Book Review: “The System of the World” by Neal Stephenson

The System of the World is the final volume Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The other two books in the trilogy are 2003’s Quicksilver and 2005’s The Confusion. “The System of the World” brings the mammoth and hard to define epic to a well done conclusion.

Part historical novel and alternative history science fiction book with a dash of conspiracy fiction, “The System of the World” tell the story of the world on the brink of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse, a philosopher of little note and friend to much greater minds.

Returning to an England he left twenty years before from the American colonies, Waterhouse is determined to heal the rift between the two great geniuses of the time: the Englishman Sir Isaac Newton and the German Count Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over which one of them actually invented calculus. Upon arriving in the mother country Waterhouse is nearly killed by a bomb; an “infernal device.”

Seems someone, or some group of people, is going about trying to kill certain philosophers and scientists. In an England that has been at constant war for nearly twenty years and in a world with spies and pirates, polymaths and politicians, geniuses and thieves Waterhouse and Newton join forces to unravel the plot and also figure out the mystery behind the myth of King Solomon’s gold at the same time. Meanwhile Queen Anne is sick and dying; Waterhouse and Newton also soon find themselves involved in the politics of the succession to the throne as Whigs and Tories struggle to control the control the potential successors to the throne of England. A civil war may very well be in the offing.

For a set of books that runs to some nearly 3000 pages in total, Stephenson has managed to keep the books focused and surprisingly uncluttered, unlike other ambitious books series such as George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Fire and Ice” which seem to suffer from literary bloat of the worst kind.

Stephenson’s narration is articulate and powerful. His characters are very true to life (it is easy for the reader to see that the real Newton most likely did talk in lectures). The plot is finely built and very logical, no plot holes in this book. While Stephenson is not above a few lectures and digressions, his writing is just so smart that the reader will be as entertained by those as they are by the derring-do and swashbuckling.

 

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