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October Books 1) The System of the World

1) The Syſtem of the World, by Neal Stephenſon

Any Man, when he shall have completed a Taſk, be it one which he has aſsigned to Himſelf, or an Impoſition from ſome external Party, may experience a certain Euphoria. I write here of two such Taſks which have been completed, videlicet, primo, the Exertions of Master STEPHENSON in writing the Series of Romances, commencing with Cryptonomicon and continued in Quickſilver, The Confuſion, and the Volume here under Conſideration; and secundo, my own Expenditure of Time, Money, Energy and Loſt Sleep in reading them.

It has oft been obſerved that I am a Swift Reader. It is my Wont or Habit to complete the Peruſal of a Volume, whoſe Pages may number Ten-Score or thereabouts, in two Nights of Reading in my Bed; or if it be Saturday or the Lord's Day, to read two or three ſuch over the Week-End. Even The Brothers Karamazov, that Renowned Tale penned by the Ruſsian Savant DOSTOIEFFSKY, detained me only a Week, though its Pages number more than a Thouſand. Completing my Study of The Syſtem of the World has required near a Fort'night; yet it is more than an Hundred Pages ſhorter than the Ruſsian Work. I confeſs, I would fain have left the Book untouched upon my Book-Shelf ſome months longer, but was Stirred to read it by my Compariſon of the unread Volumes in my Library with thoſe marked as "unread" by the Clients of Master SPALDING's Electronick Catalog.

Even the ſympathetic Reader of Master STEPHENSON's works muſt ſurely wiſh that ſome-body in the Publiſhing-Houſe, responſible for the Preparation of his Novels, might have urged him to diſtil the Text to a more concentrated Quality. The Story is an Engaging Tale: the Culmination of the Journeys through Life of the three chief Perſonæ of previous Volumes, videlicet, Dr DANIEL WATERHOUSE, the Rogue JACK SHAFTOE, and the Ducheſs ELIZA of ARCACHON-QWLGHM. The Situation of theſe three, and many Others, is in the Year of Grace 1714, and encompaſses the Paſsing of Her Late Majeſty, Queen ANNE, and the Acceſsion to the Throne of Great-Britain and Ireland of the Electoral Prince GEORGE of Hanover. The Chief Strand of the Narrative concerns the Integrity of the Currency of England, as adminiſtered by the Maſter of the Royal Mint, Sir ISAAC NEWTON; we see much of him, and of other Perſonalities, including Baron VON LEIBNITZ, with whom NEWTON engages in lengthy and unexciting Philoſophick Debate, and (more briefly) the Musician Mr HANDEL, who aſsists in the Slaughter of a Rogue, by Uſe of a Violon-Cello as Fatal Inſtrument, in a Thrilling Paſsage. The Atmoſphere of London, Hanover, and other Locations of the Era is conveyed to the Reader with Conviction. But I wiſhed it had not been ſo long.

It is no doubt the Caſe, that this Book will be bought - indeed, has already been bought - by thoſe Readers whoſe Habit it is, to peruſe Works of that Genre known to ſome as Scientifick-Phantaſy. Yet (ſaving one Perſonality, barely mentioned in this Volume, who may be an Immortal, though moſt unlike the Struldbrugs encountered by GULLIVER in Dr SWIFT's Tale of his Voyage from Laputa to Japan) there is naught here that is Phantastickal, or reliant on counter-factual Advances in the Technologickal Arts. My own Belief is that the late Mr KNIGHT hit the Nail upon the Head, when he ſurmiſ'd, that the Scientifick-Phantaſy Genre is "what we point to, when we ſay it". I point to this Book, and its two Fellows in the Baroque-Trilogy, and Cryptonomicon which though written earlier is ſet two and a half Centuries later, and I ſay that I include them in that Genre. Does any-body diſagree?


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 10th, 2006 07:24 am (UTC)
I've not ready System of The World yet - I'm making very slow progress through Quicksilver.

