The System of the World (thing)
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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 or politics.
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.
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 hundred pages?"
THERE IS A GENIUS to this novel: that it is a spectacular adventure, rife with pirate attacks, duels, wars, jail breaks, riots, coronations, obscure ceremonies, 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 understanding.
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 Monadology 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.