Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.


Books I Haven’t Read (part three)

In which we haven't read “The System Of The World” by Neal Stephenson

Update, August 20th 2020: A number of posts on this site have a minor update at the bottom, but not many have an update at the top.

It’s now 2020, nearly fifteen years since I first wrote this post, and I’m going through the archives doing a few updates. Tidying things up, fixing now-broken stale links and ancient typos, and excising anything that, at fifteen years distance, feels slightly too pointless or humiliating. And then, I come to this. And I’m not entirely sure what to do with it.

Posts that can be tidied up stylistically, they’re easy to deal with. Posts that are just too maudlin or self-obsessive: they can get right out of here. But posts and series of posts that I quite like, they’re staying, and I quite like the whole “Books I Haven’t Read” series. The problem is: how to deal with a post which openly admits that I used to enjoy reading Neal Stephenson?

At some point I will write a proper post for this site about why I used to enjoy reading Stephenson, why now I don’t any more, and what I actually think about his writing. There could well be another Books I Haven’t Read about a Stephenson book: Anathem, which arrived onto my bookshelves and then departed off my bookshelves several years later without me even managing to open it. But rewriting this post to take that into account would turn it into something entirely different now to what it originally was then, which goes rather against the idea that this is just a minor tidying-up exercise. I’ve decided, therefore, to keep this post pretty much as it originally was back in 2005, but with this great disclaimer at the start, a disclaimer that may well be larger than the post itself by the time I have finished writing it. This post is a museum piece. Read it, but please don’t believe it reflects my views now. Well, apart from what I think of the ridiculous implausible zipwire scene in The System Of The World, which is one of the few things I can actually remember being in the book.

Now, shaky back-in-time dissolve effect, read on…

This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading is both a book, and a series of books, and also something that follows on neatly from the previous Book I Haven’t Read. It’s The System Of The World by Neal Stephenson, the final part of his Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Now, the trilogy is in itself a sequel to the earlier, 20th-century book Cryptonomicon, which I read and loved. The Baroque Cycle is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, filled with real-world characters such as Isaac Newton and Sam Pepys, and is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 pages long. The length isn’t a problem, though;* I seem to have a problem with the way the style of the books changes through the series, even though that change isn’t itself something I can put into words.

The first book, Quicksilver, I read and, again, loved. The second book, The Confusion, took two goes to get to the end. It’s not any longer, its intertwined-but-unrelated plotlines aren’t any denser or more complex, but for some reason it was a lot harder to finish. The System Of The World I’ve tried to read three times, and each time I haven’t got very far at all.

If there is anything I can put my finger on, it’s that somehow The System Of The World feels slightly cartoonish compared to the other books. The main characters swoop into the Tower Of London in a Spiderman style, or are suddenly faced with a ticking timebomb that needs to be defused. The complex political intrigues of the earlier books are still there; and in the earlier books they were mixed with action too. However, the action sequences in the third book are somehow much less plausible. Because of this, the disparate plotlines don’t feel as connected; and the whole thing is much more difficult to finish.

* Cryptonomicon is a similar length to each of the later books, and felt too short in parts, as if large amounts of exposition had been excised by the editor. Or maybe I’m just slow at spotting plot points.