The System of the World

(This is less of a traditional book review than the ones on Quicksilver and The Confusion. For one thing, it’s been so long since System of the World was published that steering clear of spoilers seems almost pointless. So, spoilers ahead!)

First: an apology for taking this long. The book was published in September, after all. I read the first half of it in fits and starts over many months, and the last half in a five-day burn once I realized how ridiculous it was that I hadn’t finished yet. There’s some reading zone that you get to, analogous to escape velocity or cruising altitude or something, where you know you’re going to keep going till you finish, not getting distracted by other reading material, and using most of your bits of spare time to keep the pages turning. Some people probably read that way all the time, but I certainly don’t, and I manage it much less often than I did in pre-Ella days. And with these huge Baroque Cycle tomes it’s worse because they’re so dense with detail that when you set them aside for a week or two you know you’ll have to spend some time flipping back pages and racking your brain to remember who that one character was—both his given name and his title—and what he had done when he was much younger in the first book, and what his opinion is on who invented the calculus.

But anyway. I finished. And the delay had absolutely nothing to do with not enjoying reading The System of the World at all, though I did have a marked twinge of disappointment on day one. The first thing I did when I sat down with the book was to look at the maps on the inside front and back cover. In volumes one and two, the maps gave some hints as to the scope of those books—when you saw maps from all over the whole freakin’ world in The Confusion, you knew that Jack and his merry band would be doing a bit of traveling. But in System, the scope is very different: the maps are of London, up close and with environs, and the insets aren’t other places but closeups of places within London. So I knew from the beginning that System was going to be Anglocentric, and while I’m sad we never got to revisit Shahjahanabad or Cairo or Boston, at least I was able to make my peace with that fact at the outset.

On the bright side, all that attention devoted to London means that this is a book all about Daniel Waterhouse. If we break things down as Stephenson would like us to, considering the Baroque Cycle as a whole divided into eight books, not three, then Daniel hasn’t really been front and center since Book One. He’s absent from Two, present occasionally in Three, and less in Four—but not at all in Five. Six, Seven, and Eight are his, though. And what a treat that is. Young Daniel was a mild-mannered Puritan turned Natural Philosopher, fearful of the circumstances he’d been thrust into, living in the shadow of Isaac Newton—a Salieri without the bitterness. Old Daniel is the same guy, hardened by experience—he realizes a few hundred pages in, much to his surprise, that he’s not afraid any more, and that people turn to him full of hope because they see that in him. The quintessential Stephenson hero, the geek-hero, must always gets by on his wits, and Daniel exemplifies this in a particular way because his wits are all he has left—he’s an old man. He can’t even walk fast.

All right, another apology. I’ve got too many little things to comment on and not enough time to organize them all nicely, with Progression towards a Conclusion with Transitions and all the other stuff that makes, y’know, good writing. So I’m going to just go down the line.

If you want the Baroque Cycle in a nutshell—at least, the parts where people are sitting around talking, which is most of it—look to the conversation between Daniel and Sir Christopher Wren on page 75—too long to quote here, though I’m tempted. It is consistently suffused with wit, and manages to incorporate the Newton/Leibniz debate, computers (i.e. the Logic Mill), organs (the church kind), courtly intrigue, and geopolitical drama, all in a couple pages. It’s wonderful stuff, though (as with the whole Cycle) you have to share Stephenson’s unfiltered glee in turning up odd historical facts and anecdotes in order to go along with it. Sometimes in passages like that you think maybe he’s being difficult on purpose, but then you hit the other parts, the swashbuckling bits, the Jack bits, and you swear the guy is angling for a movie deal. It should come as little surprise that the high point of System involves a complicated, flashy break-in at the Tower of London, masterminded by Jack Shaftoe (Jack the Coiner, as he’s known now), that takes upwards of a hundred pages to relate in full.

From there it’s all consequences and implications, leading to—yes! it’s true!—an ending that’s a proper conclusion. Jack comes full circle to the hangman’s noose, And Daniel—well, Daniel cleans up the remaining pieces of a rather complicated life. Stephenson has a habit of tying up the storylines you think are going to be the culminating ones a little early. Upnor and that dead-fish-eating Duke are gone, and Bob finds Abigail, midway through The Confusion. De Gex gets his comeuppance, and Daniel manages to get his Data Cards o’ Gold shipped out, long before System finishes up. The actual endings of the novels, and of the Cycle as a whole, have more to do with tying up character than plot—a surprising (and welcome) strategy in books that are so completely, gloriously plot-heavy.

Enoch Root. Where was he? I know, I know—he was in Boston. But I missed him. I missed the little cameos he’d make throughout the rest of the Cycle, little hints as to What He Was. Now that it’s complete we can all freely speculate, though of course the real answer is that he’s meant to be ambiguous. He’s probably a really, really old guy—maybe even the biblical Enoch—who extends his life by means of an alchemical elixir, and who has an interest in finding the right people (i.e. the geeks) and helping them help history along, with a special eye for (he he described it in Cryptonomicon) the metis of Athena over the brute, ugly force of Ares. But that whole conversation is so much less interesting because he’s doesn’t actually do anything in the last third of the Cycle. We learn something pretty stunning—that he used his alchemical chops to help Daniel after his operation at the end of Quicksilver. Whether “revived” or “resurrected” is the right word to put to it is one of Those Ambiguities that run alongside his identity. But while we see his footprint, we don’t see the guy in System, and that sucks.

