Literature / The Baroque Cycle
The Baroque Cycle
is an epic by Neal Stephenson
about the birth of the modern world and set during The Cavalier Years
. Through the volumes Quicksilver
, The Confusion
, and The System of the World
, the cycle follow the intertwining stories of natural philosopher Daniel Waterhouse FRS, vagabond 'Half-Cocked' Jack Shaftoe, his soldier brother Bob and harem girl-cum-capitalist Eliza of Qwghlm, who's also the love of Jack's life. Spanning decades and the globe, the novels chart the rise and eventual triumph of the scientific method and modern capitalism. Collectively, the story might best be described as historical science-fiction with fantastic elements.
Basically, it's the result of what happens when you take one part tall tale, one part science, one part modern history, one part alchemy, a dictionary, a dash of macroeconomics, and a whole lot of guts. Add Isaac Newton, cryptography, The Sun King, puritans, the Royal Society, capitalism, Blackbeard, illegitimate children, and Solomonic gold.The protagonists:
Real Life natural philosophers featured heavily in the story:Jack's Cabal, organized in The Confusion:And tying everyone together:
- Daniel Waterhouse: Science Hero and son of a Well-Intentioned Extremist, he's eschewed his father's extremist Puritanism in favor of an interest in natural philosophy. In his old age, he's The Professor, but is often seen as a Mad Scientist.
- "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe: Action Hero, Crazy Awesome Lovable Rogue, and unwilling Celibate Hero ("Half-Cocked" has more than one meaning...) with a thirst for adventure who lives his life as one Indy Ploy after another and is an example of I Have Many Names, such as: 'Half-Cocked' Jack, L'Emmerdeur, the King of the Vagabonds, Ali Zaybak, Quicksilver, Sword of Divine Fire, and Jack the Coiner.
- Eliza: An ex-slave rescued by Jack who soon discovers a talent for both finance and manipulation. Her brilliance, financial acumen, skill at espionage, penchant for planning and ability to manipulate people (including pretty much the entire French nobility) make her one hell of a Guile Hero.
- Bob Shaftoe: Jack's somewhat more level-headed brother and thus the Blue Oni to Jack's Red Oni. Spends much of the cycle trying to rescue a Distressed Damsel from a villain, working with Daniel and Eliza from time to time.
This novel series provides examples of:
- Alternate Universe: Takes place in our own world, but swaps out some of the real historical figures (King Charles II's CABAL, Newton's real Cambridge roommate John Wickins) and adds some mysterious personages (Enoch Root, Solomon Kohan).
- Anti-Hero: Jack and Eliza
- Arranged Marriage: As per history, most of the nobility. Notably the German princesses Eleanor and Caroline.
- Back from the Dead: Daniel and Isaac. Maybe Édouard de Gex, but it's kept ambiguous.
- Badass Boast with a distinct flavor of I Have Many Names
- Badass Bookworm: Bonaventure Rossignol is a brilliant cryptanalyst who enjoys reading people's mail (encrypted or not) to find out if they're heading into danger just so he can run off to be a Big Damn Hero.
- The Baroness: D'Oyonnax.
- Batman Gambit:
- Jack's daring escape in the finale, performed by deliberately subverting a Thanatos Gambit (see that trope's entry on this page for details).
- Vrej Esphahnian's plan for getting revenge on Jack involves much manipulation of several people just to get aboard the same ship, several years pretending to be loyal to Jack, and eventually taking advantage of Jack's love for Eliza to lure Minerva into a trap.
- Berserk Button: Eliza does not like slavery. It's enough to get her to attempt to kill Jack with a harpoon for getting involved with it.
- Big Damn Heroes: Eliza and Fatio's rescue of William of Orange.
- Bi the Way: William of Orange and Eliza (or at least both of them go out of the way to appear bi, regardless of whether or not they're really attracted to both sexes).
- Boisterous Bruiser:
- "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe, "L'Emmerdeur, the King of the Vagabonds, Ali Zaybak: Quicksilver."
- Jack's sons, Jimmy and Danny, also inherited this trait.
