The summit of Mount Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's sprawling, intricate "System of the World" caps a vast trilogy of historical and philosophical splendors.

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 22, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Mount Stephenson is casting a shadow on my computer monitor: four giant works of fiction stacked on each other like the layers in a Titan's wedding cake. At the base, two imposing hardcovers, resplendent in their silver and tan jackets: "Quicksilver" and "The Confusion," Volumes 1 and 2 of "The Baroque Cycle." Then, up past the tree line, where the air begins to thin, one dog-eared galley, Volume 3, "The System of the World." Finally, at the summit, scraping the roof of heaven, a morbidly obese paperback, "Cryptonomicon."

I have weighed them: 11 pounds. I have added up the pages: 3,775. I have estimated, taking into consideration the different average number of words per page of hardcover, galley and paperback, a total word count just shy of 2 million.

I've read every one of those words, some of them more than once. As a Neal Stephenson fanboy dating back to the publication of 1988's "Zodiac" I have considered this my solemn duty and obligation. I have even, like the dot-com start-up execs in "Cryptonomicon," exercised careful due diligence. After completing "The Baroque Cycle's" three volumes of late 17th century adventure, intrigue and philosophy, I returned to 1999's "Cryptonomicon," to which the Cycle is a mighty prequel, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

This places me in possession of some hard-won, rare and very odd motes of Stephensonian trivia.

For instance, I am now cognizant that in both "Cryptonomicon" and "The System of the World," Stephenson devotes perhaps more attention than is proper to a sordid Greek mythological tryst in which Hephaestos attempts to rape Athena but succeeds only in ejaculating on her leg. Athena, we are told, wipes the semen off with a rag and squeezes it into Mother Earth, who then gives birth to Erichthonius, an early king of Athens, said to have introduced the world to the use of silver money.

If I was as clever as the author, I would use this recurring Erichthonian interlude as an opportunity to introduce several themes of Stephenson's recent work. Most obvious is his obsession with money, in all forms, whether as substantial as gold or as newfangled and wafty as credit. "The Baroque Cycle" lovingly details the birth of modern capitalism -- it is one of the many new "systems" featured in "The System of the World."

Less central to the plot, but equally inescapable, we see in Hephaestos' failed coitus evidence of Stephenson's mildly discombobulating passion for human bodily fluids. "The Baroque Cycle" does not devote as much space to male masturbation as does "Cryptonomicon," but this is more than made up for by frequent references to shit and piss and stinking sewers. Stephenson enjoys flinging turds -- and apparently, during the Enlightenment, there was plenty of ammunition at hand.

Finally, we must consider Athena, goddess of wisdom, and according to Enoch Root, the one recurring character in all four volumes, the muse of technology. Ever since his breakthrough novel, 1991's "Snow Crash," Stephenson has staked out a convincing role for himself as one of technology's most ardent poets, or propagandists, or prophets -- take your pick. It is no accident that "The System of the World" begins and ends with the invention of the steam engine, or that even in the early days of the 18th century, one of his characters is trying to build a computer. For Stephenson, technology has a clear spiritual force. If, as another of his characters declares, understanding how the world works brings us closer to God, then so too does making the world work for us, because that smoothly operating machine is the ultimate proof of our comprehension, of the world, and of God.

But really, I'm not that clever. Staring at my 11 pounds, 3,775 pages, roughly 2 million words of Stephensonia, I feel the queasiness of a boa constrictor who has rashly swallowed not one, not two, not three, but four water buffalo. This act of digestive hubris has paralyzed me. How is all this to be reduced to manageable size? Where does one begin? Stephenson doesn't just care about technology and money and excrement -- he cares about the intersection of God and science, the emergence of democracy, the rethinking of religion, the birth of the digital computer, and the abolition of slavery. All are mixed in with a love story, an action thriller, the search for Solomon's gold, an intellectual duel to the death between Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton, and the rise and fall of kings and nations.