But why does Stephenson give us Enoch at all? Or (and especially) his elixir? In a series of novels about the dawn of modern science and economics, these touches of supernatural froofroo seem a little out of place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if lots of people are bothered by them. But I think they belong. Late on in System there’s the inevitable showdown between Newton and Leibniz—they go on for several pages about free will and the nature of God’s hand in the world and all the rest, with Daniel serving as reluctant referee even as he himself has admitted to being a Materialist. The upshot of that whole conversation isn’t a resolution, of course, but an admission that they’re not there yet, and maybe people in a few centuries will finally settle these things beyond debate—which we haven’t, of course, and so we get to one of the big Messages of the Cycle, insofar as there are any, which is: Keep trying to figure it out. Don’t ever stop. The presence of Enoch and his Elixir are a nod in the direction of what Newton would call the vegetable spirit—a hat tip to the ineffable, which may someday get reconciled with everything else, or remain ineffable, but which for now certainly cannot be effed.

I wondered all along how things would end for Jack, and found it hard to imagine a way to pull it off neatly. A straightforward happy ending would be too easy, and I assumed he’s just die somewhat gloriously after having made things right by his progeny, as his descendant Bob does in Cryptonomicon. Stephenson handles it all better than I could have imagined. There’s the whole, drawn out scene of hanging-day, with all the attendant Jack moments and historical trivia—if you’ve made it that far into the Cycle you’re loving it, and if it all seems like too much, you stopped reading a long time ago. The grand myth of L’Emmerdeur is sustained by his being carted off by the Mobb—dead, according to the authorities, but with enough wiggle room for other rumors to endure in the popular imagination. But he does live, and even gets together with Eliza, albeit in creaky, broken form. It’s just like he says:

“Ah, she is a great woman,” says the King, “and you, mon cousin, are a fortunate man.”
“To meet her in the first place was fortunate, I’ll give you that. To lose her was stupid. Now, I don’t know the word to describe what I am, besides tired.”

But before I get away from Jack’s ending: to what extent did he, and others, intend it? He is given ridiculously wealthy hanging clothes by someone unknown—probably Johann, in which case probably Eliza was behind it. Is it to honor him, or so that he’ll have stuff to whip the Mobb in a frenzy? And when Jack pulls his double-cross on Jack Ketch so that his death will be prolonged, is it in some vain hope that a rescue will come? Or does he really intend the Mobb to be his savior?

Daniel also survives, and gets to go back home to Boston—assuming he survives the voyage. His reward is not the completion of the Logic Mill, or achieving harmony between Newton and Leibniz. It’s making his mark, helping things along in his small way, and then managing to get clear to a bit of peace when it’s over. That whole “they lived happily ever after out in the country with their kids” schtick always seemed terribly boring to me, but that’s changed now that I have a kid. It’s still boring to contemplate as reader, but as a person, I get it now.

On the subject of kids: for Stephenson, they are Why You Do It, whatever it is that you do. It’s the motivation to make the world a better place, and it’s the solemn obligation that, if you’re a worthwhile person in the slightest, you honor. I made a note of that at page 750 when Jack is trying to get his sons to leave London without him, at which point it was worth mentioning, but in the concluding pages of System Stephenson manages to beat the whole “it’s for your kids!” drum a little too often, turning a well-stated implication of the Cycle into a Lesson. Too bad.

I realize I’ve dwelt too long on the ending, when there’s all sorts of great stuff leading up to it. The Tower scenes, of course. But also the death of Sophie. The assassination attempt at Herrenhausen. The freakin’ cannon-duel between Dappa and Charles White. Johann and Caroline’s escape from London. System is no Bonanza, but looking back, it sure had its sure of groovy moments.

All in all, the Baroque Cycle is a literary accomplishment that requires such particular tastes to fully appreciate, I doubt it’ll ever get all the recognition it deserves. Instead it will be That One Quirkily Long and Involved historical trilogy. But, to be fair, it is messy enough that I’m not going to be calling for its inclusion in the literary pantheon or anything. I remember the phrase “core dump” being used in one review of Quicksilver, referring to Stephenson’s inability to pick, choose, and shape all the historical info he turned up in his research. That’s an overstatement, but one that inclines in the right direction. My sense—hard to verify this close to having finished it—is that the books get sloppier as the Cycle goes on, thematically speaking.

But I won’t say for certain whether that’s the case until I read them again. And perhaps the biggest endorsement I can give to the Cycle is that, as soon as I turned the last page, my first impulse was to go back 2500 pages to the beginning, and start it all over again right away. I won’t—too much else on the reading pile at the moment—but I’ll come back to it in a year or so, and looking forward to the moment when I do.