The System of the World
Neal Stephenson
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Buy *The System of the World: Volume Three of the Baroque Cycle* online The System of the World: Volume Three of the Baroque Cycle
Neal Stephenson
William Morrow
892 pages
October 2004
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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We’ve been around the world with Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds, and his Solomonic-gold pirating crew. We’ve sat on the edge of our seats while Daniel Waterhouse, friend of Isaac Newton and Godfreid Libniz, made his way back to London from pirate-infested Boston Bay. Dark conspiracies have unfolded before our scarce-believing eyes. Oh! The early seventeenth century never looked like so much fun!

Neal Stephenson is a brainiac monster, and it is futile to resist the tentacles of his imagination. Although some are better than others, he’s never written a dull book. Few, however, have written a more exciting piece of historical fiction. At roughly 2,500 pages, and spanning three fat volumes, few have written longer ones, but the pages flow like a fast moving river along the entire course of The Baroque Cycle. It is intimidating to speculate about the IQ of a writer who can hold so much historical detail in mind, but that figure must been in the low zillions. For not only is there a tremendous amount of detail, but Stephenson messes with history as well, rerouting the river for the sake of a wondrous tale.

Indeed, the history of the novel is so tweaked and rerouted that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction; indeed, there is an entire website devoted to precisely the endeavor of doing so ( Readers (and the occasional reviewer) will be forgiven for confusing fact with fiction, as Stephenson’s characters are so finely drawn they leap from the page and grasp the reader in a headlock. As Stephenson himself has pointed out, “novel” is a synonym for “romance,” a story, in his view, entirely premised on hypothesis. So although a work of historical fiction, it is even more a work of speculative fiction - that is, fiction which poses the question “What if...?” and then takes various possible answers to that question for a Nantucket sleigh ride. (Nantucket sleigh ride? Imagine, if you will, you have harpooned a whale. Furthermore, that the whale doesn’t care to have a harpoon imposed upon its blubber. The whale then takes you for a very wild ride, one beyond the ken of even Mr. Toad.)

Since I’ve summarized the plot of The Baroque Cycle elsewhere on (with the above inserted disclaimer about the fictionality of certain beloved characters... sigh...), the question here must become: Is, then, The Cycle historical fiction, science fiction—or what? The answer must be: it is all that and more. It is the arbiters of the marketing departments of the octopussies of the mega-publishing conglomerates who decide where to slot a book into the stream of consumerism. But those jokers have less imagination than a snail squashed under the foot of a jack-booted running dog of capitalism. (And believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been snarled at by a jack-booted running dog; in the words of Dr. Emilio Lizardo, “It makes the ganglia twitch.”)

Trust me on this one: get thyself to a beach and start turning pages. You won’t regret it.

© 2004 by Brian Charles Clark for Curled Up With a Good Book

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