- Peter the Great also counts.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: William of Orange is Genre Savvy enough to understand that the most competent people have the weirdest quirks. Thus, he goes out of his way to hire quirky people, and he distrusts those without quirks.
- The Captain: Captain Otto van Hoek, member of the Cabal and captain of Minerva. Yes, he has a Hook Hand.
- Captain Ersatz: Stephenson substituted some Real Life figures with these to make his story flow better: all members of Charles II's CABAL are these, Roger Comstock's life is almost identical to that of Charles Montagu (the narration even lampshades it by referring to Roger as "a Capulet or a Montague"), and in college, Daniel took the role of Isaac's Real Life roommate.
- Celibate Hero:
- Jack, but not by choice - the nickname Half-Cocked refers both to his mental state and the result of an operation to cure venereal disease gone horribly wrong.
- Also Isaac Newton, as per history.
- Hooke, anyone?
- Newton is off in his own world much of the time. Newton was this in real life. During his entire stint in Parliament, his only recorded words were a request to open a window.
- Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Daniel is this to Isaac when they are students.
- Cool Boat: Minerva.
- Cool Sword: Jack's Janissary sword; it's made out of wootz, which is for all intents and purposes, unobtanium that exists in Real Life. He acquires it while saving Eliza and it stays with him through his many adventures.
- Deadpan Snarker: The older Daniel gets, the snarkier he gets.
- Door Stopper: Three books, written by Neal Stephenson. They're broken into eight more manageable, but still enormous, novels in some markets. The manuscript (on display at the Sci-Fi Museum in Seattle), is a handwritten stack of paper that is taller than the author. The audio version is one hundred and thirteen hours long.
- Double-Meaning Title Quicksilver and The Confusion.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Used In-Universe when Bob Shaftoe notes how the greatest Master Swordsman of the era was defeated by an Irishmen with a log.
- Duel to the Death: With cannons.
- The Dung Ages: It seems that Stephenson can't go more than a dozen pages without making some reference to some form of feces, and just how many open sewers ran through 17th and 18th century European cities (especially London.)
- Everyone Went to School Together: Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton, as well as Upnor, Monmouth, and Jeffreys, were all at Cambridge at the same time.
- Evil Jesuit: Édouard de Gex
- Eye Scream: Both in-story and for the reader: Daniel inadvertenly walking in on Isaac experimenting by sticking a needle into his own eye socket. note
- Face–Heel Turn: Vrej Esphahnian
- Funetik Aksent: Lord Gy speaks in an almost impenetrable Scottish accent. Other characters insist that he's not actually speaking English. In the afterword, Stephenson assures anyone who might be offended by the accent that his ancestors are surely already spinning in their graves.
- Gambit Roulette Eliza's incredibly baroque plan for getting revenge on Lothar.
- Generation Xerox: Various characters are examples for their descendants, who appear in Cryptonomicon.
- Daniel Waterhouse is an extremely intelligent technophile who makes contributions to the realm of computing, but lives in the shadow of his more brilliant friends, just like his descendants Lawrence and Randy Waterhouse.
- Jack Shaftoe and his sons are irreverent badasses. Bob Shaftoe is a soldier. Their descendants are also soldiers and/or fiercely independent badasses.
- Gabriel Goto is a tough and level-headed side-character, just like Goto Dengo.
- Genius Bruiser:
- Fr. Gabriel Goto, SJ.
- Peter "Saturn" Hoxton, a big, burly brute of a man who happens to be a skilled clockmaker and bomb maker.
- Harmony Versus Discipline: Leibniz is Harmony, Newton is Discipline. The real reason why they hate each other.
- Heel–Face Turn: Lothar, when he comes to feel affection for little Jean-Jacques/Johann.
- The High Queen: Sophie of Hanover.
- Historical Badass Upgrade: Peter the Great. In reality he was extremely tall, but also very thin and prone to muscle spasms. In the series, he's a giant with immense strength who single-handedly duels and kills the enormous badass Yevgeny.
- Hollywood Tourette's: Jeronimo. There's even an amusing reference to the (fictional) St. Etienne de la Tourette.
- The House of Hanover: The first two Georges make their appearances, but have rings run around them by Sophie and Caroline.
