The system of the world - By Neal Stephenson

The story thus far…

In Boston in October 1713, Daniel Waterhouse, sixty-seven years of age, the Founder and sole Fellow of a failing college, the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Technologickal Arts, has received a startling visit from the Alchemist Enoch Root, who has appeared on his doorstep brandishing a summons addressed to Daniel from Princess Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, thirty.

Two decades earlier, Daniel, along with his friend and colleague Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, knew Princess Caroline when she was a destitute orphan. Since then she has grown up as a ward of the King and Queen of Prussia in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, surrounded by books, artists, and Natural Philosophers, including Leibniz. She has married the Electoral Prince of Hanover, George Augustus, known popularly as “Young Hanover Brave” for his exploits in the recently concluded War of the Spanish Succession. He is reputed to be as handsome and dashing as Caroline is beautiful and brilliant.

The grandmother of George Augustus is Sophie of Hanover, still shrewd and vigorous at eighty-three. According to the Whigs—one of the two great factions in English politics—Sophie should be next in line to the English throne after the death of Queen Anne, who is forty-eight and in poor health. This would place Princess Caroline in direct line to become Princess of Wales and later Queen of England. The Whigs’ bitter rivals, the Tories, while paying lip service to the Hanoverian succession, harbor many powerful dissidents, called Jacobites, who are determined that the next monarch should instead be James Stuart: a Catholic who has lived most of his life in France as a guest and puppet of the immensely powerful Sun King, Louis XIV.

England and an alliance of mostly Protestant countries have just finished fighting a quarter-century-long world war against France. The second half of it, known as the War of the Spanish Succession, has seen many battlefield victories for the Allies under the generalship of two brothers in arms: the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy. Nevertheless France has won the war, in large part by outmaneuvering her opponents politically. Consequently, a grandson of Louis XIV now sits on the throne of the Spanish Empire, which among other things is the source of most of the world’s gold and silver. If the English Jacobites succeed in placing James Stuart on the English throne, France’s victory will be total.

In anticipation of the death of Queen Anne, Whiggish courtiers and politicians have been establishing contacts and forging alliances between London and Hanover. This has had the side-effect of throwing into high relief a long-simmering dispute between Sir Isaac Newton—the preëminent English scientist, the President of the Royal Society, and Master of the Royal Mint at the Tower of London—and Leibniz, a privy councilor and old friend of Sophie, and tutor to Princess Caroline. Ostensibly this conflict is about which of the two men first invented the calculus, but in truth it has deeper roots. Newton and Leibniz are both Christians, troubled that many of their fellow Natural Philosophers perceive a conflict between the mechanistic world-view of science and the tenets of their faith. Both men have developed theories to harmonize science and religion. Newton’s is based on the ancient proto-science of Alchemy and Leibniz’s is based on a theory of time, space, and matter called Monadology. They are radically different and probably irreconcilable.

Princess Caroline wishes to head off any possible conflict between the world’s two greatest savants, and the political and religious complications that would ensue from it. She has asked Daniel, who is an old friend of both Newton and Leibniz, to journey back to England, leaving his young wife and their little boy in Boston, and mediate the dispute. Daniel, knowing Newton’s vindictiveness, sees this as foreordained to fail, but agrees to give it a try, largely because he is impoverished and the Princess has held out the incentive of a large life insurance policy.

Daniel departs from Boston on Minerva, a Dutch East Indiaman (a heavily armed merchant ship). Detained along the New England coast by contrary winds, she falls under attack in Cape Cod Bay from the formidable pirate-fleet of Captain Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, who somehow knows that Dr. Waterhouse is on board Minerva, and demands that her Captain, Otto Van Hoek, hand him over. Captain Van Hoek, who loathes pirates even more than the typical merchant-captain, elects to fight it out, and bests Teach’s pirate fleet in a day-long engagement.

Minerva crosses the Atlantic safely but is caught in a storm off the southwest