System of the world


I have just finished the new Neil Stephenson book “The System of the World”, it being the third part of his “Baroque Cycle”.

It is fair enough to say that I am mightily impressed. The three books taken together form a minor masterpiece of literature and, as Stephenson himself admits, owe much to such former masters as Dumas. Make no mistake these are excellent reads, the length not weighing on them at all.

In reviewing the Cycle first, I am put in mind of the Flashman books and the Shogun novel, mainly because they are painstakingly researched and accurate (as much as the story’s antics will allow) and it is quite possible to actually learn history from them (admittedly, in Shoguns case a few names have been changed). This is the mark of all good historically set novels. The Cycle sets out the story of a small group of characters and the effects their lives have upon the world. Of these the two main are Daniel Waterhouse and Jack Shaftoe. Daniel is a savant member of the Royal Society and a Natural Philosopher (read scientist) whereas Jack is a Vagabond and very much the action hero. It cannot be coincidence that a previous and equally brilliant (and equally thick!) Stephenson book; Cryptonomicon, which is set in the second world war and late nineties, also features two main characters who’s surnames are Waterhouse and Shaftoe. Stephenson seams to be alluding to the cosmic importance of these families (a la Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams cosmically important everyman).

Daniel’s underlying wish in the System of the world is to invent the “Logic mill” based upon the Calculus, which was invented by his friends Leibniz and Isaac Newton (another theme being their argument over who actually invented it first, or indeed has got it right). This logic mill is quite clearly the computer (as we know it), which is another interesting parallel as it is Daniels relative in Cryptonomicon that eventually does invent the blessed thing half way through the Second World War. As you can see these are all books for the lovers of detail and Stephenson know well how to get you thinking.

Jacks underlying wish in the System of the World is to win back the heart of the women he lost by following the orders of the king of France. These orders specify that Jack is to travel to England and ruin the economy of that country for the glory of the French. Jacks tale revolves around his attempts to do this and outsmart the smartest man alive; Newton, who is trying to catch him and send him to be hung drawn and quartered. Some of the best writing in the book is the totally believable way in which Newton (being a scientist unconcerned with politics) totally fails to appreciate that his foe is very smart himself and capable of manipulating Newton’s scientific mind. This is brilliantly realized by Jack when he manages through many adventures to affect the currency of England and force a trial to assess the value of English coin. Much paper is taken up with descriptions of such trials, their locations and the strange way that we English tend to run our older institutions. This leads me to the conclusion that in this third book, the real main character becomes London itself and the amazing, flummoxing, diverse, contradictory and even down right crazy way it worked. This, in other books, would be simply colour for the background, but here in Stephenson’s works it is majestically used up and we are plunged into the smells of the streets and the natures of the manifold and diverse peoples found therein.

Critiquing Stephenson is harder. His only fault as an author has been his sometimes petering endings. Characters and stories just stop or go over the pages of the book (into our head space I guess). This has led to the most brilliant books ending what can only be described as badly. I have been reading this series in a hope that there would be a “conclusion” this time, and I am pleased to say that there is. Stephenson masterfully avoids drawing light upon the slightly obvious/I-saw-it-coming nature of the conclusion by playing a trump card just before that had me grasping. It was like watching a chess master place the final telling piece on the board that his opponent has not seen coming at all but has arrived via the most impressive and smooth build up. A brilliant job. The final scenes take place in two locations simultaneously and we weave amongst them in and out of the emotional depth of each and the magical occasions they represent. I have not been so emotionally involves in a multi-dimensional ending like this since I first saw “Return of the Jedi”. If you have seen that films final moments you will know the sort of weaving I am talking about.

My reference to science fiction is not without cause. It draws me to comment on the phantasmagorical that has been skilfully hidden amongst this book’s, this whole series’ and Cryptonomicon pages. I speak of Enoch Root. Although not in this book in person, again there are tantalising hints about this mans past. If you are one of the unaware read on knowing that this should bait you…

**Minor Spoilers ahead**

Enoch Root is in the first book of the Baroque Cycle at about 45/50 years old (?), when Daniel is a university student. As Daniel grows to an old man, Enoch remains as is. This is not all. In Cryptonomicon, which as I said is set during World War II, Enoch also appears. After a while it is clear that this is the same man. Moreover, the second time line of Cryptonomicon, set in the 90’s, also has Enoch in it and also at the same age. This makes him at least 300 years old. I say at least as there are small hints that he is even older, but always the same age. Who is he? How does he live so long? Stephenson is a fantastic science fiction author, is Enoch part of that? Is he an alien? Stephenson does a brilliant job of baiting us all through the Cycle with small references, hints, subtle machinations, so that, like the chess master, the final card is fantastically played right at the end. So well are thee worked into, not only the themes of the books, but also the places that he turns up, that one is driven to intense interest. I fair swallowed the Cryptonomicon on my second reading looking for clue as to Roots identity. I say that if Stephenson were to set up an Internet Alternate Reality Game to do with Root, thousands would play it.

**Major spoilers ahead regarding the ending and Enoch Root**

In the final scenes the secrets become a little less clouded. It is made clear that Root brought back Daniel from the dead (or as close as dead was back then) Daniel then uses the written notes on this to bring Newton back from the dead. The notes pertain to a concoction that requires the Magical Solomon Gold that Newton has been trying to recover through the whole Cycle. Using some of this gold makes the potion work and affects a recovery on Newton that brings him back to life. This, one thinks, should draw us the conclusion that Root has a supply of the gold and the means to make the concoction and has therefore been living off it for God knows how long. However, in the previous book of the series, The Confusion, it is made clear that Root is not himself preserved by the use of alchemy. It is clear then that this final scene is a ruse and red herring to the secret of Root and only illuminates his position re his fantastical knowledge. The mystery is left for now as such.

I personally think Root is an alien, but this is wild speculation. Knowing Stephenson and his characters use of ancient powers (such as the Nam Shub. See his novel Snow Crash) Root could quite easily be a God, or any other nature of mystical being. One interesting idea that occurs to me is that Stephenson never actually writes contradictory books. That is to say that all his works exist in the same universe, past or future and do not overlap each other at all, nor contradict the nature of the universe present in each one. This means that Root could merely be an immortal man who came across his powers accidentally. In this respect he reminds me of Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged
(From Hitch Hiker Guide to the Galaxy) or the characters from highlander. As usual Stephenson draws us into and plays with myriad modern cultural references way outside his works.

** End of spoilers **

The Cycle is therefore completed and rounded off very very well. I loved this book and in fact have found Stephenson’s works to be the best I have read in a long long time. His skill with the pen equals that of such people as Douglas Adams (pbuh) and Tolkien.
I urge you all to read the books (if your wrists can stand their weight) as soon as possible!


btw: many people around the web have been looking for a source for the inscription around Enoch’s Medallion. It is to be found here in the Society of Mary.