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A whopping tale of science friction

September 26, 2004|John Brewer | John Brewer is the Eli and Edye Broad professor of humanities and social science at Caltech and the author, most recently, of "A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century."

The System of the World

The Baroque Cycle, Volume 3

Neal Stephenson

William Morrow: 944 pp., $27.95

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The Confusion

The Baroque Cycle, Volume 2

Neal Stephenson

William Morrow: 816 pp., $27.95

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Quicksilver

The Baroque Cycle, Volume 1

Neal Stephenson

William Morrow: 944 pp., $27.95

*

"The System of the World" is the third and final volume of Neal Stephenson's monstrous, epic fiction, "The Baroque Cycle." Set in the 17th and 18th centuries, this is a blockbuster of a book: At 944 pages, my copy weighs in at 2 pounds, 12 ounces. Alternating picaresque action sequences of violence, squalor and brutality with long passages of philosophical and scientific exposition, it switches its pace from the fast-forward furiousness of an MTV video to the glacial slowness of the academic expositor. To judge by the number of doorstopper novels published recently, the book business seems to think readers are eager for mammoth fiction, even as pundits complain about our time-hungry lives and ever-diminishing attention spans. But there is more than one way to digest "The System of the World." If you don't want to consume the whole thing, your hunger can be sated by one of its dramatic scenes, extended factoids or philosophical disquisitions. Stephenson offers both heavy fare and fast food.

Stephenson intends his novel as a historical swashbuckler, potboiler epic in the tradition of Alexander Dumas and Charles Dickens, and as a piece of science fiction -- what the author defines as "fiction that's not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it." Stephenson's historical, topographical and technical knowledge of the Baroque age and of London is truly remarkable. If you want to know the layout of Newgate Gaol and the Fleet prison, the nature of coining and counterfeiting, the beauties of the gardens at Herrenhausen, the operations of the Royal Mint or the layout of every last nook and cranny of London, then Stephenson's your man.

The novel's plot isn't easy to summarize, but its chief narrative thread is the dramatic struggle in the final years of Queen Anne's reign, which ended in 1714, between the Whigs, who want to secure the Protestant house of Hanover on the throne, and the Tory/Jacobites, who want to ensure the succession of the house of Stuart and the Old Pretender. The focus of that struggle is not parliamentary intrigue or political conflict but the manipulation of the coinage and the financial system on which it depended. The Tories plot to show that the coinage has been tampered with and therefore discredit the incoming dynasty; the Whigs seek to thwart them. Here, the key figure is Sir Isaac Newton, or "Ike" as Stephenson likes to call him. Newton was not just Britain's foremost natural philosopher but an ardent Whig and the Master of the Royal Mint, every bit as concerned with ensuring the circulation of a stable currency as he is with explaining the laws governing the motion of objects.

The twist in Stephenson's tale and the link between this story of money and power and the worlds of philosophy and science is Newton's obsession with gold. It turns out that Ike is an alchemist intent on finding Solomonic gold, gold "made through an alchemical process, bearing traces of the Philosophick Mercury." He takes the post of Master of the Mint because he believes it will help him find the Solomonic gold that he is convinced has survived through the ages.

The story of Newton's quest is populated by a cast of characters that includes many historical figures: In addition to "Ike," there is Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Peter the Great, a succession of British royals, politicians and military leaders like the Duke of Marlborough, and a bunch of members of London's Royal Society. Accompanying them are a range of fictional figures from high- to low-life, most notably the main protagonist, Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan American and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Technological Arts, a man who combines the sententiousness of Polonius with the qualities of the most boring geek you ever sat next to in a physics class. Waterhouse is fair, well-intentioned and smart, but it is easy to get too much of him. Yet, like James Boswell a generation later, he has an uncanny knack of turning up at the right place at the right time. He rooms with Newton at Cambridge, witnesses the execution of Charles I in 1649 and, in this volume, is named as one of the Regents to oversee the transition from the Stuart to the Hanovers in 1714.

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