Free trade, private property, civil liberties, classical liberalism and modern libertarianism: An Appreciation of Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, the 2005 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, the 2005 Prometheus Best Novel winner:

By William H. Stoddard

The development in the late 1600s and early 1700s of the modern world’s classical liberal institutions, which paved the way for modern libertarianism, is explored in Neal Stephenson’s epic 2004 novel, the climax of the author’s ambitious Baroque Cycle trilogy (preceded by Quicksilver and The Confusion), which has been hailed by Entertainment Weekly as “the definitive historical-sci-fi-epic-pirate-comedy-punk love story.”

In the complex, multi-threaded plot of The System of the World, Stephenson traces the distant ancestors of many key characters from his earlier novel Cryptonomicon through encounters with major figures in the science and politics of the era, among whom Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz are key figures. In effect, this is a secret history of the origins of experimental natural science, the British monetary system, and the antislavery movement, among other elements of modernity.

The Baroque Cycle – which touches upon the development in the 1700s of such classical-liberal institutions as the rule of law, limited government, due process, civil liberties, free trade, private property, and separation of church and state – can be read as a straightforwardly historical novel drawing on such sources as the French Annales school of historiography — if a wildly inventive one that fully lives up to the label “baroque.”

However, it offers clear hints at fantastic elements, including early computing engines, alchemic gold, and the mysterious figure of Enoch Root, apparently the same one who appears in the twentieth century of Cryptonomicon and the twenty-first century of Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.

    All three of the novel’s chief agonists are motivated by great passions. For libertarian readers, perhaps the most sympathetic will be Eliza, an escapee from the harem of the Turkish sultan, who devotes her life to making an end to slavery.

Stephenson makes the point that a market economy with sound money, technology based on steam power, and parliamentary government all bring this within the realm of possibility — and his other primary and secondary characters are all involved with such enterprises, giving The Baroque Cycle a larger historical movement surrounding its complex plot about individual characters.

Note: Stephenson also won the 2016 Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Seveneves. His Cryptonomicon, a 2000 Prometheus Best Novel finalist, was inducted in 2013 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame –  the first former Best Novel finalist (that didn’t win that year) to be inducted years later, once eligible for consideration for the Hall of Fame.

Neal Stephenson (Creative Commons license)

Among Stephenson’s other Best Novel nominees: REAMDE (in 2012), Anathem (in 2009), The Confusion (in 2005), Quicksilver (in 2004) and The Diamond Age (in 1996).

Note: Reviewer William H. Stoddard, a professional copy editor, one of the earliest and oldest sustaining LFS members and a past editor of the LFS journal Prometheus, is chair of the LFS Board of Directors.


* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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