Nov 24 2005

The System of the World

Sorry, this is not a post proclaiming a political theory of everything. It’s a note saying “‘Tis done!” I picked up Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World sooner than I thought and finished it up right quick.

Previous posts on the Baroque Cycle are here, here, here and here. The argument of the trilogy and further thoughts below the fold. Spoilers abound. Doug Muir, I’m finished, we can discuss.

I think the crux of the whole undertaking is on p. 675 (US hardback edition) of The System of the World, in the chapter “Philosophick Showdown at Leicester House.”

First, though, [Princess Caroline] wrenched a burning taper from a chair-side candelabrum. “As a rule I am averse to burning things in libraries, but this must be reckoned no loss at all, compared to the damage that the two of you are inflicting on Philosophy by your bickering.” She bent her knees and executed a graceful descent until she was sitting on th efloor beside the hearth, skirts arranged around her. “I see things sometimes, in dreams or in daydreams–some of them I quite fancy, for they seem to carry meaning. Those I remember, and think back on. There is one such vision that has got stuck in my head, quite as melodies often do, and I can’t seem to get rid of it. I shall try to do justice to it thusly.” And she reached out with the candle and let its flame lave the underside of the globe. The globe was of wood, and too heavy to catch fire readily; but paper gores printed with images of continents had been pasted over it. The paper caught fire, and a ragged flame-ring began to spread, consuming the cartographers work and leaving behind it a blackened and featureless sphere. “Sophie kept trying to tell me, before she died, that a new System of the World was being made. Oh, it is not a terribly novel thing to say. I know, and Sophie knew, that the third volume of your Principia Mathematica bears that name, Sir Isaac. Since she died, I have become quite convinced that she was correct–and moreover that the System is to be born, not at Versailles, but here–that this shall be its Prime Meridian, and all else shall be reckoned, and ruled, from here. It is a pleasing notion that there is to be such a System, and that I might play some small part in being its midwife. I think of the globe, with its neat parallels and meridians, as the Emblem of this System–what the Cross is to Christianity. But I am troubled by the vision of such a Globe in flames. What you are looking at here is a poor rendition of it; in my nightmares, it is ever so much more lovely and dreadful.”
“What do you suppose that vision signifies, highness?” asked Daniel Waterhouse.
“That this System, if it is set up wrong, might be doomed from the start,” said Caroline. “Oh, it shall be a wonder to behold at first, and all shall marvel at its regularity, its oeconomy, and the ingenuity of them who framed it. Perhaps it shall work as planned for a decade, or a century, or more. And yet if it has been made wrong at the beginning, it shall burn, in the end, and my vision shall be realized in a manner infinitely more destructive than this.” She gave the smoking globe a nudge. It had been wholly scoured by the flames and become a trackless black orb.

So there we have it.

Along the way, of course, the Cycle was many other things as well, but Caroline’s speech spells out quite explicitly what Stephenson has been up to all along.

I was sorry to see Eliza sidelined for so much of the book. I liked her much better than I thought I would–I particularly enjoyed the epistlatory parts of The Confusion–and having her drift mostly off-stage in System was a loss. I also forgot just how Jack landed in prison somewhere in the middle of System. I would have thought that such a major turning point in the plot would be more memorable, but maybe it stuck in the mind less because it was so clearly important to what the author wanted. Subordinated to the plot, as it were.

Finally, if I remember the reviews from the time, many people were disappointed in the ending. What’s not to like? Everyone lives happily ever after. Jack’s rescue from the gallows is no more improbable than the rest of the story line. Because the book (and trilogy) is actually coming to an end, there was more suspense that elsewhere in the Cycle that Jack would actually suffer something irreparable. Eliza loved him after all. And the King of the Vagabonds is, in retirement, the equal of the King of France. I found it a much better ending than, say, Cryptonomicon.

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