The System of the World
Neal Stephenson, 2004

So, seven months ago I started working on another screenplay, and while initially the time commitment was fairly manageable — I went on leave from my day job, and just devoted the time I usually spent on that to this — in January the word came down from L.A. that it was time to kick things into another gear, and from that point onward I was working on the script pretty much from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep, seven days a week, world without end. My one break every day was to have something to eat, which I usually went out for just so I could get out of the house for a bit. So that I would have something better than the Bay Classifieds to read, I brought a book — this book, which I thereby wound up reading in fifteen-minute chunks over the course of 3½ months. (Meaning that I had to check it out of the library, renew it, renew it again, return it, then check another copy out of a different library. Maybe I should've picked something that didn't run 886 pages, but on the other hand, if I'd finished sooner I wouldn't have had time to write it up anyway.)

Anyway, so this is the third and final installment of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," whose first two parts, each of them nearly a thousand pages long in their own right, I reviewed here and here. And this is basically more of the same sophomoric, turbid chess boxing I described in those two articles. This is the first book I can recall that, on multiple occasions, made random people who saw me reading it interrupt me to exclaim about what an awesome book it was, but I wasn't hugely impressed. In fact, I almost gave up after two hundred pages, and I was really ready to call it quits when I hit the Scottish dialect — but I gave it one more page, which brought me to the punchline:

"[...] there is a certain matter never spoken of in polite society, and yet known to all, which will, if we ignore it — pretending that it does not exist — turn what should be a pleasant social occasion into an insufferable ordeal. You do know — or as you would say, 'ken' — what I speak of, my lord?"
      "Crivvens!" exclaimed Lord Gy. "Wha hae foostit ben the heid-hoose!?" The he added, with unmistakable sarcasm: "Serr's, a coud gae through the fluir."
      "Brilliant, that is a paradigmatic specimen," said Throwley. "It is this, my lord: you do not speak English."

So there you go. If I was so ambivalent about this series, why did I plow through 2645 pages of it? The answer, as any Psych 101 student will tell you: inconsistent reinforcement. Every so often, at irregular intervals, there would be something cool — whether it be the meta joke above about dialect in novels, or a momentary focus on one of the interesting aspects of the story, or just a memorable turn of phrase, that would justify having spent a week's worth of lunches slogging through a chapter about Jack or one of the action scenes.

Speaking of which, I think I have a bead on why I find Stephenson's action scenes so opaque. One of the things I had to learn — and keep having to be reminded — is that a screenplay is only supposed to describe what the audience can see and hear. You can't say "Sarah writes a poem," because how are the viewers supposed to know it's a poem? You have to say something like "Sarah writes in a small leatherbound book, and over her shoulder we see that the lines are short and grouped into stanzas" — for that's the image that viewers will then mentally translate into, "Oh, looks like she's writing a poem." In prose, on the other hand, you can just say what's happening. But in his action scenes, Stephenson doesn't do that. Instead, they tend to go more like this:

[...] Woodruff could be seen kicking furiously at something that emitted dense smoke, and kept adhering to his foot in a way that made him very cross: the wig. White meanwhile was making preparations to re-load.
      It was then that they ceased to exist. Dappa's and van Hoek's view of the Bulwark was eliminated, replaced by a sphere of flame with ugly dark bits circling out of it. Once again they threw themselves to the ground.

What just happened? Stephenson doesn't say. As in a film, it's up to us to consider the image and figure out what we're looking at. But of course, this isn't a film. It's text, and we're therefore stuck with the extra step of translating words into images. This might come naturally to some, but I don't have a very visual mind. One of the filmmakers I know once tried to explain to me that movies follow dream logic because they're series of images, just like dreams... and I was like, what? My dreams are rarely anything like movies — I'm not seeing things happen, I just suddenly kind of know that they did. Same thing with most prose: when I read "the helicopter crashed," I'm not seeing a helicopter crash in my mind's eye. I just add the concept of a helicopter crash to my understanding of the situation. But Stephenson's action scenes generally don't allow you to go straight from words to concepts like that. And this is of course a deliberate choice; in limiting the information the reader gets to what a particular set of characters can see, he both tries to foster identification with those characters and conveys their confusion, as they have no more idea what happened than we do. But it's not a choice that makes for enjoyable reading, at least not for me.

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