Reviews of System of the World, the (2004)
Review by polarisdib (2009-04-26)
Oh holy hell thank GOD this is over!
I'm a particularly egotistical reader, in that when I hear about challenging books I want to take the challenge. Now, not all challenging books are necessarily [i]long[/i], per se (for instance, [i]Naked Lunch[/i] is rather short considering, and yet is one of the most challenging books I've ever read), and not all long books are challenging. But the Baroque Cycle will try your patience. Sure, the individual bits are all worthy nightly reading--Natural Science, Piracy on the High Seas, London Politics, Geographical Discourses, Beautiful Harem Slave turned Duchess, and the Development of Commerce vs. the Question of Who Developed the Calculus, to name a few. But at 2600+ pages at length, I can't for the life of me imagine the person who could sit through the whole thing and come out of it with a very clear idea of everything that happened. Even more crazy is imagining Stephenson actually writing this monster. Many coffee beans must have died to bring you this information.
For what it's worth, what really kept me entertained throughout were the frequent asides to different linguistic developments, the occasional duel and battle, and those times when Stephenson delves enough into the actual history of science, politics, religion, commerce, and philosophy to provide good platforms for doing research and learning a lot more about the era. But I can say one thing for sure as of the finishing of this book: I don't care in the slightest what 18th century London looks like. I can say this with such clarity towards my own opinion on the matter now because I had to read what probably amounted to 300+ pages of description of the damn place. I'm glad Stephenson finally found use for his Geography Degree, but I can't for the life of me figure out what the purpose of all of it was. Surely the world he creates is very real, but even those people who live in it shouldn't reflect on the entire history of a building while trying to scale its walls to get into someone's room to get something important. This is the only place where I take real issue with the storytelling--that Stephenson's awareness of the historical setting is so strong that reading this book is more like reading a treatise to a forgotten map than it is enjoying the characters, who are individually spectacularly conceived and interesting people.
I'm probably going to read this thing again, one of these days. For the most part I would like to in order to get a better idea of the overall structure of the story, as each individual book in this cycle has its separate structure. I might just do so after learning a bit about the era myself, even though I'm honestly not that interested in much pre-Industrial Revolution history (though one of the themes here is the lead-up to the Industrial Revolution). But it will be a very, very long time before I take aside the prequisite few months it takes to read this damn thing, as I'm just absolutely exhausted.
"System of the World" is the last part of Neal Stephenson epique, "The Baroque Cycle" which is much more a 2700 page novel than a series. The third part is rather anticlimatic compared to the realy epic second one. The great expectations that were raised somehow flow back into our real world, since the setting is in fact not so different from our own world, and is in some sense a prequel to "Cryptonomicon," where we'll meet the descendents of many of he characters of "The Baroque Cycle" (Waterhouse, Shaftoe, Goto, three centuries later, not to mention Enoch Root).
But still it is a fantastic read. There are a lot of surprises, and though somehow anticlimatic, as I said above, the end is not as disappointing as that of some other books by the same author, which are also *really* fantastic reads as long as they go but seem to stop suddenly without really an end at all (Snow Crash, Diamond Age).