I really enjoyed Cryptonomicon though!
Oct. 10th, 2006 07:30 am (UTC)

I really enjoyed the baroque cycle but have since failed to read more than 100 pages of cryptonomicon. I appreciate that my concentration this year has been close to zero and maybe I shall have another stab at it during a long train journey, or perhaps the christmas break.
Oct. 10th, 2006 07:50 am (UTC)
# Does any-body disagree?

Yes, I do. ;-)
We talked about this already: IMO, Stephenson has written only one SF novel ("Snow Crash"); "The Diamond Age" was a Dickens pastiche (set in the future, granted, but that was a stylistic necessity), and the novels about the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes are clearly fiction, but if one considers these SF, than the field would suddenly become MUCH larger, because many more novels would have to be included.
Of course, this is only my opinion, and a genre-label does not change the quality of a book.
Oct. 10th, 2006 07:52 am (UTC)
P.S.: I didn't mention "Zodiac" (which I would label "comedy"), but I found that one rather... uhm... crap.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 10th, 2006 08:14 am (UTC)
It's the only one I haven't read. Lucky for me, apparently (even Stephenson himself isn't too happy about it).
Oct. 15th, 2006 04:12 pm (UTC)
He's co-author on Interface, which I'd call SF. Although I'd have tended to call The Diamond Age SF too, based on the futuristic technologies and so on.

I find Cryptonomicon surprisingly gripping for something that basically has no plot, but The Baroque Cycle was deadly dull, and some of his stylistic tricks really annoyed me, particularly united with the lack of period feel. I can cope with "phantasy" if you are writing something that feels authentic, but not in something which is otherwise entirely modern in feel.
Oct. 10th, 2006 07:50 am (UTC)
None would dare to differ with such Authority.
Oct. 10th, 2006 07:52 am (UTC)
I read Cryptonomicon on recommendation from others, and was not totally impressed. Like yourself and the end of the fourth book, I was quite eupohoric having gotten to the end of the first.

I've been tempted to try another of the "long" Stephensons, but your review has saved large chunks of my life. For that I thank you.

While you didn't say anything terribly derogatory about his books, other than that they are too long, your commentary leaves me with the strong feeling that there is insufficient reward in the other books to warrant the investment in time and money required to read them. Given that I am a much slower reader than you, this means more to me than you might realise.

One thing I was uncomfortable with in Cryptonomicon was the creation of a new race in the Western Isles, especially as they were non-Celts. I suppose I would have to read the other books to make any sense of that, so I will forever by wallowing in the depths of ignorance. (Did you ever notice how comfortable ignorance can be once you make a conscious decision to live in it?)

Thanks again for the review. I have found it life saving.

(PS I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to categorising books into genres, sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, etc..., and I haven't read the other books, so I can't answer your question about Scientifick-Fantasy.)
Oct. 10th, 2006 08:31 am (UTC)
You pretty much hit the nail on the head. It took me close to 15 months to get through the trilogy, and I spent the last 500 pages or so fuming and shouting "get to the fucking point! I've already read 'The road to Newgate'!" every dozen pages or so.

A tour de force, and yet utterly foot-draggingly exhausting to read.

(In contrast I've just ploughed through almost the lifetimes output of Anthony Price in about six weeks, about 50% longer than the Baroque Cycle, and itself not entirely lacking in ideas; it's not just that I'm a slow reader, it's that reading The Baroque Cycle is like wading through treacle.)
Oct. 10th, 2006 08:39 am (UTC)
This is the best book review I have ever read. :)
Oct. 10th, 2006 08:56 am (UTC)
Primus: Crie You Pitie, Molefworth.
Secundus: Noe.
Oct. 10th, 2006 09:03 am (UTC)
'tis a v. good review, thank you. So not reading this book. :-)
Oct. 10th, 2006 11:23 am (UTC)
I found Cryptonomicon excellent (and clearly SF, on account of the near-future portions of setting if nothing else) but I haven't picked up either of the others as they seem to be more 'historical fiction' than SF.
Oct. 10th, 2006 12:11 pm (UTC)
Well that had me giggling. Excellent.
Oct. 10th, 2006 12:14 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed Cryptonomicon while accepting that as a novel it was a complete failure - it touched on so many things I was interested in and was so locally interesting that the complete lack of a working macroscopic structure didn't bother me - until the last 30 pages when the crap McGuffin that held it together was revealed.

