[The System of the World by Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2004, ISBN: 0-06052-387-5]
Tertium Non Data, or “the third is not given,” is an alchemical saying about the process by which two elements are mystically combined to form a third distinct element (presumably of a more precious nature). It is exactly this sort of magic that Neal Stephenson hoped to enact in The System of The World, blending two distinct and beautiful novels into a climactic third. If we were to liken the books of the Baroque Cycle to machines, the first two novels would both be rendered as cleverly designed clocks, filled with a veritable galaxy of seamlessly intermeshing gears, with the second book being even more complicated than the first. With this set-up, one holds high hopes that the final novel, The System of The World, will both match Quicksilver and The Confusion in complexity, while at the same time providing an elegant finish. We ask for no less than the iMac G5 of books. And at the start of the book, it seems as though our hopes we will be met. The plot is intricate, almost all of the (surviving) characters are pulled together in the same locality (London), and it seems as though Neal Stephenson will deliver the virtuoso finale the Baroque Cycle deserves. Quickly, however, we realize that what we have been handed is not the perfectly designed timepiece it appears, but instead a sort of Rube Goldbergian cuckoo clock. Intricate, yes, and amusing at times, yet not particularly believable, and so much less impressive than either Quicksilver or The Confusion. By the end of the novel, it seems as though even Stephenson himself recognizes this flaw, as one of his characters offers this summation of the events of the novel:
This journey began with a wizard walking into his door. Now it ends with a new kind of wizard standing on an Engine. . . . Below is a raging fire, and within is steam at a pressure that would below Daniel to Kingdom Come (just like Drake) if a rivet were to give way. But that does not come to pass. The steam is piped off to raise water, and the wasted heat of the fire affords a measure of comfort to the miners, and for the time being it all works as it is supposed to. At some point the whole System will fail, because of the flaws that have been wrought into it in spite of the best efforts of Caroline and Daniel. Perhaps new sorts of Wizards will be required then. But—and perhaps this is only because of his age, and that there’s a longboat waiting to take him away—he has to admit that having some kind of a system, even a flawed and doomed one, is better than to live forever in the poisonous storm-tide of quicksilver that gave birth to all of this.
Yes, this is better than having no end to the series at all, but “flawed and doomed” seem an only slightly too harsh summation of The System of The World.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what is responsible for this state of affairs. Doubtless, it is the difficult task of this book that is partly to blame. Stephenson has to wrap up a grand love affair spanning decades (Jack and Eliza), a war between two countries that has gone on even longer (France and England), a civil war within one of those countries (Whigs vs. Tories), the priority debate over the invention of calculus (Leibniz vs. Newton), and the battle for the mindset of the coming age (Alchemy vs. Science). Yet for many of these debates, he elides either real conflict, or real resolution. Much is made of Eliza’s promise from Quicksilver to allow Jack to neither see her face nor hear her voice again for as long as he lives, and yet when that vow is broken, nothing is made of the moment. In fact, it isn’t even described in the book. When Leibniz and Newtown finally sit down for their détente, ostensibly the point of the series, the moment is, to be blunt, boring. Here Stephenson is constrained by history (Newton and Leibniz never managed to see eye-to-eye on this debate), and yet he has managed to turn this constraint to his advantage over and over again throughout the rest of the series, and so this anti-climax is severely disappointing. As for the big question of which will win out, Alchemy or Science, some would say the answer is easy, and that (as in all cases) the winners have written the histories we read. Hence, we read the history of science, in which Alchemy is the bête noire, the black beast of ignorance. Stephenson thankfully continues to sidestep this easy fallacy, and he takes pains to point out the many ways in which the pursuit of Alchemy (embodied here in Newton) helped to make science possible. However, this means he is not above using the more mystical claims of Alchemy in his novels, in the character of Enoch Root. As a mysterious force who appears and disappears at will, Root is an interesting minor plot device, allowing a place for magic in the world of The Baroque Series, without demanding we believe in its existence. By the end of The System of The World, however, Root has helped to raise not one, but two main characters from the dead, call into question the entire notion of Science as we know it, and provide an easy deus ex machina that ends, but does not resolve, some of the conflicts of the novel.
This is characteristic of one of the main flaws of The System of The World. With a few notable exceptions (the storming of The Mint being the most spectacular one), the intricate planning that made each of this book’s predecessors so notable is either poorly executed or lacking entirely throughout this third book. In an effort to garner suspense, we are frequently left in the dark as to the nature of the scheme being enacted. When the scheme concludes, readers are left scratching their heads, and wondering how exactly it all worked out.
One of the most pleasing aspects of Stephenson’s writing is that he opens up the clockworks to us, shows us the beauty of the interior complexity, and does not treat us like simpletons who can only understand the outward face. Not only does this show respect for the reader, it makes a work more interesting by forbidding lazy writing. As we follow each step of the way, we readers are bound to notice any impossibilities or cheats the writer might employ, making it impossible for the writer to do so. It is as though novels were mathematical problems, and we readers were teachers demanding that our students show their work, not just give a simple answer. Stephenson is not unconscious of the pleasure inherent in going “behind the scenes” as it were. At one point, Daniel Waterhouse and a minor character, Solomon Kohan, discuss this pleasure:
[Waterhouse] “Which means you have ways of knowing things that we erudite fellows don’t. We have to be satisfied with practicing our religion.”
[Kohan]“You make it sound unsatisfactory. Change your mind about this. It is better to know why you know things than simply to have things revealed to you.”
It is his avowal of the satisfaction inherent in this more complicated way of knowing that makes Stephenson’s withholding it from us all the more painful.
In the end, The System of The World is not a wholly dismal read. In fact, most of the way through it is fairly enjoyable. However, riding on the coattails of two of Stephenson’s best novels, it is a step backwards for him as a writer. Eliza, especially, deserves better treatment than she receives throughout the book. It is in her mind, perhaps the most interesting to inhabit the first two books, that we spend the least amount of time in the third. She becomes an almost minor character, whose plots and schemes we see the ends of, but not the machinations behind. Though not quite falling to the level of the other female characters in the book (the “perfect princess” Caroline, or the buxom Catherine Barton, who exists as a walking titty joke), Eliza is nowhere near her former glory.
The final pages of the novel are among the worst, with each character being visited in a mildly amusing situation (even those scenes that are truly awful, such as the life of indentured servants in the American colonies, are treated with a bland form of humor) that resembles nothing so much as a sitcom ending. Stephenson would do better to take up a more realistic ending, painful though it may be, and show us moments from the future lives of the surviving characters that make them all, not just one or two of them, seem three-dimensional. It is for realism, not faerie tale endings, that we turn to writers like Neal Stephenson, though in this case, we have received a bit of both.
For more information on the Leibniz/Newton priority dispute, readers can look to Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamer (which also explores 5 other great rivalries in the history of science), or try Philosophers at War for a more in-depth study of Newton and Leibniz.