As I look back on my previous attempts to wrestle this herd of buffalo to a standstill, "clever" is not the word that springs to mind to characterize their sagacity. In my review of Volume 1, I said Stephenson didn't seem to care about plot. I was wrong. Plot abounds, and Volume 3 delivers a multilayered payoff that would not have been possible without the avid and thorough preparation wrought in Volumes 1 and 2. Villains get their comeuppance, true love perseveres, mysteries (well, most of them, anyway) are explained, a new world order is birthed, and the ending of it all is most satisfactory.

Furthermore, I implied in my review of Volume 2 that its focus on the exploits of Jack the Vagabond King and Eliza, the former harem slave turned Duchess of Qwghlm, made it more satisfying than Volume 1 because fewer pages were devoted to the natural philosopher Daniel Waterhouse, who, in Volume 1, was always mooning about, obsessed with free will and heresy and the architectural reimagining of London.

But Volume 3 is Waterhouse's revenge, and it is a triumph. If Jack is the ultimate man of action, then Daniel Waterhouse is the paradigmatic man of reason, the moral and technological core of "The Baroque Cycle," its true hero. Let us pause for a moment and let Stephenson do the writing. Listen to Waterhouse, the scion of royalty-beheading Puritans, account for himself to a courtier of the Princess of Hanover, who is about to ascend to the English throne.

"Listen to me. I did not wish to be summoned by your Princess. Summoned, I did not wish to come. But having been summoned, and having come, I mean to give a good account of myself. That's how I was taught by my father, and the men of his age who slew Kings and swept away not merely governments but whole Systems of Thought, like Khans of the mind."

Like Khans of the mind! A mere five words out of nearly 2 million, and yet they are minted of the purest gold. I stare at Mount Stephenson threatening to tumble down upon my keyboard, and my only wish is that it was higher still.

Neal Stephenson occupies a unique place in the pantheon of speculative fiction-writing demigods, because he possesses both unlimited ambition and a colossal capacity for silliness. One needs only to recall the extended treatment of the Captain Crunch-consuming ritual of "Cryptonomicon" protagonist (and Daniel Waterhouse descendent) Randy Waterhouse, to appreciate Stephenson's ability to take an absurd premise and articulate it beyond all sane restraint. I hold no brief for cereal, personally, but the loving, obsessive-compulsive detail with which Stephenson depicts Waterhouse's efforts to combine milk and Crunch nuggets in the most efficient and delicious manner possible is a definitive example of his sui generis stock in trade.

There is a danger in cultivating wacky excess -- self-indulgence on such a grand scale can obscure the greater narrative and runs the risk of coming off as wanking just for wanking's sake. There are occasions in "The Baroque Cycle" where Stephenson bogs down, where so much time is spent drilling down to the last extraneous molecule that the effort of reading becomes tiresome, rather than an exhilarating flight of fancy. (Or as Stephenson spells it, "phant'sy.")

But, and this is one of the joys of reaching the finish line of the Cycle, there is more method to Stephenson's madness in these tomes than in any of his previous works. By the end, one realizes that in many cases what once seemed a foray into insubstantial irrelevance was a carefully placed foundation stone.

In "Quicksilver," the first installment of the Cycle, Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton, two students at Cambridge, visit a local fair. Newton attempts to purchase some prisms. Instead, he gets a "lesson in the unbelievable shabbiness of the English coinage." In the ensuing pages, we are offered a quick and dirty introduction to the difference between shillings coined during the reign of James I, those that were minted during the Cromwell interregnum (and have since been "demonetized") and the new, perfectly circular guineas of Charles II (so named because they were made from gold that the Duke of York had mined in Africa). We are also introduced to the problems that ensue when such coins are clipped and worn down or otherwise debased.

It all seems a great lark, Stephenson riffing along about the bizarre variety of coins that Isaac Newton might have in his pocket. Isn't 17th century money just so cute! But there's more going on here than is immediately apparent. Newton and the prism seller aren't just arguing over price; they are arguing over how to evaluate the merits of the individual coins that are the very basis for exchange. They have to define their money before it can be spent.