The first two of the Trilogy OTOH were like wading through treacle whilst dragging a dead whale down a beach - one day I'll buy TSOTW just out of completeness but I don't think it'll be any day soon.
Oct. 10th, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC)
Absolutely spot-on, and never mind the length: I found Stephenson's prose, though discursive and [o god I hate this term] self-indulgent, a delight. It took me just over 24 hours to read SOTW.

Only slight problem is that some of the prose really could do with a once-over. It's one thing for Stephenson not to read his own prose, another for his editor not to read it either. I know it was all written by hand originally: presumably the lucky drone hired to type it up didn't have Views on punctuation, grammar, sentence structure.

Anyway! 'tis SF because:
1. Enoch Root
2. Different Gold
3. Handel's opera The Alchemist, which believe me I would pay good money to see, not least because the notion of Handel doing a humorous piece is delicious.
4. some other reasons which I will happily expound upon over BEER.
Oct. 10th, 2006 08:27 pm (UTC)
some other reasons which I will happily expound upon over BEER.

Yes, let's do that some time. With the new job I should be in London a bit more often in future.
Oct. 10th, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC)
presumably the lucky drone hired to type it up didn't have Views on punctuation, grammar, sentence structure.

Sad to say, the drone was none other than Stephenson himself (using GNU Emacs and some custom TeX macros he wrote himself to print the final MS out). These photographs probably explain the lack of diligence towards the end ...
Oct. 10th, 2006 12:53 pm (UTC)
a most excellent review. I couldn't stop laughing, and I'm sure Tim would be amused at your description of LibraryThing!
Oct. 10th, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC)
Hee. Beft Review ever!

I have to confess that I stopped reading Quicksilver half-way through and never picked it up again, which I almost never do (and I too am a swift reader who fairly lashes through Dostoyevsky). There were some good characters, there were lots of Fun Historical Facts of the type I love ... however, it just didn't seem to have any plot, and the interesting other bits weren't really enough to make up for the total lack of narrative drive.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 10th, 2006 08:28 pm (UTC)
Sorry fot the font fascism. The problem is that the "long s" ſ character looks really crap in Arial and most san-serif fonts, and is far more impressive in Times New Roman.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 11th, 2006 06:05 am (UTC)
This exclamation mark technique is beyond me - I just put <font fac="Times New Roman> at the start of the entry!
Oct. 10th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed the books, but sadly i felt that it was reaching to hard for a plot!

Cyrpt has the same problem in the modern setting, i am sad to admit that as much as i loved the book, the ending has never quiet made sense!
Oct. 14th, 2006 09:26 am (UTC)
Coo, golly. Here is my limb and I am out on it, and very possibly sawing it off behind me; but I adored the trilogy. Whizzed through it, wallowed in it, every page a joy. It is absolutely my new Desert Island book. Indeed (not anticipating that infamous Desert Island, but confidently expecting long-haul flights and weeks away from home) I shall invest in the paperbacks and make it my official Going to Taiwan book, self-indulgent brute that I am...
Oct. 20th, 2006 01:50 pm (UTC)
I can't yet imagine indulging in re-reading, but I did find this trilogy much to my tafte.

I read the book whilst spending a long commute on the London Underground and found that being thrown into daylight each morning at Hammersmith was less of an impact on me that having to deal with C21 again after 45 happy minutes in the gentle company of Stephenspon. I was occasionally struck with the irritation that we were spending a couple of hundred paes on things I didn't much care about, but have accepted that no-one else would agree on which 400 pages out of the 2000 page trilogy ought to be excised.

( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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