The System of the World

I (sadly) finished the last book in Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle, The System of the World late last week.

If you don’t know, SotW is the third book in this monstrous trilogy, spanning nearly 3000 pages in total, and covering a little under 100 years, during the 17th & 18th century. I’m still hopeful for further works that will make clearer, or even further obsfucate the ties between The Baroque Cycle and the book that preceded them, Cryptonomicon, or the at-one-time-rumored trilogy set in the future.

For my thoughts on this volume, please read on…

When I first finished this book, over the Thanksgiving long weekend, I thought it was my least favourite of the three – it suffered from “Third Act” syndrome, that sense that the book serves mostly to close off storylines started the previous 2 books. However, 2 weeks on, I’ve totally changed my mind, and indeed, I feel the book stands up as well, if not better, than its predecessors.

There are several reasons for this: First, this book focuses on Daniel Waterhouse to a much larger degree than the previous two, and I’ve found him interesting from the start. Second, there are several digressions while one character or another holds forth on some early science, or monetary theory, or explains the origins of phrases, etc – all of these “authorial” voice elements have been one of my favourite parts of the series, and there are more of them in this volume. Finally, there’s the humour factor. While all three books are definitely funny, this one ratchets it up a notch. Indeed, from the arrival of Peter the Great on (my apologies if you haven’t reached that point. But then why are you reading a review?), I felt the writing was consistently funnier than anything previously written by Mr. Stephenson (although hearing Neal Stephenson read from Quicksilver last night made me want to re-read that book again).

While yes, this book does dovetail the various storylines together, and I did get slightly annoyed at the crossing of the Newton character from potential historical accuracy over into the fantastic, the ending was satisyfingly open, given the scope of the oeuvre. It left me wanting more. Specifically, it left me wanting to know what happens to the Waterhouses, Shaftoes & Mr. Enoch Root between the 18th & 20th centuries, but I have a suspicion I might never know.

This book gets a definite high recommendation for me, with the caveat that there’s no point reading this volume, if you haven’t read the previous 2 as well. There is a nice summary in the beginning, but you simply won’t know the characters’ voices as well as you should to receive everything the book has to offer.