The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's three-volume Baroque Cycle comes to a smashing end with The System of the World.
In the first novel, Quicksilver, Daniel Waterhouse remembered the late 1600s while travelling from Massachusetts to England. It was dry and a bit boring. Volume two, The Confusion, took place just after that. Clever vagabond Jack Shaftoe scampered around the world and clever former slave Eliza became embroiled in French society and world economics. It was a fast and furious read, full of adventure. Plus: pirates. Volume three finds us again in the company of Waterhouse, still a cranky stick in the mud: "Once, he had feared that old age would bring senility; now, he was certain it would slowly paralyze him by encumbering each tiny thing with all sorts of significations."
But when Waterhouse arrives in London, a place now foreign to him, he narrowly escapes being blown up, and he changes. Most of his London friends are dead, as he probably should be, and he decides to dispense with his usual caution: he takes risks, speaks his mind, and acts on instinct. He is older, wiser, and more fun. And through him we experience the tumultuous events of London in the early 1700s, when our modern systems of currency, culture, and science were forming.
Stephenson also appears in System, in the character of Peter Hoxton, alias Saturn, a man both fascinated by and wary of technology: "Technology ages... faster'n we do....I grew weary of transitory knowledge, and decided to seek knowledge of a more íƒ ¦ternal nature."
The System of the World is just as full of history and detail as Quicksilver and as full of adventure and wit as The Confusion. All the stories tie up nicely, and Stephenson's main theme comes through clearly: "systems of the world", be they philosophies or metaphors or mechanisms of economy, aren't replaced but consumed. The old, then, becomes part of the new.
System is Stephenson at his wittiest, cleverest best. What's more, it's the perfect segue into another reading of 1999's Cryptonomicon, where everything introduced in the Baroque Cycle continues into our contemporary world.