October 2005
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Month October 2005

Book #49, Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World

I’ve finally finished Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, with is completed by “The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3)”. The final volume (naturally) brings together the disparate threads of the first two, and portrays how modern finance, limited monarchy, and modern science congealed in the early 1700’s into a new “system of the world.” The first volume depicts a world in revolutionary ferment — both political and scientific — bursting with new ideas but overlaid on an old “system.” Science itself is scattershot investigation, much of it useless and undirected. Finance, at least outside the “advanced” enclave of Renaissance Florence, is unknown in Western Europe — land and rents from land remain the traditional source of income. And authority is vested in monarchs — whether hereditary or revolutionary, in the case of Cromwell’s Protectorate. Volume 2, aptly named The Confusion, portrays the healthy ferment of a world which now includes these elements in a substantive way but which has not yet solidified into a new consensus. Those who began the various revolutions are only beginning to see a path by which each may form the stable basis for a new society and culture. And finally, in volume 3, we watch the death throes of the old as the new consensus firms up and gains control over the affairs of the world.

What makes the cycle so fascinating, of course, is that the “system of the world” depicted is our own. Even as Stephenson novelizes and slightly fictionalizes the events of the time, he’s brought them to life vividly in a way that normal histories cannot. Most of us simply cannot think ourselves back to a time when capitalism (as we know it) was not yet formalized as the framework for commerce, or to a world in which the feudal outlook on privilege and governance was unquestioned. Stephenson helps us do so by showing how that world was transmuted into our own.

There is an interesting hypothesis partially buried in this — by focusing such intense effort on the seventeenth century, and describing it as the origins of our modern world, Stephenson implies that much of the upheaval of later times was simply variations on a theme — the natural evolution of this “system” given its strengths and imperfections. Newcomen’s Engine clearly prefigures the Industrial Revolution, which would seem to be the natural outgrowth of our “system of the world” rather than its origins. I need to think a bit harder on this hypothesis, but in its outlines it’s essentially correct.