Steve's Reviews > The System of the World

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
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Sep 27, 09

Read in September, 2009

Well, I'm now officially depressed. I finished reading the Baroque Cycle. To say that I enjoyed reading the series would be to stretch the word "enjoyed" to the breaking point. It would be rolling the word "enjoyed" off to the juicing room. It would be hanging the word "enjoyed" until half dead, and then drawing and quartering the word "enjoyed" by four sturdy teams of horses, in the hopes that somewhere in the process "enjoyed" would choose to reveal the location of its ringleader, a much more powerful verb, more thoroughly capable of conveying the intricacies of the action. One might imagine a brutal member of the Spanish inquisition leaning over the word "enjoyed", asking it "Who taught you these heresies? Was it 'relished'? 'Savored'? Perhaps it was 'adored'?" Here the inquisitor looks down at his documents, "My friend Thesaurus suggests that you work for 'cherished'! Is it 'cherished'?!"

Lest I belabor the point a bit too long, I'll suffice to say that the series kept me absolutely enthralled, this last book somehow doing this with greater fervor than its predecessors, and move to the reasons that this was so:

1. What I like to affectionately label "Holy Shit Moments". The definition of such a moment is simple: When the moment comes, the audience (in this case, the reader), is likely to exclaim "Holy shit!" or some similar outburst. System of the World is full of them, and they are a diverse lot.

2. This book has something for everyone. While perhaps less so than in The Confusion, there were buckles to be swashed. There was much political intrigue. This is true in the pure sense of some truly epic politicking between the Tories and the Whigs, but also in more colloquial Survivor-secret-alliance senses as well. The general trend of scientific and philosophical endeavors continued in this book as well. There's romance, action, mystery, very much in abundance.

3. Rewarding payoffs. You look for these towards the end of a series. Lots of loose ends to be tied up nicely, lots of characters who need their minor (inconsequential?) arcs tied up. Jerks that need to get killed (you hope). This book ties up the series pretty darn flawlessly, with positive resolutions and negative resolutions distributed amongst the various plotlines in generally pleasing ways, albeit at times in predictable ones, if you are familiar with the historical period.

4. Neal Stephenson is very observant, and has a way of utilizing these observations to great effect. A common praise giving to stand up comedians is that "he's saying what we're all thinking", due to their ability to point out the oddities of society so well. Stephenson's ability to do so (not always for humorous purposes) is phenomenal.

I've already got one person to add the Baroque cycle to their to-read list, and I've got a non good reads user started as well (with two more in the wings). I think this series is right up there with The Game of Thrones and Bridge of Birds now as my go to recommendation. It's that good. Read it. Read it now.

(starting with these quotes):

"Mr. Threader was a meat tabula rasa, like the exposed cliff of a roast beef left by the carver's knife" (p. 18). If you can think of a better way to describe someone as nondescript, I'd like to hear it.

"How many sheep in England? And not just in January 1714, but in all the millennia before? Why had the island not sunk into the sea under the weight of sheep-bones and sheep-teeth? Possibly because their wool was exported--mostly to Holland--which was in fact sinking into the sea! Q.E.D." (p. 20-1).

"All salvaged, not because they had innate value, but because they'd been given to the Royal Society by important people. They'd been kept here just as a young couple keeps the ugly wedding present from the rich aunt" (p. 64).

"'Its badness is proof of my sincerity,' Roger said modestly. 'If I wrote her an excellent love-poem, it might be said of me, that I had done it only to flaunt my wit'" (p. 71-2).

"Then he got a look on his face as if he were thinking. Daniel had learned, in his almost seventy years, not to expect much of people who got such looks, because thinking really was something one ought to do all the time" (p. 168).

"Which only went to show that Englishmen could live anywhere. Condemn an Englishman to hell, and he'd plant a bed of petunias and roll out a nice bowling-green on the brimstone" (p. 200).

"If Daniel and Pie were close together both in position and velocity, then pie-eating became a practical, and tempting, possibility. If Pie were far asunder from Daniel or moving at a large relative velocity--e.g. being hurled at his face--then its pie-ness was somehow impaired, at least from the Daniel frame of reference" (p. 457).

"Myself, I am comfortable with the notion that we are Machines made of Meat, and there's no more free will in us than there is in a cuckoo-clock, and that the spirit, soul, or whatever you want to call it, is a faery-tale" (p. 679).

"But that was one of those errands that, if not achieved in the first twelve hours, would remain undone centuries later. And, as all of this was shewing, the fetching-out of these three items had long since ossified into a ceremony" (p. 830).

"The Old Testament [reading:] is a length of black grosgrain ribbon that takes him into the type of passage whose sole purpose, in a Christian service, is to demonstrate just how much trouble we would all be in, if we were still Jews" (p. 833).

"To be hanged bu the neck until dead is one thing; but to be forced to listen to a reading from the Old Testament twice, why, that is not only Unusual but Cruel" (p. 834).
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Bryant Now that I've decided to re-read the series, I can't find my copies. I'm sure they're in one of my book boxes somewhere. I had to re-read Snow Crash instead. Great book, even if the big gap of seemingly missing time in the middle annoys me a bit.


Melissa Rudder I don't think I had read this review when you published it. It's great. I actually wrote "holy shit" in a chapter summary, and exclaimed it at least twice, so that part was particularly well accessed.


Melissa Rudder I meant to write "assessed," but I don't even like that word for that sentence, so let's just pretend I wrote "spotted," although that doesn't sufficiently praise your delivery.


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