The Cycle covers the seventy-odd years of the lifetime of Dr Daniel Waterhouse, founder member and Secretary of the Royal Society, and friend of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, John Wilkins, Samuels Pepys, Gottfried Leibniz, and various other educated real-life people. Plus various royalties. It covers the Plague, the Fire of London, the founding of banks, currency, international trading, and so on.
As with his other books, System demonstrates Stephenson's delightfully contemporary prose, mixed with the a sharp eye to both period detail and period dialogue. Not, you understand, that I'd be able to tell if he were getting it at all wrong, but it seemed authentic enough to this ignorant reader. And his turns of phrase make me laugh, so that's good, too.
The previous volume focused mainly on the exploits of Jack Shaftoe, rampaging about on the high seas engaging in acts of meticulous piracy, and on Eliza, financial entrepeneur and occasional intelligencer in the courts of England and France, System goes back to the roots of volume one, picking up the thread with Waterhouse, Newton and Leibniz. The latter are embroiled in a bitter (and genuine) dispute about the origins of calculus, and Waterhouse has been landed with the task of pouring oil on these troubled waters. Summoned to England from his long sojourn in Boston, Daniel has barely completed an eventful Atlantic crossing when he's nearly killed by the explosion of an Infernal Device. Waterhouse has to contend with this, Peter the Great, various scheming Whigs and Tories, and other bizarre influences before he can try to sort out the Newton-Leibniz issue. And that's before Jack returns to the story, and turns everything on its head.
It's marvellous stuff, appallingly-well researched, but not quite as gripping as volume two. It's good, but it's always at its best when Jack's on stage and being, well, Jack.
If you're at all interested in Stephenson, you might like to know that he was interviewed on Slashdot recently. His responses on how sf writers are viewed by the literary crowd are particularly informative. As with everything else, his answer seems to be an eloquent history lesson, disguised as a good tale.