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The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3) Hardcover – September 21, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 168 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The colossal and impressive third volume (after Quicksilver and The Confusion) of Stephenson's magisterial exploration of the origins of the modern world in the scientific revolution of the baroque era begins in 1714. Daniel Waterhouse has returned to England, hoping to mediate the feud between Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz, both of whom claim to have discovered the calculus and neither of whom is showing much scientific rationality in the dispute. This brawl takes place against the background of the imminent death of Queen Anne, which threatens a succession crisis as Jacobite (Stuart, Catholic) sympathizers confront supporters of the Hanoverian succession. Aside from the potential effect of the outcome on the intellectual climate of England, these political maneuverings are notable for the role played by trilogy heroine Eliza de la Zour, who is now wielding her influence over Caroline of Ansbach, consort of the Hanoverian heir. Eliza has risen from the streets to the nobility without losing any of her creativity or her talents as a schemer; nor has outlaw Jack Shaftoe lost any of his wiliness. What he may have lost is discretion, since he oversteps the boundaries of both law and good sense far enough to narrowly escape the hangman. In the end, reluctant hero Waterhouse prevails against the machinations of everybody else, and scientific (if not sweet) reason wins by a nose. The symbol of that victory is the inventor Thomas Newcomen standing (rather like a cock crowing) atop the boiler of one of his first steam engines. This final volume in the cycle is another magnificent portrayal of an era, well worth the long slog it requires of Stephenson's many devoted readers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

The conclusion to The Baroque Cycle is a veritable doorstop, but a doorstop perhaps worth its weight in 18th-century gold coins—especially to those who need a reminder about the dangerous misuses of science and “progress.” Critics can’t heap enough praise on Stephenson’s eloquent narration, true-to-life characters, and impeccable plotting (“generated via Waterhouse’s Logic Mills,” says the San Francisco Chronicle). Stephenson exquisitely unearths Baroque history, too, from mints to gardens to Jacobites. While compelling, you’ll best appreciate this epic history-romance-science fiction story “once you have a solid liberal arts education under your belt” (Chronicle). Stephenson mostly gets away with his philosophical pedantry because he’s so smart and inventive. If you have the courage to delve in, you won’t be disappointed. And if you can’t bring yourself to start with Quicksilver, System includes a preface relating “the story thus far” that reviewers found helpful enough.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Series: Baroque Cycle
  • Hardcover: 912 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; First Edition edition (September 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060523875
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060523879
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (168 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #195,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Vilches on December 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In 1714, Daniel Waterhouse finishes his long trip from America to England. He is prepared to mediate a vicious argument between Newton and Leibniz about who invented calculus first. But he is quickly caught up in diverse adventures: building a logic mill, sleuthing out a bomb maker, playing shell games with gold, and planning jailbreaks. Jack Shaftoe pops in here and there sowing mayhem and counterfeit coins. Eliza, the Countess de la Zeur by way of being "Good with Money", continues her behind-the-scenes royal intrigues and her efforts to end slavery.

Conflicts galore weave together into a complex tapestry: the power struggle between the Whigs and the Tories, the battle between Newton the Minter and Jack the Coiner, the feuding calculus inventors, and the clash between alchemy and science. In the end it all boils down to this: will the new system of the world be based on free markets and science? Or feudalism and alchemy?

The third and final book in the Baroque Cycle is just as weighty as the first two. It features a quick synopsis of Quicksilver and The Confusion for those who need a refresher. Even with the summary, I wouldn't advise starting with the third book. Each of the books in the series has its own character. Quicksilver was all about set-up, so while it was rich in detail and characters, it could be slow and a bit disjointed at times. The Confusion was full of madcap adventures and the pieces just flew around the board. The System of the World wraps all of the previous threads together, and strikes a nice balance between philosophy, intrigue, and action.