Fast-forward to Volume 3. Newton -- who is, in the Cycle, as compelling a character as any Stephenson has ever brought to life -- is now the master of the Royal Mint, a position he held for 30 years, long after he made his name with his theories of gravity and optics. His life's goal is to bring order, sense and accuracy to the English coinage. (There's another purpose, as well, but since it involves the central fantastical mystery of the Cycle, I'll leave that for readers to discover for themselves.) Meanwhile, Jack the Vagabond King, whose exploits provide much of the drama in Volumes 1 and 2, has transmuted into Jack the Coiner, a counterfeiter who is Newton's bête noire.

The struggle between Jack and Newton is the struggle between old order and new -- one of the many birth pangs in the extended labor that results in the Enlightenment. Newton (whose third volume of "Principia Mathematica," incidentally, is named "The System of the World") wants to bring reason into full effect, monetarily speaking and otherwise. No more doubt and imprecision! No more need to weigh or bite or otherwise determine the provenance of a coin before making a purchase. And while he is adjusting the coinage of the realm, elsewhere -- on the London Exchange or in Amsterdam or a score of other innovative entrepôts -- stock markets and credit schemes and other financial strategies are ushering in even vaster changes.

This system of money is not without its detractors, reactionaries who see in the new Cult of Finance abomination and anathema. The chief villain of the Cycle is Edouard de Gex, a French Jesuit priest who hounds Jack and his life-love Eliza. Why does he despise them so? In Volume 3, with Eliza finally within his dastardly grasp, he proclaims (with a desperation that is clearly the last gasp of an expiring age) his hatred for all things numismatic.

"'Money, and all that comes with it, disgusts me,' said Father Edouard de Gex, 'within living memory, men and women of noble birth did not even have to think about it. Oh there were rich nobles and poor, just as there were tall and short, beautiful and ugly. But it would never have entered the mind of even a peasant to phant'sy that a penniless duke was any less a duke, or that a rich whore ought to be made a duchess. Nobles did not handle money, or speak of it; if they were guilty of caring about it, they took pains to hide it, as with any other vice. Men of the cloth did not need money, or use it, except for a few whose distasteful duty it was to take in the tithes from the poor-box. And ordinary honest peasants lived a life blessedly free of money. To nobles, clerics, and peasants -- the only people needed or wanted in a decent Christian Realm -- coins were as alien, eldritch, inexplicable as communion wafers to a Hindoo ... The makers, users, and hoarders of money were a cult, a cabal, a parasitical infestation, enduring through many ages, no more Christian than the Jews -- indeed, many were Jews ... This was repugnant but endurable. But what has happened of late is monstrous. The money-cult has spread faster across what used to be Christendom than the faith of Mahomet did across Araby. I did not grasp the enormity of it until you came to Versailles as an infamous Dutch whore, a plaything of diseased bankers, and shortly were ennobled -- made into a countess, complete with a fabricated pedigree -- and why? Because you had noble qualities? No. Only because you were Good With Money...'"

The great marvel of the Enlightenment is that the introduction of a new system of money was being matched simultaneously by new systems of science and religion and government. In every aspect of civilization, bold thinkers dared to reorder the cosmos, to sweep away the confounding murk of the past and replace it with a new and better way of doing things.

The ferment is extraordinary. But one could understand if such changes might trigger a crisis of faith.

How do men of science explain God? Or, conversely, how do men of faith come to terms with science? Is the miraculous complexity unveiled by modern biology and chemistry and physics proof of an awesome creator, or the opposite?

"The Baroque Cycle" contains many things, some of which, like the extended analysis of the blueprint of the Tower of London that drags on forever in "The System of the World," are less interesting than others. But like a compass whose needle continually swings back to point to north, no matter how many times it is jostled, Stephenson's trilogy keeps returning to an awesome preoccupation: the truth about God and the universe.

Smart people often disagree on this topic; really smart people are often obsessed with it. If we are to trust Stephenson, and I see no reason not to, Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton were two of the smartest people ever. Both were men of profound faith, and yet they were responsible for scientific and philosophical discoveries that, in the centuries after them, fundamentally shook Western civilization's faith in that omnipotent deity on high.

Newton and Leibniz have issues. There is, for one thing, the question of who invented "the calculus" first. The evidence leans Leibniz's way, but Newton will kowtow to no man. Oh, and then there's that trifling dispute as to how the universe works.

