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Going For Baroque (Pt. III)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Part I / Part II

The Baroque Cycle — Vol III: The System of the World

Neal Stephenson


So, now finally at the end of this eight-book series (collected in three volumes), I see it can broken down thusly:

Books 1, 2 & 3 — Introduction

Books 4, 5 & 6 — Plot/Action

Books 7 & 8 — Denouement

Which isn’t really a bad way of structuring something, in terms of simply how to tell a story in parts; but when, as indicated above, those parts are whole books unto themselves, well, it could be considered a little tedious.  In fact, is a little tedious.  Books 7 & 8 — especially Book 8 — while I’ve labelled them denouement, could also be described as ‘anti-climax.’  For, really, nothing much happens.

Things happen, of course, but it’s all somewhat predictable, or, at least, not overly engaging.  It’s a fitting end to the tale, but you’d think something a little more exciting could have been hashed up for the very end instead of just a Trial of the Pyx and a long, drawn-out incarceration and hanging.  All that being said, well, it’s still a damn good eight-book series, as these things go.

I absolutely love the characterization; Stephenson is great with dialogue and nuance, so that each personality really jumps off the page, and I love how fearless he is in using famous historical personages for this personalities — Isaac Newton, Louis XIV, the Duke of Marlborough, Peter the Great etc.  The research that went into this must have been astronomical (pun intended); I’ve been trying to find info on how long it actually took him to write this, but so far no luck.  I love his descriptive language.  I love the philosophical debates and ruminations.  But, there was one main thing, aside from what was mentioned above, that I didn’t love.

Eliza.  She turns out to be basically irrelevant by the end, doesn’t she?  She’s set up to be one of the triumverate of main characters — Book 3, ‘Odalisque,’ is named for her — and yet by the end she barely features and is not involved at all in the resolution of the plot (only indirectly in the main side-plot).  So, I ask, why?  Could she not have been figured in somewhere?  It would have made Book 8 more complete.  I also didn’t like how Eliza was such an obvious ‘male author’s literary-creation’ — namely, a ‘perfect woman,’ one who is smart, independent, but of course beautiful and, most importantly, sexually skilled and liberated (which is hard enough to find today, let alone the late 17th c.).  Although, Stephenson does balance her off with Caroline of Ansbach, who was just as smart (maybe smarter) and independent, important to the plot, but was certainly not beautiful (or maybe she was by the standards of the day . . . today, not so much).  Anyway, I thought Eliza was a little obvious.

Other than that, nothing else to complain about.  If you have a couple of months to get lost in a long, long adventure, then there’s nothing else that could be better than the Baroque Cycle.

Now I just have to wait for Cryptonomicon to arrive so’s I can get lost all anew, like.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, October 26, 2008 11:37 am

    I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t finished System of the World yet. I’ll have to wait a little longer until I can read your post.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Monday, October 27, 2008 2:20 am


    I’m ashamed of you.

  3. Sunday, November 16, 2008 1:55 pm

    Comments later, but for now, some proofreading:

    1. ‘Introduction’, with an ‘r’.

    2. ‘Pyx’, with a ‘y’, at least in the context above.

    3. From the same wikipedia page where you found the portrait: “Orphaned at an early age, Caroline grew up an intelligent, cultured and attractive woman, and was much sought-after as a bride”.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Sunday, November 16, 2008 11:46 pm

    Right, so that’s why I said ‘maybe by the standards of the day,’ which turns out to be the case.

  5. Tuesday, November 18, 2008 1:10 am

    Alright, I’ll allow it then.

    So… I think labelling two-thirds of the volume as an anti-climax is a bit severe, but I would agree that by the time we reach Currency (Book 7), most of the action has subsided. Still, I didn’t find it tedious. Odalisque, now that was tedious, all those long, drawn out letters, with plenty of information included in said-letters unnaturally but for the benefit of the reader; those letters that often went on and on just like this sentence…

    Yes, Eliza was a little too perfect. Her presence in the latter two Books was limited, but still relevant. We saw her money being put to use in ways that influenced the fate of other characters.

    Still… I did feel there was some closure lacking in the end. And that last scene in Versailles was hard to swallow, given the circumstances when those three were last together. And yet, damned fine story overall. Perhaps the best I’ve read yet.

  6. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, November 18, 2008 3:06 am

    Agree with you on Odalisque — but at that point I thought it was all more relevant than it ended up being, so I was willing to play along; now that I realize it wasn’t I’m a bit annoyed. Although, also remember that she had embedded code in there for either Liebniz or Rossignol, so that helps to explain their length as well (even though in some cases large sections of the letters are omitted).

    And yes, the lack of closure/strange Epilogs (as he spells it) were . . . strange. I can only think that he intends Cryptonomicon to a sort of ‘unofficial’ Book 9, so he left things unsettled or odd on purpose. But you would have a better idea as to that than I.

    And yet . . . yes . . . damn fine story overall.

  7. Gertplealty permalink
    Thursday, April 14, 2011 2:45 am

    Good post. I previously to spend a lot of my time yachting and watching sports. It was quite possible the most memorable time of my past and your article really brought back me of that period of my life. Cheers.

    gaming seats

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