Back to the Baroque
Neal Stephenson's science fiction of the past.
Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By GLENN HARLAN REYNOLDS
The System of the World
OVER THE PAST YEAR OR SO, Neal Stephenson has produced a minor miracle: not one, but three bestselling nine-hundred-page novels, all focused on obscure topics of cryptography, monetary theory, and philosophy. Eschewing word processing, he wrote them with a fountain pen--in order, he said, to get himself into the mindset of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the eras in which the books are set.
After publishing the cult-classic The Big U and the thrillers Zodiac and Snow Crash, Stephenson emerged as a major force in 1995 with the publication of The Diamond Age, a novel best known for its sophisticated treatment of nanotechnology. Stephenson is a geek, and--like all of us geeks--he loves gizmos. But he understands that human beings and human ideas are what drive events. And the truly revolutionary technology driving The Diamond Age involves a device for providing widespread academic and moral education to young girls.
Stephenson's most famous novel, the 1999 blockbuster Cryptonomicon, stayed true to this point, too, though geeky readers often missed that message amid episodes of hacking, code-breaking, and van Eck phreaking. Unlike some of his science-fictional predecessors (Robert Heinlein, for example), Stephenson is never preachy. And this subtlety has led some Stephenson fans to miss the point of the "Baroque Cycle," his new trilogy of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. But although science and technology play an important role in these stories--something hard to avoid when the major characters include Leibniz, Hooke, and Newton--the story is again ultimately about people and society.
In fact, the clue to the whole series is found in a passage two-thirds through the last book: "It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently . . . have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them. . . . And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World."
The theme of the three books--and of the new System of the World that is emerging within them--is the power of money and information, and the overlap between the two. At one point, the character Daniel Waterhouse observes: "The place was after all a Market, not a Palace, Parliament, College, or Church. Markets drew a particular sort of person, just as those other places drew different sorts. And the sorts who found a market a congenial and rewarding place to be, were those who thought quickly on their feet, and adapted to unlooked-for happenings with facility; they were, in a word, mercurial. The driver of that coal-cart had perhaps ten seconds in which to make up his mind what he ought to do. Yet he had decided. And probably rightly."
Throughout the three books, we see feudalism dying, and markets and information growing in power, while people try in various ways to cope with the changes this process produces. It is, in short, a period not so different from the present. That's a point that Stephenson emphasized when I interviewed him: "What I found interesting on a political level was that the Cromwell types were pushing a bunch of ideas that struck people as nuts at the time, but that are bedrock principles of modern society--things like free enterprise and separation of church and state and limited government that took years to actually achieve. Many of the people called Puritans were small businessmen and independent traders. They had a real bent toward free enterprise, and they developed a real resentment of government and taxes--as a result, they were free traders. It's like what we see with a lot of pro-business people today."
Stephenson's trilogy explores the difficulties of bringing new and more-liberal ways to religious nuts, but also illustrates that those religious nuts know things, and possess spiritual and material advantages, that their more urbane contemporaries do not.
Stephenson has gotten some flak from people who were expecting another Cryptonomicon, only set in the seventeenth century. And, in fact, although these books constitute a sort of prequel to Cryptonomicon, with characters and ancestors of characters overlapping, they are very different.