Saturday, February 13, 2016

Trilogy or Nonology?

Review: The System of the World by Neal Stephenson


Neal Stephanson’s epic Baroque Cycle is either a trilogy that concludes with this book, or a nonology in which The System of the World provides three volumes—one in which the “final” volume, Crytonomicon, was the first published. Either way, Stephenson has written a complex network of story-threads, which he deftly gathers into one hand in this book, to finish with a hefty braided hawser.

The voyage from Massachusetts to London on which Dr. Daniel Waterhouse sets out at the beginning of Book One, Quicksilver, ends with his stepping onto the London dock at the beginning of System. He has a multitude of daunting assignments in hand: reconcile the feuding philosophers Newton and Liebnitz; create a coding machine to use the Philosophical Language as the “program” for a Logic Engine for Tsar Peter of Russia; organize investment for the Newcomen engine—and find a non-alchemical use for the Solomonic gold packed in the bilges of a certain cargo ship.

Waterhouse is not the only thread-holder heading for London, either. Peter Romanov, the Great Tsar, brings Baron von Liebnitz in his train. Eliza, Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm and Half-Cock Jack Shaftoe the Vagabond King also have gold-centered business in the city on the Thames. Eliza’s young ward, Caroline of Hanover, perhaps soon to be Princess of Wales, is determined to visit the city with Eliza’s young son. The ear-chewing Charles White is headed for a confrontation with Jack Shaftoe’s one-time galleymate Dappa. Marlborough, Bolingbroke, and Roger Comstock vie on the field of politics, as the central question of the day is yet to be answered: will Whig or Tory triumph after the death of Queen Anne? Will the next King of England be French Catholic James Edward or Protestant German George?

Of course, we know from history how this question was answered, but Stephenson’s tale rests on simpler matters. As the diverse elements of this world engine are assembled, the final output of the machine is not half so wonderful as its clinking, clanking roar. And as with Newcomen’s engine, Dr. Daniel Waterhouse is the midwife-cum-investment broker who will bring the thing to life.

The three volumes of the first book, Quicksilver, were illuminated, networked, shot through with references to mercury: quicksilver, the symbol of communication and science (or "Natural Philosophy," as it was then called). The mercuric systems in that novel presaged the coming system of the world. In the two volumes of the second book, The Confusion, gold became amalgamated with that mercuric essence, and the strangely heavy treasure from the Solomon Islands became the property first of Vagabond Jack, then of an island queen. In the same way, Eliza’s path mingled the quicksilver Apollonian air of the German court of Hanover with the Dionysian golden streams from the French court of the Sun King, Louis le Roi.

The final book must describe the sorting-out of all that is con-fused, and careful identification of the quicksilver essence that has been alloyed with gold in the currency of England. Currency. It can mean money or information, or—as in “state of the art”—technology. Like the legs of a tripod, these three currencies support the System of the World.

Thus, as the various actors gather in London, awaiting them all is Isaac Newton, now Master of the Mint. His system is designed to make the golden coin perfect, uniform, and desirable above silver, so that gold throughout the world flows in shining streams toward England, bringing him any gold that is denser than the “common” metal. Why would this brilliant man be so absorbed with coining the English currency? The simple answer is, he is not—it is the "Solomonic essence" in the heavy gold that he seeks. Newton desires two things above all: the dense metal that will let him perfect his alchemical research, and the recipes stored away upon Hooke’s death.

Stephenson picks a careful path between obsolescences in the tone and approach of these 18th-century denizens, and the flavor of their speech and style. We can see why Waterhouse the Puritan might become a Deist, why Newton the pure scientist might succumb to the allure of Alchemy, why Liebnitz the mathematical might, in the end, be a fervent Religionist. These three religious philosophies form one of many triples jousting for supremacy in this story. Another trio is economic: agriculture, the trade in money, and the need for Power, whether from Newcomen’s engine or the labor of slaves. A third (you knew there would be three!) entwines Tory with Whig at the top of society, with the "Mobile" (the mob) as the third side of the triangle.

In the end, the triumph of The System of the World is the way in which Stephenson has let us inhabit the brawling, rowdy, sensual world of London at the brink of a new age, when the system of the world would change forever, and our own world would be born.


Liner Notes:

  • All nine books of the Baroque Cycle, as well as a compilation titled The Baroque Cycle, are available for Kindle.
  • If you have read Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle books provide origin clues and histories for many of the characters in that book.