Tuesday, October 05, 2004

I finished reading The System of the World last weekend. It's one of those books that devours every moment of free time, to the exclusion of other pursuits. Stephenson Demands Your Undivided Attention. It brings his "Baroque Cycle" to a close, although I now wonder if he'd prefer that you call it his "Barock Cycle", in recognition of his determinedly idiosyncratic spelling habits, adopted especial for the production of his "three-thousand-page novel".

The last installment is much less foot-loose than the first two volumes, which were restless and sprawling, swirling through every back-water of Europe and racing across every exotic inch of the Orient and the Americas. The third volume is rooted, and grounded, and static, only leaving the bounds of southern England for a number of anomalous chapters in the courts and gardens of Hannover, which themselves become English in anticipation of the coming transfer of dynasty which is the pivot-point of the story.

the System of the World is a novel of synthesis, of the setting and testing of new balances; as such, it takes the racing liquid furores of Quicksilver and the Confusion, and pours them into the immobility of the mold. That mold is, in great degree, the physical environs of early Eighteenth Century London. Stephenson, whose place-descriptions in the two prior books were exotic and picturesque and wild, delivers in this final book a city described in painful and exacting detail, with prose that can be compared unfavorably with the text of auction-catalog listings. Every wall, every street, every fortification, construction, sewer, and privy is placed firmly in the city-grid, and then defined in relation to each prior element of the city-scape. Painstaking is the exact and precise word for this exacting and overly-precise manner in which Stephenson delivers this final installment.

Stephenson's conclusion is, in the end, the setting, London As It Will Be, the fulcrum of the world, Leibniz and Newton in frozen disputation, Western thought in perpetual, balanced, opposition to itself, a synthesis awaiting the melting fire of the new flame, which Stephenson presents as an Unfinished Project, the abandoned logic-mill which figures in Cryptonomicon, the novel to which the whole of the Baroque Cycle acts as a grandiose prequel.

I am some-what annoyed that Stephenson allowed his Immortals to run away with the plot to the degree which they did, in the end. It rather lowers the tone of the whole project from Science-Fiction to a sort of Fantasy, in which Alchemical Godlings create the illusion of Science as a facade behind which the occulted magic of the Philosophical Mercury flows.

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