- The House of Stuart: Beginning with the beheading of Charles I, Daniel Waterhouse gets to witness more than he ever wanted about the lives of the Stuart successors.
- Immortality: The goal of the Alchemists, and apparent state of Enoch Root
- Indy Ploy: Jack loves these.
- It Will Never Catch On:
- Eliza thinks Jack's mispronunciation of the German word thaler as dollar is a stupid name for money.
- Enoch Root's friend thinks tea is too outlandish to ever catch on in England.
- Eliza's two banker friends thought the informal financial system used in Lyons will never work, the system is essentially the same as the modern credit-based economy.
- Japanese Christian: Gabriel Goto
- Karmic Death: Bob suggests this as an epitaph for the Earl of Upnor: "finest swordsman in England, beaten to death with a stick by an Irishman", which is exactly how he died.
- Killed Off for Real: Quite a lot of people. Of course, when you're writing Historical Fiction, Historical Domain Characters have to die when they're supposed to.
- Large and in Charge: Peter of Russia: effect underlined by the fact that he apparently surrounds himself with midgets.
- Little Miss Badass: Johann von Hackleheber is a male example. At the age of five, he shoots a man attempting to harpoon his adopted father—in the eye—with a toy bow and arrow. Doing so saved his father's life. He only grew from there.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Just about everyone able to read in the time period(and a few who can't!) makes an appearance.
- The Longitude Problem: It's unsolved. This causes problems. The problem is brought up a number of times, with the English government offering a cash prize if the problem can be solved. A number of natural philosophers take up the challenge, but the problem remains unsolved by the end of the series.
- Lampshade Hanging:
Teague: What d'you think y'are, a character in a friggin' novel, Bob?note
- Loving a Shadow: Gets an interesting twist in Eliza's relationship with Bob. She references the trope, but notes that since Bob is healthy and level-headed, and Jack is a crazy syphilitic, Jack, the original love, is the one who looks more like a shadow.
- Made of Iron: Yevgeny is extremely tough and stoically endures even the most grievous injuries.
- Magnetic Hero: Jack is one. It's outright stated in the books that the people that Jack finds himself around would in any other situation be leaders and good ones - as van Hoek shows. But they all look towards Jack to take action.
- Master Swordsman: The Earl of Upnor is said to be the most skilled swordsman in England. During a duel, he even manages to convey sarcasm through the movements of his sword.
- Meaningful Name: Moseh de la Cruz.
"'Moses of the Cross'? What the hell kind of name is that?"
Moseh did not appear to find it especially funny. "It is a long story - even by your standards, Jack. Suffice it to say that the Iberian Peninsula is a complicated place to be Jewish."
- Mistaken for Special Guest: Jack Shaftoe, AKA "King of the Vagabonds," accidentally crashes a masquerade party that King Louis of France is expected to attend dressed as...King of the Vagabonds.
- The recurrent image in the first novel is quicksilver, a constant ingredient used in science, alchemy and finance. Mercury symbolizes the fluid scientific and economic forces that ruled the Age of Enlightenment.
- The second novel adds the concept of the confusion (or con-fusion), the mixing and destruction of the old to create the new.
- Musical Assassin: Sort off, Eliza finally kills De Gex (with some help from Handel) by tossing a cello across an orchestra pit and skewering him with the instrument's end pin
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast:
- Édouard de Gex's alias, Edmund de Ath.
- Jeffreys' hired assassins, Bob Carver and Dick Gripp.
- Never Found the Body:
- Yevgeny, during the battle at Cairo. He turns up later.
- Jack, for Isaac Newton. Newton can only assume that his dead body was carried away and buried, but in reality Jack wasn't quite dead.
- Noodle Incident:
- Daniel Waterhouse may or may not have precipitated the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
- Something happened in 1677, involving Daniel, fire, and some of Newton's papers. The incident is referred to several times before we find out just what did happen.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Daniel Waterhouse pretends to be suffering from senile dementia in order to root out the spy in Sophie of Hanover's court.
- Off with His Head!: Jack finds and beheads the man who sold Eliza and her mother into sexual slavery, and sends her his head on a silver platter
- Out with a Bang: Roger dies rogering Newton's sexy niece.
