The Barnes & Noble Review
The System of the World, the third and concluding volume of Neal Stephenson's shelf-bending Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver and The Confusion), brings the epic historical saga to its thrilling -- and truly awe-inspiring -- conclusion.
Set in the early 18th century and featuring a diverse cast of characters that includes alchemists, philosophers, mathematicians, spies, thieves, pirates, and royalty, The System of the World follows Daniel Waterhouse, an unassuming philosopher and confidant to some of the most brilliant minds of the age, as he returns to England to try and repair the rift between geniuses Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. After reluctantly leaving his family in Boston, Waterhouse arrives in England and is almost killed by a mysterious Infernal Device. Having been away from the war-decimated country for two decades, Waterhouse quickly learns that although many things have changed, there is still violent revolution simmering just beneath the surface of seemingly civilized society. With Queen Anne deathly ill and Tories and Whigs jostling for political supremacy, Waterhouse and Newton vow to figure out who is trying to kill certain scientists and decipher the riddle behind the legend of King Solomon's gold, a mythical hoard of precious metal with miraculous properties.
Arguably one of the most ambitious -- and most researched -- stories ever written, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is set in one of the most turbulent and exciting times in human history. Filled with wild adventure, political intrigue, social upheaval, civilization-changing discoveries, cabalistic mysticism, and even a little romance, this massive saga is worth its weight in (Solomon's) gold.
Paul Goat Allen
The colossal and impressive third volume (after Quicksilver and The Confusion) of Stephenson's magisterial exploration of the origins of the modern world in the scientific revolution of the baroque era begins in 1714. Daniel Waterhouse has returned to England, hoping to mediate the feud between Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz, both of whom claim to have discovered the calculus and neither of whom is showing much scientific rationality in the dispute. This brawl takes place against the background of the imminent death of Queen Anne, which threatens a succession crisis as Jacobite (Stuart, Catholic) sympathizers confront supporters of the Hanoverian succession. Aside from the potential effect of the outcome on the intellectual climate of England, these political maneuverings are notable for the role played by trilogy heroine Eliza de la Zour, who is now wielding her influence over Caroline of Ansbach, consort of the Hanoverian heir. Eliza has risen from the streets to the nobility without losing any of her creativity or her talents as a schemer; nor has outlaw Jack Shaftoe lost any of his wiliness. What he may have lost is discretion, since he oversteps the boundaries of both law and good sense far enough to narrowly escape the hangman. In the end, reluctant hero Waterhouse prevails against the machinations of everybody else, and scientific (if not sweet) reason wins by a nose. The symbol of that victory is the inventor Thomas Newcomen standing (rather like a cock crowing) atop the boiler of one of his first steam engines. This final volume in the cycle is another magnificent portrayal of an era, well worth the long slog it requires of Stephenson's many devoted readers. Agent, Liz Darhansoff at Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman Literary Agents. 6-city author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Responding to a request from Hanoverian Princess Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Royal Society Fellow Daniel Waterhouse leaves his Boston home to travel to London to mediate a volatile dispute between Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz and Sir Isaac Newton over the origin of the calculus. There, Waterhouse becomes embroiled in the search for a clandestine group of terrorists who are attempting to assassinate prominent proponents of Natural Philosophy including Waterhouse himself. Set against the vibrant cacophony of the early 1700s, this conclusion to Stephenson's stunning "Baroque Cycle" (Quicksilver; The Confusion) stands out as a masterwork of time, place, and people. Familiar characters reappear: Jack Shaftoe acquires an even greater reputation as a rogue extraordinaire, and Eliza, the Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm, makes her presence felt in high society. In a style both conversationally modern and atmospherically reminiscent of the period, Stephenson captures the spirit of an age of great discoveries, high "technology," and resourceful individuals. Highly recommended for general and historical fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/04.] Jackie Cassada, Asheville-Buncombe Lib. Syst., NC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The Baroque Cycle crosses the finish line: somewhat winded but still spry. One thing that becomes obvious on reading this third and final volume in Stephenson's genre-defying historical reinvention (Quicksilver, 2003; The Confusion, p. 107) is that the author was right to say the work wasn't a trilogy, but just one long (nearly 3,000-page) novel. Another thing is that it's a hell of a way to finish things off. We're in the early 1700s now, and the characters are a bit older (Quicksilver started in the 1640s) but no less active, physically or mentally. The loquacious Daniel Waterhouse is still serving England as a member of the Royal Society, and the bulk of this last installment follows his attempts to stop a plot threatening the lives of his fellow scientists with a nefarious invention: the time bomb. As prolix as Waterhouse and his comrade-in-long-windedness, Isaac Newton, can be in their scientific discourses, it's nothing compared to the mind-boggling stew of conspiracy that's London, with Tories and Whigs battling for position and civil war threatened over the possible ascension of the Hanoverian Princess Caroline to the throne. While the back-and-forth can be dizzying, Stephenson's droll humor (he even tosses in an anachronistic Monty Python joke) and knack for thrilling set-pieces-the meticulously plotted escape of a Scottish rebel from the Tower of London is a tour de force of its own-act as guiding lights through the political murk. On the periphery, the onetime slave and now Duchess Eliza uses her own considerable diplomatic skills to advance her shadowy goals, and after far too long a delay comes the return of the fabled Jack Shaftoe, the Indiana Jones of the series. Stephensonknows that the inimitable Shaftoe is ultimately the star and provides him with a crowd-pleasing exit as heart-poundingly exciting as it is surprisingly emotional. Learned, violent, sarcastic, and profound: a glorious finish to one of the most ambitious epics of recent years.
