Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle began with "Quicksilver," in which an aging Daniel Waterhouse, president of the Massachusetts Bay College of the Technological Arts, is made an offer by Princess Caroline of Ansbach, the future Queen of England. He is to return to England to referee an angry philosophical disagreement between his old friends and fellow natural philosophers Freidrich Leibnitz and Isaac Newton.
According to Caroline, a kingdom cannot be well run if its greatest minds are not in accord. If Waterhouse will undertake this commission, Caroline promises him a pension that should assure his young son a secure future. Things are not going particularly well at Mass Tech (the log cabin in which it is housed is rather dark and leaks) so the nebbish Waterhouse agrees, boards a boat for England, and is almost kidnapped by Blackbeard the pirate, obviously working under a commission of his own from Caroline's enemies.
Stephenson then takes us on a head-spinning 2,000-page, two-book flashback of the life and times of Waterhouse's friends and family. In "The System of the World," we finally learn how Waterhouse's trip turned out -- sort of.
For much is left to the reader's imagination in the last massive volume of this massive series. Does Peter the Great discover that the solid gold computer punch cards Waterhouse and a group of female convicts have sold to him are made of King Solomon's gold? Does Newton realize that this gold, for which he has searched long and hard, is used to save his life? Do readers care that Newton's and Leibnitz's opposing religious beliefs make it impossible for them to agree on mathematics?
"The System of the World" is actually much better written and more enlightening and entertaining than its inconclusive conclusion. Neal Stephenson has a gift for turning a novel of ideas into a ripping good yarn. The meticulously researched city of London wraps the reader like a smelly blanket, full of glitter, candlelight and dirt. His dead eye for characterization and a sense of linguistic fun move the tale along briskly. The inevitable leaden expository interludes for which Stephenson has become known do nothing to diminish these charms.
While the action of "Quicksilver" and "Confusion" roved all over the planet and took in the entire 17th century, "System" covers a relatively small geographic area and a compact 12 months. In that time, without the help of e-mail or the internal combustion engine, Waterhouse becomes a main actor in the political intrigues that bring the Hanovarians to the throne of England. He helps sell shares in the development of the first steam engine, travels to Hanover to save the life of the future Queen Caroline, builds the elements of the first working computer, which he bases on Leibnitz's design and sells to the czar.
Pretty lively for a 68-year-old academic. His chief nemesis in these doings is half-cocked Jack Shaftoe and his loyal sons. Jack has been many things through the trilogy, from slave to temporary king of an Indian island. Now he is "Jack the Coiner." King Louis XIV has blackmailed him into destroying the British monetary system by flooding the market with counterfeit cash. Jack is sick of being manipulated by the great powers of Europe. Instead he develops a scheme of his own that leads him to the foot of the gallows.
Because this is Neal Stephenson, there are also fascinating subplots that don't go much of anywhere and characters who appear and disappear with little explanation. Strange as it sounds, this lends a quirky charm to the story, and I didn't mind much.
The one, oversimplified "big idea" of the Baroque Cycle has been that the growth of rational thought and a robust economic system have done more for mankind than all of the wars, politics, and religions that ever were. In spite of history's focus on the latter, it is the former than really advances civilization. That and a little Solomonic gold to resurrect elderly geniuses from time to time!
The System of the World
By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 892 pages, $27.95
Pat York is a novelist in Western New York.