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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The System of the World

Neal Stephenson

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To purchase The System of the World

Title: The System of the World
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 887 pages
Availability: The System of the World - US
The System of the World - UK
The System of the World - Canada
The System of the World - India
Principia - Deutschland
  • Volume 3 of The Baroque Cycle

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Our Assessment:

B : meticulous, and not quite as much verve as the preceding volumes of The Baroque Cycle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 26/9/2004 John Brewer
Salon . 22/9/2004 Andrew Leonard
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/9/2004 Michael Berry
TLS B- 15/10/2004 Jon Fasman
The Village Voice . 20/9/2004 Douglas Wolk

  From the Reviews:
  • "For the length of The System of the World, Stephenson plays a kind of literary shell game, swapping motives and characters willy-nilly. It takes a lot of work to keep up with all the machinations, but there are plenty of payoffs for readers who remain sufficiently alert as the page count marches toward four digits. (...) The Baroque Cycle is clearly the work of a major writer in his prime, one who is apt to deliver other works as compelling, enlightening, frustrating and funny as this one." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Unfortunately, the way in which Stephenson deploys that knowledge more often seems at the service of the author than the novel. Scenes and descriptions that start lightly grow increasingly gummy; sparks flicker through a thicket of chubby sentences and unnecessary description." - Jon Fasman, Times Literary Supplemenet

  • "But as enormous frigates will, System drifts off course and into tedious court intrigues -- it's hard to work up much suspense about who will succeed Queen Anne, given the existence of history books. (...) System isn't lacking in potboiling kicks (.....) It's a grand, if slow, entertainment most of the way, but when Stephenson tries to freight it with a still grander significance, it crumples like a periwig beneath a carriage wheel." - Douglas Wolk, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The System of the World is the third and final volume of The Baroque Cycle, and it does bring the trilogy to a fairly neat close. Those who made their way through Quicksilver and The Confusion will find it hard to resist, but any eagerness is quickly tempered by Stephenson's very patient and deliberate presentation: the book proves to be a (perhaps excessively) drawn-out final chapter. (And readers unfamiliar with the first two volumes shouldn't even bother: this isn't the best place to get on this particular wild ride.)
       Each of the three volumes of the trilogy has a different feel and presentation. This is by far the mose closely contained one, as almost the entire action described takes place in 1714, in and around London. One character, also, dominates (unlike in the previous volumes), as the story turns almost entirely around Daniel Waterhouse. (Never fear: most everybody of any significance from the previous novels also gets thrown in the mix.)
       The book advances chronologically -- not quite plodding, but certainly hardly ever racing along. Stephenson spares almost no detail -- so much so, that there is more than one occasion where one wishes he would. There are sections where his slow and extended build-up does make for good suspense (the final assay, for example), but too often the pay-off is too small for the great effort.
       The story begins closer to where Quicksilver left off: after all, that was where Waterhouse was last seen, voyaging aboard the Minerva from Boston back to England. The System of the World finds he has finally made it. It takes him a while to settle in, but he soon finds himself involved in rather more matters than he's comfortable with. Indeed, almost as soon as he's arrived (and before almost anyone should be aware of the fact) there's already an attempt on his life with an Infernal Device (a time-bomb).
       So what is going on ? Quite a lot, from vendettas (for reasons philosophical, personal, and pecuniary) to far-reaching political changes. For one, it is 1714 and there's the huge question of who will succeed not-long-for-this-world Queen Anne. (A problem with historical fiction -- which this is, at least to this extent -- is that the outcome is well-known, somewhat lessening the suspense.) As one character notes, a lot hinges on it:

We are at a fork in the road just now. One way takes us to a wholly new way of managing human affairs. (...) (T)he Royal Society, the Bank of England, Recoinage, the Whigs, and the Hanoverian Succession are all elements of it. The other way leads us to Versailles, and the rather different scheme that the king of France has got going there.
       Central, also, is the philosophical debate between Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz. Their fight over who invented the calculus (and who stole what from whom) is one of the things Daniel Waterhouse is meant to help bring to an end. Stephenson even manages to get Leibniz (travelling incognito) and Newton to meet, but their differences are not easily reconciled. The section in which they make clear their differences is among the most interesting in the book, but the matter is only partly resolved.
       Newton -- still Master of the Mint -- has enough other concerns and worries. Of particular concern, and one of the highlights of the novel, is the Trial of the Pyx, where the English coinage (for which Newton is responsible) is tested, with dire consequences if any has been adulterated. Waterhouse and Newton are well aware that the Pyx has been tampered with long before the official trial: Vagabond King Jack Shaftoe and some Solomonic gold (in which Newton is also interested for other reasons) have seen to that.
       Meanwhile, among his many projects Waterhouse also tries to further the construction of the computing machine of Pascal and Leibniz's conception, a Logic Mill for which he has punch-cards made (of gold, of course). The absence of a source of adequate power generation -- the Engine for Raising Water by Fire, for example -- limit the possibilities in that present, but the idea is, of course, a thoroughly modern one. (At least one powerful figure recognises this: larger than life Peter the Great, who also makes a (not very) incognito cameo appearance.)
       There is all sorts of adventure, as everyone jostles for power and influence -- or just to save their hides. The situation seems to change almost weekly. beside the local political back-and-forth, others show up to mix things up even more (such as the Russian with the harpoon ...). Édouard de Gex is outraged by the new money-cult, and does his quite dramatic best to stop it. There's a duel by howitzer. Phosphorous is used to good and nasty effect.
       A good deal goes on, and the world depends on it. Or the direction in which the world will go. Waterhouse sides with the rational: aside from all the deductive reasoning necessary to find his way among all the intrigue, he's for the scientific method. The search to discover the Longitude is one of the major ambitions of the time. But petty, personal ambitions (and Newton's odd alchemic bent) often make for other priorities.
       This is a weighty novel, and ultimately too deliberate. Stephenson wants to explain it all, and while some of the scenes so closely detailed -- the jails, the procedures, some of the crimes -- are fascinating, much is not. And whereas Quicksilver placed a great emphasis on ideas, and The Confusion offered much pure adventure, The System of the World seems inhibited with regard to both.
       Stephenson writes quite well (if too evenly, occasionally making for almost a drone), with only a weakness for word-play showing up too often. He ultimately ties his story together quite well -- though the weaving together of the strands is a bit rough -- but it's a long haul to get there; particularly the first third is often slow going.
       The Baroque Cycle doesn't turn out to be the grand tome it's initial promise suggested. Somewhat surprisingly, Stephenson seems to wind up caring more about his characters than their ideas. He has some success in this regard -- Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, Eliza, and others are fine figures -- but the original strength of the concept was in the ideas. Not surprisingly, many of the best parts of The System of the World concern themselves with matters philosophical and technical -- and Stephenson handles these well. But this narrative is pulled in many different directions (and over-populated, with many characters also separated by too much distance to usefully interact), and so, despite some decent adventures, it all gets to be a bit much.
       A decent read for those with the patience for it, but not the triumph one still had hope for after The Confusion.

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The System of the World: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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