The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

I never thought he’d pull it off, but in The System of the World, Neal Stephenson actually manages to craft a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion to the largest, most rambling work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Daniel Waterhouse had been summoned back to England in the first book by Princess Caroline, who we first meet when she’s a penniless refugee, and is helped out by Eliza. By this time, she’s about to become the Princess of Wales and the future queen of of the United Kingdom. This book tells the story of what Daniel gets up to upon his return.

Stephenson continues to be fascinated by economics, as much of this tale is the battle of wits between Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint, and Jack Shaftoe, the most notorious forger in the kingdom. But thrust into that is also the Solomonic gold – an alchemical mystery that Newton is desperate to get his hands on. And this tension between modernity, in the shape of the new economics and technologies that are starting to come into the realm, and the ancient ideas will define the new system of the world that is being forged.

As The Confusion was Jack and Eliza’s book, so this is Daniel’s. The former do appear, but we mostly follow Daniel as he, much to his own bewilderment, grows to become a respected and powerful man, while trying to find out who’s trying to kill natural philosophers with time bombs and also to continue Leibniz and Wilkins’ work on a thinking engine.

To be honest, even after three very big books (the first of which really feels like a [very] extended prologue to the other two, since really not much happened but you needed to read it to be able to understand and enjoy the other two) I’m not sure how well I can describe, or, indeed, understand the themes of the book. Characters are a bit easier. I found Daniel and Jack very annoying in the first book, for different reasons. Over the next two, I’ve come to like and root for both of them, and Jack’s audacious heist against the Tower of London had some great moments in it. He’s grown and matured. The “imp of the perverse” that dogged him so much in the first book has been tamed, to some degree, by age and wisdom. Daniel mostly just wants to be left alone to get on with his research, but he keeps getting caught up in the plans of the great and powerful.

Eliza, by this stage, is widow, a duchess twice over and up to her elbows in matters of finance. She steps in to help finance some of the work that Daniel is involved with, and, indirectly this leads her to cross paths with Jack again, which leads to one of the more surreal epilogues. And yes, of course you didn’t think you were going to get just one epilogue, did you? There are, in fact, five of them, tying up various loose ends.

While pretty readable, the book isn’t free of bloat. While exciting in bits, for example, the heist went on too long and was a bit too complex for my taste. Stephenson certainly doesn’t skimp on his world-building (although I did mostly skim the descriptions of London).

This book finally has something in it to earn the label of speculative fiction that Stephenson claims for the trilogy. To say what would be a spoiler, but it’s a minor element and for the most part the book can be read as pure historical fiction..

So a challenging series, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099463368
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2005

The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, #2)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

It feels like Quicksilver, the first book in this series, was just an (extended!) prologue, establishing the setting and characters, as we finally start getting some plot in this one. This one interleaves the stories of Jack Shaftoe, last seen being taken as a slave on the high seas, and Eliza, the woman he rescued, ironically enough, from slavery. After Jack somehow gets better from syphilis, he joins with a diverse group of fellow slaves, escapes, steals a vast horde of treasure and goes on the lam. Eliza, meanwhile, loses and regains her own fortune, becomes a duchess twice over, has a child kidnapped, gets her revenge, takes several lovers, as well as helping free a young woman from slavery (and the scene with Bob and Abigail is among my highlights of the book).

We occasionally drop in on Daniel Waterhouse and other characters from the first book, but not very often or for very long. This is very much Jack and Eliza’s book. I’ve always liked Eliza, right from the moment we met her in the last volume, and nothing here changes that. She continues to show the strength of character and flexibility of mind that’s a joy to read. I was never hugely fond of Jack, meanwhile, in the last book, but he’s grown on me here. He still makes awful decisions, but he’s charming and genuinely wants to do the right thing, when he can.

Stephenson still piles in the words. He gleefully discusses, in great detail, various complex financial machinations and how they can be used for mischief, most of which I still don’t understand, and don’t think it’s worth the hours of my life to go back and reread in greater detail. But for all that, it’s remarkably readable. Although part of me wonders how much that’s through being inured to it by reading Quicksilver first.

