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The Past as Prologue

By Gregory Feeley,
author of "The Weighing of Ayre" and the forthcoming "Arabian Wine"
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page C03


By Neal Stephenson

Morrow. 892 pp. $27.95

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The period of Neal Stephenson's enormous Baroque Cycle -- 1655 to 1714 -- has long been a happy hunting ground for romantic novelists (who revel in its suave courtiers, Restoration fops and scheming Jacobites) but until recently was largely overlooked by writers interested in dramatizing the intellectual and scientific transformations of the pre-modern era. Stephenson is not the first writer to appreciate that the late 17th century's striking advances in optics, steam power, timekeeping and cosmology -- along with the founding of the Royal Academy and the final guttering of alchemy -- constituted a scientific revolution in its own right. But no other writer has sought to dramatize all the era's scientific, political and economic upheavals in a single grand synthesis.

If 2004 is remembered as the Year of the 800-Page Novel, it will not be solely due to Stephenson's three colossal volumes: Stephen King's "The Dark Tower," Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" and Gene Wolfe's "The Wizard Knight" also appeared over the past year. But Stephenson's trilogy -- 2,600 packed pages, all published during a 12-month period -- is the longest of the bunch and the most stylistically flamboyant. It is supersized in every respect and demands readers with outsize capacities.

"Quicksilver" and "The Confusion" sent Stephenson's characters caroming across Europe, the American colonies, the Middle East and the high seas as Jack (once a London street urchin, later King of the Vagabonds), his beloved Eliza (who has risen in the world since Jack rescued her from white slavery) and various British scholars and inventors schemed and fought their ways through the collapse of Cromwell's republic and the social upheavals that followed.

"What language are we speaking?" asked Jack (currently a galley slave) near the beginning of "The Confusion," and the reply (Sabir, the lingua franca, was compounded informally from several languages, with Jack's usage shifted toward French and his companion's more toward Spanish) suggested the collapse of discrete frames of reference into a messy but workable assemblage. Later Eliza assured a correspondent that "the confusion of which you complain is the death-throes of an old system -- as when a man's heart stops beating but his limbs continue to twitch for some time afterwards." The messy emergence of a new system from the tangled wreckage of older ones is one of the trilogy's central metaphors, and numerous characters declaim it throughout the third volume.

With "The System of the World" Stephenson's narrative returns to Daniel Waterhouse, seemingly the series's principal protagonist (although he was largely absent from "The Confusion"). Recruited to broker a rapprochement between feuding scholars Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, Waterhouse reaches London just as numerous other conflicts erupt, all involving the far-flung characters of the previous two books, who converge upon England's capital for an extended playing-out of their various intrigues.

The intrigues are extravagant: Newton wants Jack -- now Jack the Coiner, busily debasing the British currency -- drawn and quartered for counterfeiting; Jack wants to win back the love of Eliza, who still seems to want him dead; a British slave owner wants Dappa the African abolitionist in chains; somebody is trying to burn out the ships being built for the Russian navy; Daniel wants to keep Newton from realizing that the gold he is using to make the punch cards for his "logic mill" is the "Solomonic gold" the old alchemist has sought for decades; Thomas Newcomen wants backing for his steam-engine venture; and someone set off a bomb in Daniel's luggage -- did he want Daniel dead, or someone else?

The "system" that eventually emerges is capitalism, with its centralized money systems, valuation of brainpower over hereditary privilege, and free circulation of knowledge -- which, after all, is money. Stephenson never uses the word "capitalism," just as he doesn't quite use another term apposite to his work: "swashbuckler." His massive enterprise -- full of astoundingly implausible adventures and assertions of historical inevitability -- can be seen as an amalgam of Alexandre Dumas and Fernand Braudel, a mix that tends to separate unless shaken forcefully.

Stephenson's tongue-in-cheek verbal anachronisms can be witty, as when he manages circumstances so that a character can speak plausibly of a "Routine Upgrade" or name a private tavern the "Kit-Kat Clubb," and his anachronisms of worldview -- such as the logic mill (a mechanical computer) and the universal agreement by all but the most depraved characters that slavery is an unmitigated evil -- are clearly deliberate. But the limits of his humor become apparent over the course of thousands of pages.

And the anachronisms go further than turns of phrase. Stephenson's characters are invariably presented as good or bad according to whether they espouse beliefs that hold up today, and 18th-century London seems to interest him only insofar as it presages the modern era. For all its fearsome book-learning, the Baroque Cycle offers only a past that reminds us of ourselves.

This refusal to engage with the unique particularity of his setting is most evident in Stephenson's presentation of women. Those he portrays favorably are invariably geniuses who can hold their own in male spheres of activity: the cryptanalyst financial whiz Eliza, Newton's brilliant niece Miss Barton, Princess Caroline of Brandenberg-Ansbach (who is more than equal to mediating a debate between Newton and Leibniz). Stephenson tells us about the horrors that women routinely suffered at the end of the 17th century, but I'm not sure he really believes it. His apprehension of women -- the good ones are smart, sassy and free to act like the guys -- comes across as that of a computer nerd trying to be a feminist.

A signal moment of "The System of the World" comes when Princess Caroline interrupts Newton and Leibniz's indecisive debate by detaching a large globe from its stand and rolling it across the floor. She declares the globe "the Emblem" of the coming System -- foreseeing what we today call globalization -- but warns that she is haunted by dreams of "such a Globe in flames," which she illustrates by setting fire to the paper map pasted over it. It is a striking image, but it speaks only to the modern audience reading, as it were, over the characters' shoulders.

Despite its frenzied complications and watch-me-top-this ingenuity -- much of it funny and some of it genuinely moving -- "The System of the World" is continually asking to be rendered down to its essence, a rather bald set of assertions for 892 pages. Readers are more likely to remember instead the most brilliant scenes of Stephenson's monstrously ambitious and untidy opus.

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