- Phantasy Spelling: Many words are spelled in the archaic fashion, such as phanatiques, technologickal, clew, and phant'sy. Other words are hyphenated to show that the terms are new and have yet to become compound words.
- The Plan:
- The Cabal's Plan to steal the Viceroy of Vera Cruz's silver.
- The assault on the Tower of London.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Jack and Bob.
- Really Gets Around: To an extent Eliza, although some of this is an Urban Legend Love Life as part of Obfuscating Stupidity
- Real-Person Fic: About the Original Characters Jack, Eliza, and Daniel in the middle of the Baroque era.
- Royals Who Actually Do Something: Louis XIV, William of Orange, Peter the Great, and the females of the House of Hanover. Notably, the King Charles II personally led a squad of firemen to deal with the Fire of London, and killed Daniel's father when he got in the way.
- Ruritania: The fictional island of Qwghlm is presented as a backward place, with almost no resources except a lot of bird crap. The main livelihood of its residence is acting as Wreckers of English ships.
- In The Confusion, Enoch the Red provides an interesting twist on Clarke's Third Law: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo". Later Jack mentions that his "vagabond shoes are longing to stray".
- The System of the World references two Monty Python jokes (involving The Spanish Inquisition and a shrubbery). There's also a brief mention of a book titled Python Explain'd, though knowing the author's pet subjects, that may well be a cheeky anachronistic reference to the programming language, which was in turn named after the comedy troupe.
- Single-Target Sexuality: Jack for Eliza, since Eliza is literally the only person who is able to sexually satisfy Jack (it has to do with Jack's disability and the things Eliza learned from "books of India" while in slavery.)
- Slave Galley: Monsieur Arlanc, and Jack, as well as everyone else in the Cabal served in one.
- The Spanish Inquisition: The members of the Cabal get an up-close-and-personal look at the Inquisiton when they arrive in Mexico in The Confusion. And, yes, there was a Monty Python reference in The System of the World.
- Spanner in the Works: One of Jack's nicknames, "L'Emmerdeur note ," specifically references his tendency to be this.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Daniel discusses this trope when he notes that some people can easily be replaced by Suspiciously Similar Substitutes (e.g. Thomas More Anglesey replacing John Comstock), while others aren't so easily replaceable.
- Take That!: Enoch The Red mentions having acquired some copies of a book called Cryptonomicon. Waterhouse's young son describes it as "A very queer old book, dreadfully thick, and full of nonsense," noting that his father uses it as a doorstopper.
- Thanatos Gambit: Subverted. Jack receives golden finery to bribe the executioner for a quick death. Instead, Jack distributes the riches to the crowd, pissing off the executioner and endearing him to the mob. When the executioner starts to hang Jack slowly as revenge, the mob storms the gallows and carries him to safety.
- That Old-Time Prescription: Jack's syphilis is cured when he contracts English sweating sickness. Treating syphilis by inducing a high fever was a real medical practice that sometimes did work.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: Three, actually: Daniel, Jack, and Eliza. And those are just the major ones...
- Unobtanium: The Solomonic gold Jack ends up with possibly the known world's supply, some of which is used in a life potion brewed up by Root.
- Also, wootz steel which also involves Jack and Root
- The Unpronounceable: The written language of Qwghlm employs runes. Transcribing words into letters makes them utterly unpronounceable because there are no vowels.
- Upper-Class Twit: Peer, who so embodies this trope that his name isn't even given in the text.
- The Watson: Daniel Waterhouse for Isaac Newton, Gottfreid Leibniz, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Christiaan Huygens, Henry Oldenberg, et al. Waterhouse's Character Arc can be described as a journey to the point where he finally stops being the Watson and requires his own Watsons to explain things to.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: All of the Puritans, though the ones that get the most focus are Drake Waterhouse and the Bolstroods. The Raskolniks, too, including Yevgeny.
- Winter Royal Lady: Much is made of the legacy of the original one; Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen.
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Daniel tells this to Hooke, who is insecure about being overshadowed by Newton. The distinction he makes between Hooke and Newton is similar to the distinction that Randy Waterhouse makes in Cryptonomicon between "dwarves" and "elves."