I definitely want to know where the story is going next, but I think I’ll take a break and read something a bit lighter (and shorter) before tackling the conclusion to the series. I still don’t think it’s science fiction though.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410690
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd
Year of publication: 2005

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I was wondering as I was reading this, how I was going to review it. Even as I’m typing this, I have no idea. Quicksilver is a meandering labyrinth of a novel, covering the early years of the Royal Society, the aftermath of the English civil war and turmoil in Europe.

It took me a long time to get into it. I really only persevered because I had read and enjoyed Cryponomicon (albeit many years ago) and wanted to give Stephenson the benefit of the doubt. It was really only after the end of the first “book” when Eliza turned up, that I finally sat up and found a character that I cared about, which is nearly four hundred pages in!

The first book covers the early years of the Royal Society, with our (fictional) protagonist Daniel Waterhouse hanging around such luminaries as Newton (with whom he shares an apartment), Hooke, Wilkins, Leibniz and Oldenburg. We see the Society grow along with Daniel, but we also have a separate timeline that sees an older Daniel being persuaded back to England from the New World (where he appears to be working on something like a difference engine, or possibly analytical engine). We see Daniel get on the boat and have a few adventures, but never see the end of that voyage (presumably being held back for later volumes?).

Book two follows the Vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, the young woman he rescues from Turkish slavery (who’s from an imaginary set of islands near Scotland). Jack isn’t very interesting to me, but Eliza is. She soon discovers the concept of money markets and investment, and establishes herself, first in Amsterdam, then in France as what we could call an investment banker. Oh, and she’s spying for William of Orange.

There’s a lot here about the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Daniel is a puritan and after admitting to himself that he’s never going to shine in the Royal Society alongside Newton, Hooke et al, he dives into court politics and ousting the Catholic Stuarts. William of Orange is a major player, as is Louis XIV, and their manoeuvring decimates Europe. As a non-believer and someone not brought up in the Christian tradition, I find all the energy spent over that split to be wasteful and tedious. The intrigue can be interesting in its own right (and Stephenson is good at writing that intrigue), but knowing its driving force just makes me sigh.

Stephenson calls the Baroque Cycle (of which this is the first volume) science fiction, but if it is, it’s incredibly subtle. Yes, the book has a lot of (proto-) science, maybe a prototype computing engine of some kind, and (if you read other, related works) possibly an immortal, but just reading this on its own, it’s pretty solid historical fiction.

For most of the way through, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pick up the sequels, but, gods help me, I got sucked in towards the end, and it’s pretty likely now that I will read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410683
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 2014

Some Remarks

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

Neal Stephenson is mostly known for writing big books, so the idea of a set of essays (with a couple of short stories thrown in for good measure) was attractive. To be honest, it’s a mixed bag. I really found myself floundering in Metaphysics in the Royal Society which (I think!) was about Newton and Leibniz and their differing philosophies.

On the other hand, the longest piece in the book, the Wired article Mother Earth, Mother Board is excellent, compelling and well worth the read. That is about the laying of what was, at the time, the longest undersea cable in the world, a project called Fibreoptic Link Around the Globe (FLAG), as well as delving into the history of undersea cables in general (something which it turns out that Glasgow’s very own Lord Kelvin had a fairly major role in).

A couple of the other pieces rail against a perceived stalling of progress and the corporate timidity that now means that we no longer take the sort of risks needed to, as Stephenson says, delve into the valley past our local maxima to climb new heights. Personally, this is something I wholly agree with him about.

And I certainly have to thank his article Innovation Starvation for bringing Project Hieroglyph to my attention. This is his attempt to do something positive about this stagnation, by helping to curate the sort of positive, forward-looking science fiction that inspires and encourages scientists and engineers to dare to imagine a better future for all of us (the first anthology from this project is Hieroglyph Stories and Visions for a Better Future).

