Monday, December 06, 2004

Book Note: System of the World

3rd Installment of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. This is a grand book, and a fitting end of an uneven, but largely good 3,000 page trilogy spanning 50 or so years of the Scientific Revolution.

Various people have already written reviews of this book. So I would like to focus on some of the aspects that struck me as particularly interesting. The first of those is the marked similarity of the dialog style to Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon which really deserves a wider audience, IMO. Both authors set their novels in similar times, Stephenson's novels being set a bit earlier, and with similar characters as main protagonists.

It is probably an overgeneralization to claim that The Rev. Cherrycoke (a silent partner of the surveyors) is overly similar to Dr. Waterhouse as a character, but they both serve the same narrative purpose. It is also hard to compare Isaak Newton as a historical personage to just about anyone, but insofar as both novels (do not all novels do the same?) aim to deal with permanent conditions of what makes us human and place their protagonists in the 17th and 18th century, employ deliberately archaic-sounding Barock [sic] spelling and phrase construction, delve into mathematics and astronomy to the depth not usually seen in popular novels, etc. - it is fair to say that anyone who has read both books would note the similarities very clearly. Perhaps it is inevitable that the works be similar if they cover so much of the similar territory, and I certainly do not wish to paint that as a negative for either author. I, for one, have enjoyed the similarities, and reveled in the details.

Another author whose books, indeed whole sets of books, the Baroque Cycle is strongly reminiscient of is Alexander Dumas. I will take credit for thinking that even before reading the short thanks and attribution to him by Stephenson at the end of the book. The narrative setup is quite similar - a minor historical (or in this case fictional) character is inserted into an environment rife with intrigue and great historical personages. As we do not have a day-by-day accounting of their lives it is easy to imagine them meeting our minor character and the kind of conversations and adventures they might have shared. So on one level we get a nice historical romance in the same vein as "The Three Musketeers". As any such good book it also doubles as a minor history textbook, introducing us to characters and events most people likely sleep through in their school days, or never get a chance to meet at all while preparing for generic exams for courses covering 5 millenia of history in 12-20 weeks at 3 hours per week.

What makes Stephenson's effort worthwhile, IMO, is that overall the trilogy works. As a fairly avid fantasy genre reader I am used to 900-page volumes and 5-10 volume-long epics. However, most of them take many years to write and rarely are able to sustain any kind of momentum for very long. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is an excellent example of that. One can point to Asimov's Foundation or Herbert's Dune, and of course Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series as examples of successful epic sci-fi or fantasy cycles. Indeed they were - and that's why they are so famous. Of course, the ability to create an adventure that will be able to sustain its momentum over a few thousand pages was perfected by Dumas, and so some of his best cycles such as the D'Artagnan Romances: or the Valois romances are just as famous as the epics listed above. And just look at those dates! All of these came out whithin a span of 3 years and this is not even an exhaustive list of what Dumas published during that period.

I am not sure if Stephenson is going to make the list of masters above yet, but he certainly comes close. Another aspect worth of respect is that the whole trilogy came out within a space of 18 months or so. Given the amount of research and plot entanglement and disentanglement - that is a very impressive achievement. And it is all done with a fun spirit, which earns him major bonus points. By comparison, I am now reading the much-praised Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, and so far am finding it rather slow and dull (page 250 of 800). Interesting to see how similar books in so many respects, competing for a highly overlapping audience (I think), can be so different in fluidity of the language and narrative. Perhaps I am just judging the Susanna Clarke's book too early, but so far the comparison is definitely not in its favor.

Links referenced in this post can be found here - http://del.icio.us/contendem/System_Of_The_World_Review

pps. Other reviews (not yet read by me) from Review of Books website

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