Six months after The Confusion, Neal Stephenson’s inexhaustible cannon has fired the third and final brick-like volume of his Baroque Cycle, a science-fiction epic whose science happens to be the cutting edge of technology between 1655 and 1714: the calculus, longitude, financial markets, phosphorus, and clockwork. As The System of the World opens, a criminal mastermind is combining the last two of these into “Infernal Devices” (time bombs), which set the plot in motion. It’s early 1714, almost 12 years after the end of The Confusion; the story actually picks up shortly after the opening third of last year’s Quicksilver, which is to say that diligent readers have sat through 1,400 pages’ worth of hugely entertaining flashbacks.
“Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds, L’Emmerdeur (“he who fucks shit up,” roughly), whose Arabian sword flashed through the first two volumes, is this time cast more or less as the villain: Jack the Coiner, King Louis XIV’s pawn and the counterfeiting nemesis of England’s Master of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton. It’s a fabulous setup, not least because Stephenson’s come up with an ingenious solution to the mystery of why a brilliant scientist would have spent the last three decades of his life minting change. Alchemy-obsessed Newton, it turns out, is after the Philosophick Mercury hidden in King Solomon’s gold, which Shaftoe has stolen and is turning into counterfeit coins.
But as enormous frigates will, System drifts off course and into tedious court intrigues—it’s hard to work up much suspense about who will succeed Queen Anne, given the existence of history books. Jack doesn’t actually turn up for well over 200 pages, and scarcely appears thereafter until the climax; his estranged true love, Eliza, Duchess of Archon-Qwghlm (don’t ask), the proto-cryptographer who spent Quicksilver and The Confusion crafting ingenious schemes and coded messages, doesn’t have much to do either. Instead, the heavy lifting is turned over to 68-year-old Daniel Waterhouse, easily the series’ blandest major character, a “natural philosopher” whose role in the Baroque Cycle has hitherto been little more than a sounding board for Newton.
System isn’t lacking in potboiling kicks: There are poisoned daggers, secret societies, a daring and complicated jailbreak, a handful of alarming identity revelations, and a Trial of the Pyx—a numismatic intrigue that actually happened (under slightly different circumstances) a few years before its appearance here. And there are moments where this volume revs up to the outlandish high spirits and winking anachronisms of the first two, notably a swordfight in the Italian Opera House which ends with one combatant impaled on a cello’s end pin, partly thanks to the intervention of George Frideric Handel. But Stephenson’s always had trouble writing dramatically satisfying endings, and he palpably loses steam as he approaches the denouement. As the Baroque Cycle began at the gallows, it concludes there, and Stephenson goes through some improbable contortions to wrest a happy ending from Jack Ketch’s clutches.
The earlier Baroque books are frantically dense with incident—enormous gobbets of plot are dispatched with a few pages of exposition, to give the sense that there wasn’t room to cram in all those adventures. The System, though, decompresses its narrative, explicating every bit of prison architecture, royal protocol, and half-baked 18th-century philosophy. Regrettably, Stephenson keeps remembering that what he’s writing here isn’t The Count of Monte Cristo, it’s a Novel of Ideas. In practice, this means that the plot stops dead for an extended argument between Newton and his mathematical rival Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over free will, and that there’s liberally scattered pontification about how the age in which The System of the World is set is paving the way for its future. (Or, at least, for Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, whose props the present volume spends a good many pages moving into position.) It’s a grand, if slow, entertainment most of the way, but when Stephenson tries to freight it with a still grander significance, it crumples like a periwig beneath a carriage wheel.