Stephenson keeps up the expected torrent of words, but as with the other two books, he keeps your attention with an iron fist of plot in a velvet glove of delightful prose.
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Format: Hardcover
The Baroque Cycle as a whole is one the most wholly remarkable series of books written by any author that we are aware of. It is an important read for anyone willing and able to change their thinking about how things work, how societies come to be, and how one should go about living theirs. Its scholarship is breathtaking. Its point supremely important and accurate. The Baroque Cycle will not have so much an effect on the genre of speculative fiction as it will on the fiction as a whole and answering the question of why do people bother to read? It is to read things like The Baroque Cycle that we read: to discover things about ourselves and the world around us. It will be interesting to see if, in 10 or 15 years, other authors dare to extend their concept of science fiction in to the past as Stephenson has done.


Anyone who is reading this review has probably already invested a substantial amount of time in reading Quicksilver and The Confusion. It is unthinkable that, after reading those books, that they will not attempt System of the World. We will not deter them--they should run forth and purchase because it is refreshing to see such a work of astonishing scope come to a sort of satisfactory conclusion. The Baroque Cycle as a whole we feel will ultimately become a defining work in literature marking the early 21st century. The only thing that may hold it back is its length, which is daunting but wholly necessary.


There may be a certain segment reading this series only for Jack Shaftoe and his exploits. While he is here in this book, he is not the focus and he seems somehow diminished in his age. We can't imagine anyone continuing to read these books only for adventure narrative but, if that was your main draw, it is largely absent in System and is much more focused on philosophy, economics, and politics.

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My five stars are specifically for The System of the World, not the entire series.

In the acknowledgements, Stephenson refers to a mid-course correction with regards to his writing approach. He does not describe what it is, but I think I know. In the first book, there are many passages that are so oblique, tangential, and orthogonal only to style that I found it difficult to stay with the program the whole way through. This tendency lessened in The Confusion and nearly disappears here in System. Good for him, good for us.

My only real complaint for this book is Mr. Stephenson's need to provide painfully detailed driving directions of old London. I appreciate his descriptive powers (I really do!) but describing what street flows into which, where, and whether to turn left or right, &c. [ ;-) ] is a bit irritating. His map on the inside cover is not detailed enough for following along, assuming that you accept such embellishment is necessary for advancing the story. E.g., one of the two climaxes is at Tyburn, the streets around which are described for PARAGRAPHS. Go ahead and try to find it on the map.

Why am I bitching? I have no idea. I loved the characters, loved this book, enjoyed the Confusion and had faith through Quicksilver. Maybe I'm put off because he's SO CLOSE to being a true literary genius of my generation, but he's not QUITE there yet. Hey, there seems to be a 200 year gap for him to work with now...
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Format: Paperback
I just finished this series, and I can now safely say Neal Stephenson is my favorite writer. To give you some points of comparison, my previous favorite was Philip K. Dick. Here is a list of my other favorites: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Christopher Buckley, Robert E. Howard, and John Keegan (historian).

So why is NS my favorite now? He does everything my favorite writers do--word play and dialogue like Shakespeare, philosophy like Lewis, weird distinct characters like Heinlein, truly surprising and novel ideas like PKD, wit like Chris Buckley, swashbuckling adventure like Howard, and living breathing history like Keegan.

I just finished the cycle, over 2,400 pages, and I want to read it all over again from start to finish; in fact, I did just that today, at least in bits and pieces, re-reading the first meeting of Jack and Eliza, Waterhouse's first appearance as an old man, etc. The cycle shows a rich love of continuity and depth of meaning in which I stand in awe, especially as an aspring author myself. The entire cycle begins and ends with a hanging. It begins with Waterhouse being summoned on a mission we (and he) understand not for 2,000+ pages, but, just as in life, eventually we can make out some purpose to it all once we arrive.

While some passages SEEM long-winded, it all matters. Every description of the streets of London, etc. have meaning to the entire book. Those who say the plot of the cycle could be told in 50 pages are correct. This is just one of the many things I love about the books--they are distinctly not about plot. Rather than discursively going on and on with plot, the cycle focuses on thematics, character, and development of an idea.
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