as a completion.
Only once the real climax wanes does Stephenson give in to old, unpleasant
habits. The violence, the trial, the revenge—they come about as
if this were a story about Jack Shaftoe or Daniel Waterhouse or
Isaac Newton, rather than one that only contains them. That is not to
say that the novel closes poorly, that it is not interesting or picturesque or
endowed with a certain emotional weight: Its final act is simply not all that
important, and to make sense of it requires a good deal of imagination.
There is some poetry to ending at the gallows, much as, 2,600 pages
ago, it began. And there is some comfort in the open-ended
epilogue—because these are by-and-large characters I do
like. But I defy you to come to the end, finally, without wondering to yourself,
"If that's the epilogue, what have I been reading for the last
THERE IS A GENIUS to this novel: that it is a spectacular adventure, rife
with pirate attacks, duels, wars, jail breaks, riots, coronations,
and the consumption of spoiled fish—and yet, in the same
breath, it is a course in history and modern philosophy and economics.
It contains, in this final volume, a lengthy discussion between Newton and
Leibniz about the separation between the mind and body and the question
of free will. It discusses Descartes
and Locke and Spinoza. It dissects
various systems of barter and money. It shows in vast, chaotic, visceral
scenes how the will of a people is thrust upon their leaders. It envisions
perhaps two dozen cities throughout, whole cultures and economies described
through the eyes of foreigners and natives, from the imagination of the
eighteenth century and through the necessary hindsight of our own modern
The story is such an incredible work of context that it should
put many of our textbook-writers to shame. I'm not sure exactly how much
of Stephenson's novel is historically accurate (of course we could just
as easily discuss the accuracy of Shakespeare's Richard II),
but it does give me the urge to re-read Leibniz's
and pick up a couple books on Hooke
and Newton and the history of British
royal succession. This is not simply a story that feeds the curiosity and hunger
for knowledge; it is one that creates them.
I don't call many novels "great," because frankly few are. That
label designates something beyond the cathartic and thoughtful and
engaging and even goddamn visionary: It's a statement about myth,
about how I will read every other book a bit differently now for having read
this one. About how I accept it as an archetype.
The Baroque Cycle is one of these novels.
The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
885 pages, Copyright © 2004 by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Quicksilver | The Confusion |
The System of the World
The Baroque Cycle