Read an Excerpt
The System of the World Ltd
By Stephenson, Neal
William Morrow & Company ISBN: 0060599359
15 january 1714
In life there is nothing more foolish than inventing.
-- James Watt
"Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold," said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers.
The wind had paused, as though Boreas had exhausted his lungs and was drawing in a new breath of air from somewhere above Iceland. So the young Earl was able to say this in matter-of-fact tones. "Mr. Newcomen and I are very glad of your company, but -- "
The wind struck them all deaf, as though the three men were candle-flames to be blown out. They staggered, planted their downwind feet against the black, stony ground, and leaned into it. Lostwithiel shouted: "We'll not think you discourteous if you return to my coach!" He nodded to a black carriage stopped along the track a short distance away, rocking on its French suspension. It had been artfully made to appear lighter than it was, and looked as if the only thing preventing it from tumbling end-over-end across the moor was the motley team of draught-horses harnessed to it, shaggy manes standing out horizontally in the gale.
"I am astonished that you should call this an extremity of cold," answeredthe old man. "In Boston, as you know, this would pass without remark. I am garbed for Boston." He was shrouded in a rustic leather cape, which he parted in the front to reveal a lining pieced together from the pelts of many raccoons. "After that passage through the intestinal windings of the Gorge of Lyd, we are all in want of fresh air -- especially, if I read the signs rightly, Mr. Newcomen."
That was all the leave Thomas Newcomen wanted. His face, which was as pale as the moon, bobbed once, which was as close as this Darth mouth blacksmith would ever come to a formal bow. Having thus taken his leave, he turned his broad back upon them and trudged quickly downwind. Soon he became hard to distinguish from the numerous upright boulders -- which might be read as a comment on his physique, or on the gloominess of the day, or on the badness of Daniel's eyesight.
"The Druids loved to set great stones on end," commented the Earl. "For what purpose, I cannot imagine."
"You have answered the question by asking it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Dwelling as they did in this God-forsaken place, they did it so that men would come upon these standing stones two thousand years after they were dead, and know they had been here. The Duke of Marlborough, throwing up that famous Pile of Blenheim Palace, is no different."
The Earl of Lostwithiel felt it wise to let this pass without comment. He turned and kicked a path through some stiff withered grass to a strange up-cropping of lichen-covered stone. Following him, Daniel understood it as one corner of a ruined building. The ground yielded under their feet. It was spread thin over a shambles of tumbledown rafters and disintegrating peat-turves. Anyway the angle gave them shelter from the wind.
"Speaking now in my capacity as Lord Warden of the Stannaries, I welcome you to Dartmoor, Daniel Waterhouse, on behalf of the Lord of the Manor."
Daniel sighed. "If I'd been in London the last twenty years, keeping up with my Heraldic Arcana, and going to tea with the Bluemantle Pursuivant, I would know who the hell that was. But as matters stand -- "
"Dartmoor was created part of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1338, and as such became part of the possessions of the Prince of Wales -- a title created by King Edward I in -- "
"So in a roundabout way, you are welcoming me on behalf of the Prince of Wales," Daniel said abruptly, in a bid to yank the Earl back before he rambled any deeper into the labyrinth of feudal hierarchy.
"And the Princess. Who, if the Hanovers come, shall be -- "
"Princess Caroline of Ansbach. Yes. Her name keeps coming up. Did she send you to track me down in the streets of Plymouth?"
The Earl looked a little wounded. "I am the son of your old friend. I encountered you by luck. My surprise was genuine. The welcome given you by my wife and children was unaffected. If you doubt it, come to our house next Christmas."
"Then why do you go out of your way to bring up the Princess?"
"Only because I wish to be plain-spoken. Where you are going next it is all intrigue. There is a sickness of the mind that comes over those who bide too long in London, which causes otherwise rational men to put forced and absurd meanings on events that are accidental."
"I have observed that sickness in full flower," Daniel allowed, thinking of one man in particular.
"I do not wish you to think, six months from now, when you become aware of all this, 'Aha, the Earl of Lostwithiel was nothing more than a cat's paw for Caroline -- who knows what other lies he may have told me!' "
"Very well. For you to disclose it now exhibits wisdom beyond your years."
"Some would call it timidity originating in the disasters that befell my father, and his father."
"I do not take that view of it," Daniel said curtly.
He was startled by bulk and motion to one side, and feared it was a standing-stone toppled by the wind; but it was only Thomas Newcomen, looking a good deal pinker. "God willing, that carriage-ride is the closest I shall ever come to a sea-voyage!" he declared.
"May the Lord so bless you," Daniel returned. "In the storms of the month past, we were pitched and tossed about so much that all hands were too sick to eat for days. I went from praying we would not run aground, to praying that we would." Continues...
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