The quest for understanding the underlying principles of everything runs through each volume of "The Baroque Cycle," a kind of meta-umbrella encompassing all the other sub-themes (to recap: birth of modern finance, biology and chemistry; transition from monarchy to representative government; alchemical search for eternal life, et cetera). But in "The System of the World" this search becomes most explicit.

In Volume 3, the philosophical becomes personal when Waterhouse arranges a debate between Leibniz and Newton in the presence of the perspicacious Princess Caroline of Hanover (wife of George I, the first Hanoverian king of England).

The chapter, titled "Philosophick Showdown at Leicester House," delivers a scene that action fans might find paralyzing, literary critics might sneer at, and only a very small subset of geekily arrogant writers would even attempt (Thomas Pynchon and Richard Powers come to mind). Two of history's greatest geniuses put their unified-theories-of-existence cards on the table. The sniping is fast and furious. At stake is not just truth itself, but as Leibniz accuses Newton, the potential crime of "spreading doctrines that incline others toward Atheistical views." (The slur, Newton says, more properly should be aimed at Leibniz.)

A typical exchange goes something like this:

"By no means," said Leibniz. "I say only that, though the machine of the body obeys deterministic laws, it does so in accordance with the desires and dictates of the soul, because of the pre-established harmony."

"Of that, we must needs hear more, for it is very difficult to understand," said the Princess.

"Chiefly because it is wrong!" said Sir Isaac.

Caroline now had to literally step between the two philosophers.

Much as the image of Leibniz and Newton as WWF wrestlers body-slamming each other amuses, the terms of this debate are challenging to comprehend. Does the soul have a mechanical, deterministic basis, or doesn't it? What does this have to do with Leibniz's theory of monads and Newton's theory of gravitation? It hardly seems worth mentioning that the two philosophers do not come to agreement.

And what of that cutting accusation, that one or the other philosopher's discoveries are turning people away from God? If the Enlightenment, which these two men are partial architects of, is a process that unlocked humanity from a state of blind faith into knowing doubt, then aren't both men guilty?

My own feeble grounding in natural philosophy, not to mention advanced mathematics and physics, does not equip me to evaluate the debate between Leibniz and Newton from a position of authority. The only thing I can discern for sure is that two very smart men utterly disagree with each other.

Could that be the point -- that there is no consensus? This is not to say that Stephenson is some kind of postmodern relativist who believes everything is a social construct. Far from it. In the past, Stephenson has saved some of his most cutting scorn for such types -- like all good engineers, Stephenson has always conveyed the sense that you can figure out how things work, and indeed, the whole point of "The Baroque Cycle" is to wallow as thoroughly as possible in the sights, smells and sounds of a period in history where people were figuring out how things really worked.

But that doesn't mean that they got the final answer, or even that any such answer is possible, or that any new system is perfect.

At the very end of his epic, Waterhouse reflects that even a "flawed and doomed" system is better than no system at all. Here, and elsewhere in this final volume, there is some ominous foreshadowing of just where men of reason may end up leading the world: the horrors of 20th century fascism and totalitarianism, the manifest failures of democracy and capitalism, the heightening tension between science and faith that plagues us to this day.

Surely, if the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment were so smart, they could have done better? Or could have declined to chomp at the forbidden apple?

But that's not how science works. It's not how engineers or programmers work, either. There is no perfect system -- you just keep tinkering until you get something that works well enough, and when that breaks down you come up with a new improved model. The effort of improvement is its own reward. In "Cryptonomicon," Avi Halaby, Randy Waterhouse's partner, is trying to come up with a scheme using computers, networks and cryptography that will prevent future Holocausts. It's not clear that it will have any real chance of success, but still, one must try.

That effort at understanding, at tinkering with the system, of looking through the microscope, of striving for first principles even though full knowledge may never be attained, is the preoccupation of Stephenson's characters in "The Baroque Cycle." One senses his admiration on every page, and his challenge: to follow their example, to tinker some more, to reform the coinage, figure out a unified theory, end slavery, build cool computers and, above all, go for the gold.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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