Book details

ISBN: 9781848878549
Publisher: Atlantic
Year of publication: 1994


By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this political thriller, set just before the onset of the first Gulf War. It draws two very different threads, eventually weaving them into a single whole, although I’m not entirely sure how successfully. The first thread involves deputy sheriff Clyde Banks, his campaign to be elected sheriff and the discovery of a dead foreign student at the bottom of a local lake. The second involves Betsy Vandeventer, a lowish ranking CIA agent, who writes a report that ruffles some feathers and makes enemies in all the wrong places.

Of the two strands, I much preferred Clyde’s story. His small town charm and solid mind, behind a dumb fa├žade make him a pleasure to read. And the fact that he spends so much time carrying his infant daughter around in his car (whether on- or off-duty) just adds to the charm.

The CIA politicking in Washington left me a bit cold. I still don’t know if I entirely understand it, especially the set-up with Betsy’s social circle. I appreciate that it could have been deliberately worked to make the small town sheriff come out better than the conniving federal agents (whether they be FBI, CIA or any other TLA) and, if so, it worked on me.

I don’t usually read present-day fiction, so it was somewhat odd seeing real people popping up in the book; both Tariq Aziz (the Iraqi foreign minister) and President George (H. W.) Bush turn up, in extended cameos. The closest thing that the book has to a villain is James Millikan. A top diplomat, who just wants things to stay under his control so that he can get on with having lunch in expensive restaurants with his friends (such as the aforementioned Mr Aziz). When Betsy’s report suggests that the Iraqis may be up to something funny, Millikan immediately stomps on it, and ‘cobwebs’ the whole thing, which basically seems to involve wrapping everybody remotely involved in so many layers of bureaucracy that nothing could possibly get done.

And that’s depressingly plausible. Despite the copious humour running through the book, the idea that very clever people are doing their best to stop others doing what’s in the best interest of the country strikes me as wholly believable and wholly depressing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099478850
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1996

Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

Hiro Protagonist, last of the freelance hackers and self-styled greatest sword fighter in the world, helped to create the Metaverse, a virtual reality that is ubiquitous in Stephenson’s world, and now he’s facing something that’s never been seen in the Metaverse before: a virtual drug that scrambles the brains of the user back in Reality. He teams up with teenage Kourier Y.T. and along the way discovers a conspiracy that goes back to ancient times.

This was an odd book. I’m still not entirely sure if I liked it or not. It had a fabulous opening chapter with Hiro getting ‘sacked’ from his pizza delivery job but overall it felt very disjointed. The characters were interesting and often fun, but exposition was delivered with a trowel, often in seemingly inappropriate points. Also, the ultra-capitalistic world that Hiro and Y.T. live in bugged me, although I’m not sure why; it was well-realised and sort-of believable but it still oddly stopped me from suspending my disbelief in a way that the opposite, such as Iain Banks’ Culture, wouldn’t.

I think this probably needs to be re-read to get the most out of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553380958
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year of publication: 1992


By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

This is a geek’s book. Obviously written by a geek for geeks, it took me a while to decide whether I liked it or not. It’s a very rambling book and in the end, I decided that it was worth it for the journey, not the destination. Split into two time periods, it follows the work of cryptographers during WW2 and then a bunch of hackers trying to set up a data haven in south east Asia in the present day.

The book goes so far as to include snippets of Perl code, lots of equations and graphs (including some devoted to describing the relationship between the amount of work that one of the protagonists can do related to the last time he had an orgasm) and an appendix written by Bruce Schneier containing a real cryptographic algorithm that is used in the book. Oh, and there’s liberal sprinklings and explanations of Unix commands used by some of the present day geeks (who use a Unix variant called “Finux”, guess what that’s a reference to). Think of it as the antidote to that silly Dan Brown book allegedly about cryptography.

As I say, the book rambled an awful lot, and by the time it got to its destination I had pretty much forgotten why I was going there. It was enough to just enjoy the scenery en route.

Book details

ISBN: 9780434008834
Publisher: William Heinemann
Year of publication: 1999

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