The System of the World combines the final three “novels” — Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World — of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The novel’s title refers to the third volume of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.
Most people remember Isaac Newton today because of the Principia Mathematica. In it, Newton explains the universal law of gravitation and the laws of motion. However, by the end of Newton’s life, he devoted his time to theology, alchemy, and running the British Mint. Readers that missed Isaac Newton’s presence in The Confusion will be happy to see him back, and more dramatically back than ever. He has transformed from an odd but brilliant scientist into one part politician and one part mystic (though he may be the most logical mystic I’ve read).
However, Newton finally has a rival that seems capable of beating him: Jack Shaftoe, Europe’s greatest rogue, a world traveler, and the “King of the Vagabonds.” Louis XIV has set Jack loose in England. Jack’s job is to discredit England’s currency, but Jack has a second role. The third and final entry in a trilogy, or the final omnibus edition in a “cycle,” is expected to raise the narrative tension of a story to a climactic level unparalleled in the series. Here, Jack may not be a deus ex machina, but he does serve as Stephenson’s “Hollywood blockbuster in the machine.” His role allows for one-liners, the use of cellos in combat, and explosions.
Newton’s other great rival in the series, Gottfried Leibniz, also travels to London in an attempt to reconcile their differences over calculus. Daniel Waterhouse, who has evaded Blackbeard to return to England from America, has also returned to help negotiate their peace. The System of the World may have the most mundane setting in the cycle — “just” London. Though Stephenson may not fetishize London as memorably as, say, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in his Sherlock Holmes novels, it is difficult to escape the feeling that it would be cooler to live in Stephenson’s London than Doyle’s. Here, London is a city of dysfunctional prisons, crooked politicians, and often drunk leaders. It’s hard to believe that such a place could become so Victorian.
Daniel has changed a great deal since we first met him in Quicksilver. As a young member of the Royal Society, Daniel had struggled to keep up with Newton and Robert Hooke. Stephenson used Daniel’s relative ignorance to introduce the modern audience to the Scientific Revolution. Here, Daniel’s role is reversed. He not only leads, but even launches schemes. He is surprisingly resourceful, too; Daniel leads many of his schemes from Newgate Prison. Daniel’s reversal is also important because his actions introduce elements of the modern world, such as computing and skepticism, to Newton and Leibniz. They are shocked by Daniel’s transformation, and, by extension, the future that their scientific and mathematical advances have created.
Eliza returns in the final volume as well. She has devoted herself to eliminating slavery, and she invests her money in publishing slave narratives. Each narrative seems to convince someone, but no one narrative seems to convert everyone. She and Stephenson look for a narrative that could convince everyone that slavery is an abomination. We are all too aware that their attempt will not work immediately, but it does lead to a duel with cannons.
The System of the World has all of the best ingredients of The Baroque Cycle, but my favorite entry remains The Confusion. I found the infodumps about the intricacies of the mint less interesting than those in previous entries. The plot seemed more compared to previous entries as well. Still, there are many fine moments, and The System of the World is hardly a let down. Stephenson does his best to provide a spectacular finish to this monumental cycle. If he just misses the mark, the series nevertheless remains excellent.