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#3 Neal Stephenson: The System of the World

Neal Stephenson: The System of the World

Paperback 912 pages (October 6, 2005)
Publisher: Arrow
Language: English
ISBN: 0099463369
Category(ies): Fiction (Historical/Fantasy)

In this, the third volume of the Baroque Cycle, we have skipped on another decade or so, with the action in all three books taking place between January and November 1714. We're back to three books, and they take place sequentially rather than concurrently.

6 - Solomon's Gold. Back in volume 1, there was a framing story that takes place as the ship Minerva carries Daniel Waterhouse from Boston to Plymouth. Here, he has arrived in England, meeting up with and travelling to London in the company of a Mr Threader. In London itself, Isaac Newton has long been master of the Mint, but Jack Shaftoe has been planning an upset since the end of Juncto. In this book, he totally outwits Newton and Waterhouse, and leads a daring (and humiliating) raid on the Tower of London.

7 - Currency. Now the consequences of Jack's raid start coming home. Newton, as master of the Mint, is utterly responsible for the integrity of the currency - the gold must not be adulterated at all, neither the coins in circulation (hard), nor the samples deposited into a locked chest. But this chest, the Pyx, is exactly what Jack compromised. If debased coins are to be found therein, Newton, and the coin of the realm, will be in ruins. But perhaps a deal can be arranged between Newton and Jack. And then, Queen Anne dies.

8 - The System of the World. In this, the final book, the trial of the Pyx takes place. And Jack's trial takes place. Most of the major threads are tied up neatly. Freedom is achieved by some who deserve it, and by the end of the Epilogs, most of the story has been cleaned up (and what else are epilogues for, if not to tie up flapping frayed edges of story?).

By the end of the Epilogs, the most fantastical element (if you except the Solomonic Gold, which might have been explainable as either a heavy isotope, or an alloy with an even heavy metal) has been fully exposed, whereas it had previously been hinted at, even back in volume 1. The cycle is not a pure historical one, and it doesn't really pretend to be - Daniel Waterhouse (possibly the closest to a PoV character for the cycle as a whole) has as his great work the construction of a computer, the Logic Engine, something far more ambitious than what Babbage designed a century later.

As a cast, Stephenson has used a huge number of historical characters, mixed in with fictional characters based to a greater or lesser extent on real people. Over the length of the work, which is probably about 1,250,000 words in length, he manages to have a number of character development arcs - the politically powerful and experienced Eliza of the end, for example, is far from the virgin harem girls of the start. And Jack's life is also far from straightforward. In the meantime, we see the development of Britain over a number of reigns, so the country too undergoes development, as of course does London.

What I find very impressive is the sense of being there. Stephenson shows a complexity, and yet a simplicity, that is different from what we have today. And the way that politics develops over the period is truer than any factual account could be. (And it's very tempting now to go off and read some real histories of the period, to see where he played fast and loose with the facts, and where he was accurate. I suspect I'd guess wrong.)

When you look at the length of it, well, those 8 books are each the length of a good-sized novel. Heck, novels used to start at 70,000 words - this is nearly twenty times that length. As a single story, I could never remember all the incident in Gravity's Rainbow. In this, probably three times that length, I haven't a hope.

A fine conclusion to a fine series
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