So what are these books about? The most common answer to this question, found in innumerable reviews, is that they're about some great change in society; the destruction of an old system of the world for a newer one. In some accounts, it's the demise of the feudal system, run by nobility, in which everyone knows their place -- replaced by a new system of money and markets. In others, it's the destruction of the intellectually bankrupt scholarly system of alchemy for a kind of science that works. And, indeed, there's a lot in the books about both transitions.
But all of that misses a point that Stephenson is at pains to make in the third volume, The System of the World -- that in transitions like this, the old system doesn't really go away. It's still there, moving beneath the surface, not perceived, but still present for those who know how to exploit it. Like the paved-over moat that once surrounded the Fleet Prison. Or the buried, ruined temples of more than one kind that serve the Waterhouse family for storage. Or the river Walbrook, vanished off the maps centuries before the action, but still flowing underground, which still serves at one point as a useful medium for transport. And if that's not enough, Stephenson makes the metaphor explicit, by putting it in Daniel's mouth. I actually think this is thematically one of the more important passages in the Cycle:
- It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any old Systems. But things I have seen recently, in the subterranean places beneath the Bank, have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microsope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. When we have stronger microscopes I should not be surprised to discover yet smaller and simpler organisms within those animalcules. And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philospher's Stone. It shall be gone from view but it shall continue to run along beneath, as the lost river Walbrook streams beneath the Bank of England.
Though skeptics will be sure to note that this argument is advanced to mollify a skeptic of alchemy, and it isn't wholly clear that either he or Daniel entirely buys it.
To add to that (and to get to the minor spoilers mentioned above), Stephenson makes it absolutely clear that in his world, alchemy works. It's not just that the Solomonic Gold manages somehow to be demonstrably heavier than ordinary gold (which, yes, in our world has only one stable isotope). Its transformative properties are clearly real, and this is critical to the action in more than one way at the climax of the plot. And yet the characters presented as advocates of science (including one historical character of note) are engaged, at the end, in suppressing this remarkably useful, if inconvenient, fact, and driving all evidence of it figuratively, if not literally, underground -- which isn't exactly my idea of good science.
But anyway, thus the plot. Now what are we to make of this? Why has Stephenson tossed these particular strange ingredients into his potboiler? They might be there just to spice things up. Except that they don't, or at least not much. Were alchemy transformed into the superstitious nonsense that modern readers (and many of Stephenson's own characters) take it for, and the ruses used by certain long-lived characters transformed into fact, the tale could proceed for most of its epic length very little altered. Indeed, it's to the point that the startling transformations near the very end feel to me at least, as I remarked on the Crooked Timber thread, like they're not quite playing fair with the reader.
So here's another idea. In a story that's absolutely shot through with cryptograms, hidden messages, and secret identities of multiple kinds, I don't think it's going too far to suggest that the treatment of alchemy in the narrative may be deliberately intended as a metaphor for something else. Which brings me back to the other grand social transformation in the Cycle -- from a society regulated by the nobility and the church (represented, to my way of thinking, not so much by Louis XIV, important as he is to the plot, as the fictional and far more reactionary de Gex), to one regulated by currency and markets. In which case, it could all be taken as an indirect and roundabout way of hinting to the reader that this other old System of the World -- based on personal ties among titled elites -- has been encapsulated within the new, market-driven System of the World, and become a familar and even comforting presence there, though its name may have changed and its practitioners speak no more about noble titles; that it is gone from view but continues to run along beneath, as the lost river... well, you get the idea. In which context, the deliberate hiding of the old System makes a little more sense; the new System just functions better with the old one out of view.
What makes this an interesting notion is that, whether Stephenson intended to hit the reader over the head with it or not, it's demonstrably true. Even in America, as Kevin Philips is at pains to demonstrate in the first section of Wealth and Democracy, there actually is a self-perpetuating elite, with dozens of families at least (Mellons, Rockefellers et al.) who made their money first in the nineteenth or even eighteenth century, and still have it. And for every such family whose name is at least commonly recognizable, there are quite a few more who are happier to stay in the shadows. They have their clubs, their social groups (the Bilderbergers, the Bohemian Grove) quietly still running along. Which isn't to say that it's all that's going on. The new System of the World isn't simply the old, presented through shadow-play; it has vitality of its own. Rather, it's to say that the old System is still operating, and you can't completely understand the operation of the new System without it. But there are others on the net who might, perhaps, be inclined to take this line of argument further than I would.
So all this stuff aside, what about the books?
A common reaction to the Cycle is that Stephenson needed a stronger-willed editor. The books are maddeningly discursive -- a vast, unruly stew, full of short-story- and even novella-length pieces that are tangential at best to the overall plot. (It feels at points like this is a story for which the best medium might have truly been hypertext -- for more detail on how a certain minor character was killed off at the Battle of the Boyne, click here). There really are a few unfortunates dragged into the books for no better reason at all than to let Stephenson say that they weren't expecting the Spanish Inquisition. And particularly early on, there's a surfeit of jockeying for social position among English aristocrats, which (speaking from experience here) has a strong deterrent effect on readers who aren't constitutionally inclined to care very much about that sort of thing. But many of the winks, nods, and references do hit home -- like a wicked riposte to the arguments against machine intelligence advanced by philosphers like Lucas and Searle, seamlessly woven into the story. And there's something here for everyone's taste.
So my advice -- pick a spot you like and dig in. The storylines featuring Eliza (the one-time harem girl who collects paramours and destroys bankers all over Europe), and Jack Shaftoe (her lost love, thief, adventurer, and King of the Vagabonds) rarely disappoint. Skip the boring parts if you have to (whatever you decide those happen to be; it's a matter of taste), and come back to them later if you must. Stephenson's left quite a few gaps in the narrative himself -- John Clute to the contrary, it's one of his best tricks, and always has been (as when he got a couple of characters on the road in Snow Crash, and then abruptly cut off with the bravura flourish, "after that it's just a chase scene.") Because whatever your taste, there's something in there you will like. If you wind up skimming or skipping the rest on a first reading, in the privacy of your own home -- well, the worst that happens is that you have to go back and read what happened in those chapters, except this time with a reason to care. It's safe. Jack Shaftoe has left the building.