Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The System of the World

The last book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

The Baroque Cycle is a prequel trilogy to Stephenson's geek-classic Cryptonomicon. Before he wrote Cryptonomicon Stephenson was known as a cyberpunk author. But while that novel had cyberpunk elements half of it was set during the second world war, and the other half was set in the modern day, so not really much crazy far out internet stuff there.

With the Baroque Cycle Stephenson really went off into strange and unusual genres. The story is set in the late 1600s and early 1700s and the main characters are the ancestors of those in Cryptonomicon. While there are some science-fictional elements, these books could easily fit in the historical fiction shelf, but of course as Stephenson has been established as a science fiction author, he is forever condemned to the geek ghetto.

The books themselves are three huge fucking bricks, and I would probably not have finished any of them without the aid of several long plane journeys.

Oh dear. I'm feeling very tired. I'll post this as it is, (since I've neglected the blog for a few days) and finish it off tomorrow.


OK, I'm back now. My internet connection has been fucked for the last few days, which is a good excuse for not posting.

So the Baroque Cycle. The sheer amount of research and attention to detail that went into this series is astounding. The books are filled with asides about historical details, the way people lived and the way the world worked back in the days of the Enlightenment, and it's all presented from a geeks point of view, which gives it all an original spin and makes it more appealing to nerds like me. For example, the main character is a member of the British Royal Society, who were the first modern scientists. The first book contains loads of details about their theories and experiments, which would be glossed over in most historical novels, but which is still endlessly fascinating to Stephenson's readers.

Unfortunately the first book is probably the best in the series. While the others are still good, the diversions and details are gradually phased out in favour of more focus on the main plot, and the series suffers a little from this. Another problem is that after almost 3000 pages of dense action and exhausting prose, the reader can be quite weary of Stephenson's style, even if you read the books six months apart. This is inevitable I guess but it detracts from the story all the same. Finally, Stephenson has always had a reputation for being bad at endings. He's clearly made an effort to improve this time around, and he has a little, but the ending still struck me as being somewhat abrupt. There are two reasons for this, firstly the narrative was very loose, and while there was a central plot, I was still left with the feeling that it was just the story of three people's lives, from birth to old age, with no particular message or meaning. The other is that he leaves a whole lot of unanswered questions. I know that at one stage he was talking about writing a sequel to Cryptonomicon, so maybe that's where the answers will be found.

Of course, despite these complaints, the series as a whole is just so impressive that I can't say it's anything short of excellent. The series' style is just so charming that there's no way anyone who plows through the whole thing could be disappointed. So even though I spent a big paragraph above dissecting it's flaws, I'm confident that this series will be remembered as a classic, at least within the sci-fi ghetto.

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