On the way to New York the other day, I finally finished The System of the World, the third and final volume in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I was immediately sorry it was over and want nothing more now than to begin reading it again from volume 1 (Quicksilver).
Stephenson has a reputation for writing great stories with weak, hurried endings. His seminal novel Snow Crash (a personal favorite) was one such, as was Cryptonomicon, which didn’t quite rise to the challenge of tying together its two plotlines, interwoven but separated by a half century.
One lament among pilots is that you can fly for hours smoothly, swiftly, and safely, but if you get a little bounce on landing, your passengers will judge you unaccomplished. The same thing goes for writers, great stories, and endings. I love Snow Crash — I even once based the name of a startup company on a passage from it — but its pat and hasty wrapup has always nagged at me.
Perhaps Stephenson took this criticism to heart, or perhaps he simply took greater care with this, his masterwork, because I’m happy to say that The Baroque Cycle ties its numerous threads together neatly (but not too neatly!) and very satisfyingly. This goes even for the character of Daniel Waterhouse, whose biography for most of the cycle troubled me insofar as it was not very interesting — except, like Forrest Gump, for the company he keeps (e.g., Sir Isaac Newton) and the historical events at which he’s accidentally present. I detested Forrest Gump for this, but I stuck with Waterhouse on the faith that the author was laying a lot of groundwork for Waterhouse finally to become interesting in his own right, and I was not disappointed.
In all, this Entertainment Weekly review perfectly captures Stephenson’s achievement: “he might just have created the definitive historical-sci-fi-epic-pirate-comedy-punk love story.” Except I’d change “might just have” to “has.” Check it out.