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Literature / The Baroque Cycle

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The Baroque Cycle is an epic by Neal Stephenson about the birth of the modern world set during The Cavalier Years, in the same universe as Cryptonomicon. 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:

  • 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, 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.
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  • 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.

Real Life natural philosophers featured heavily in the story:

Jack's Cabal, organized in The Confusion:

And tying everyone together:

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). It also depicts Blackbeard as an active pirate, and the captain of Queen Anne's Revenge, in 1713. While the details of Edward Teach's early pirate career are sketchy, in real life he didn't become a pirate captain until 1716, and acquired the ship he rechristened Queen Anne's Revenge the following year. (Incidentally, this also means that he named the ship after a still-living monarch, rather than as a tribute to a deceased one as in real life.)
  • 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
    Jack: "In fact I have let you live, but for one purpose only: so that you can make your way to Paris and tell them the following: that the deed you are about to witness was done for a woman, whose name I will not say, for she knows who she is; and that it was done by 'Half-Cocked' Jack Shaftoe, L'Emmerdeur, the King of the Vagabonds, Ali Zaybak: Quicksilver!"
  • 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 Beautiful Woman: Kottakkal, the Pirate Queen of Malabar. She's six feet tall, weighs 300 pounds (she's described as having a "marvelous round belly"), and is desired by just about every man she meets.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Eliza and Fatio's rescue of William of Orange.
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: The man who enslaved Eliza and her mother, Louis-François de Lavardac, duc d'Arcachon, subsists on a diet of rotten fish. Not fermented, rotten. One cook who nicked his hand whilst preparing the Duc's dinner suffered a fatal blood sepsis as a result.
  • 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.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: As Jack is preparing to kill the duc d'Arcachon, he informs him that it is for a mother and daughter he abducted, disgraced, and sold into slavery. The Duc looks bewildered for a moment and asks: "Which ones?"
  • 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.
  • Cloudcuckoolander
    • 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. Subverted when Newton became Master of the Mint in the story and in real life; he singlehandedly wiped out counterfeiting in Britain and was awarded his knighthood for his services in this role rather than his contributions to science.
  • 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.
  • Cunning Linguist: Dappa is this by trade, knowing various national and Common Tongues, so he could work as a translator in a slave-trading outpost. This comes handy for the Cabal. He also appears to be either naturally gifted with languages or having worked out an efficient system of learning new ones, as he picks another three along the events of the book.
  • 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.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Seeing that his friends are in danger, Jeronimo launches a one-man cavalry charge on the Duc's musketeers. He gets shot through the chest, but goes right on fighting, loudly declaring that the sixty seconds he has left to live are time enough to kill a dozen of them, and has already taken out at least five by the time the others swarm him with bayonets.
  • 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
  • Fed to the Beast: According to Eliza, Qwghlm once had a hereditary aristocracy, but in the 8th century the Scots sealed them in a cave with some bears.
  • 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: The ancestor of Lawrence and Randy Waterhouse, he is an extremely intelligent technophile who makes contributions to the realm of computing, but lives in the shadow of his more brilliant friends
    • Jack Shaftoe and his sons are irreverent badasses. Bob Shaftoe is a soldier. Both are the ancestors of Bobby and Amy Shaftoe.
    • Gabriel Goto is a tough and level-headed side-character. He is the ancestor of the unflinching, level-headed 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.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Isaac, Daniel and their associates hire Sean Partry, the most famous of all living thief-takers, to help them track down Jack Shaftoe. As it turns out, Sean is Jack, having taken the time to set up this alternate identity against such an eventuality. This is actually foreshadowed earlier when Mr. Threader observes that thief-takers, by necessity, are all professional criminals themselves; it's the only way they can get anything done.
  • 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.
  • Innocent Bigot: Daniel's great-nephew Walter, aka "Peer", is apparently unable to comprehend that the African Dappa — a highly intelligent and well-educated man who can speak twelve languages — is an actual human being and not some sort of well-trained performing ape, to the point where he has a conversation with Dappa and still doesn't grasp that he is actually talking and not just parroting noises. There is no malice in his racism; he's just unbelievably stupid.
  • 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.
    • A variant: Moseh, espousing the Cabbalistic belief that gold and silver are formed by the sun's and moon's rays striking the Earth, expresses approval for the Spanish policy of establishing colonies along the equator, and confidently predicts that gold will never be found in, say, California or Alaska.
  • 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.
  • King of Thieves:
    • Jack Shaftoe is known as "King of the Vagabonds".
    • Kottakkal is known as the Pirate Queen of Malabar (and is treated as an actual queen, as well as being, well, a pirate).
  • Lampshade Hanging: When Bob gets himself in over his head, Teague asks him, "What d'you think y'are, a character in a friggin' novel, Bob?" He's accusing him of believing that he has Plot Armor.
  • 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.
  • Lost Technology: Wootz steel. Well, not the steel itself, but the furnaces to produce it. While in India, Enoch Root notes that while the steel-making industry is booming, all the furnaces are old and well beyond point of badly needed repairs. Which nobody seems to perform, just like building new forges.
  • 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.
  • Man Bites Man: Charles White, Lord Bolingbroke's sadistic Dragon, has a nasty habit of biting Whigs' ears off. He keeps them to show off to his friends.
  • 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, meaning "Moses of the Cross." Being a crypto-Jew in a hostile society, Moseh didn't mess about when choosing his gentile name.
  • 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.
  • Motifs
    • 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.
  • Motive Rant: Edouard de Gex drops a massive one near the end after capturing Eliza, declaring that he despises money, considering it a form of pagan idolatry, and worse still, it enables commoners like her to ascend to the nobility. He describes his dream of a great auto-da-fé in which everyone he considers heretical — Protestants, Jews, capitalists, whatever — would be burned at the stake, with her, the "rich whore" who represents everything that in his view has gone wrong in the world, given pride of place among them.
  • 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.
  • Occidental Otaku: Inverted with father Gabriel Goto. He is Japanese, but born and rised in Manila in a family of religious refugees. Despite never being in Japan, he strictly adheres to what his parents drilled into him about local customs and culture, but in the same time he's an extremely devout Catholic, eager to go back to Japan and die for his religion. Given he's Goto Dengo ancestor, he must have survived and apparently ended up denouncing his faith.
  • Offered the Crown: Mr. Foot leaves the Cabal when the people of Queena-Kootah (which will later be known as Kinakuta) choose him to occupy their island's vacant throne, making him the first of the "White Sultans" mentioned in Cryptonomicon.
  • 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.
  • Penny Shaving: The literal version is a running theme in the series, with buyers always dutifully inspecting the coinage they received and only accepting partial value on any that show excessive shaving or clipping. This ties into the plot importance of Newton, who personally cracked down on coin tampering.
  • Phantasy Spelling: Many words are spelled in the archaic fashion, such as phanatiques, technologickal, clew, and phant'sy. Other words are spelled with their root words 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.
  • Shout-Out
    • 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.)
  • Situational Sexuality: In Quicksilver, Eliza states that while in the harem, she had intimate relationships with other women since no other men were around.
  • 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."


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