Review: The Baroque Cycle (Neal Stephenson)

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson (2003).
The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson (2004).
The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson (2004).

2.8k words (≈ 10 minutes)

The Baroque Cycle is nothing if not ambitious: three volumes, subdivided into eight books, with chapters covering the 60 years from 1655 to 1715.

And what riveting subject has Neal Stephenson chosen for this grand work? Nothing less than the rise of science and finance, and with them, the modern world. If the proceedings of the Royal Society and machinations of VOC stockbrokers do not sound like the most gripping subjects for a novel:
  1. Stephenson succeeds in building an engaging plot out of them (though it takes nearly three thousand pages).
  2. There are also pirates, sword fights, and even a duel fought with cannons.


Quicksilver starts in 1713 with the ever-mysterious Enoch Root arriving to summon Daniel Waterhouse back to Europe to try to settle the dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (or, perhaps more accurately, the dispute inflicted on Leibniz by Newton). Daniel leaves his home in Massachusetts, where he had founded a small, quaint institute called the Massachusetts Bay Institute of the Technologickal Arts to continue Leibniz’s research on mechanized computation and information storage.

The first part of Quicksilver jumps between the story of Daniel getting to know fellow student Isaac Newton and becoming involved with the fledgling Royal Society in 1660s to 1670s England, and the story of Daniel’s sea voyage in 1713, which, of course, proceeds without any complications, meandering, or pirates.

In the next part we are introduced to the two other main protagonists: Jack Shaftoe, a London-born urchin who comes to acquire a truckload of sobriquets on his adventures (including King of the Vagabonds, L’Emmerdeur, Quicksilver, Ali Zaybak, and Sword of Divine Fire), and Eliza, a former slave who uses her financial acumen to build a fortune and gain a slew of titles herself.

In The Confusion, the second volume, Daniel is mostly relegated to the sidelines, and the story focuses on Jack’s globe-spanning adventures and Eliza’s political and financial machinations in Europe. Whereas the plot of Quicksilver often trudges along slowly, The Confusion is structured better and moves a lot faster. And where Quicksilver focused on science, The Confusion deals heavily with money.

The System of the World returns the focus to Daniel, beginning with Daniel’s arrival in England in the January of 1714. If The Confusion is where Stephenson masters the art of plot, The System of the World is where he masters the art of character. While previous books had touching moments of character development (particularly the scene in The Confusion where Daniel confronts a demented Newton, and the climax of Eliza’s storyline in the same book), The System of the World has all three main characters undergo change, confront their inner demons, and reach the conclusion of their story arcs.

The System of the Cycle

Overall, The Baroque Cycle does not have the structure of a trilogy, but of a single, monstrously intricate novel. Quicksilver acts as an introduction to the characters that sets up the setting and some of the later conflicts, The Confusion is the adventurous mid-section of the novel where side plots are explored and conflicts develop, and The System of the World is a 900-page climax, complete with no less than five different epilogues.

Therefore I recommend that if you choose to read Quicksilver, you should aim to read all three volumes, since the first or even the first two volumes don’t form a satisfying whole on their own. After Quicksilver, I was ambivalent about reading the next volume because of the way that the book felt like a long prologue. However, the ideas in the book stuck with me, and after I had read the remaining parts, I realized that that was exactly what the book was.

(A word of warning: Quicksilver might be an introduction, but it is an essential one; given the information density of the books, skipping straight to The Confusion would be a bit like starting your pilot training by landing a 747 in heavy crosswinds. Also, Quicksilver focuses on the science more than the other books, and its descriptions of Newton’s and Hooke’s work and the spirit of the Royal Society are themselves worth reading the book for.)

Grand themes

The Baroque Cycle is a loose prequel to Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s earlier novel about World War II codebreakers and 1990s internet entrepreneurs trying to start a data haven and an internet bank. Reading Cryptonomicon is definitely not required, though there are several minor connections.

What Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle share are themes. Stephenson says that the idea for The Baroque Cycle came when he read about Leibniz’s early work on computation and realized that the themes of science, computation and money in Cryptonomicon were also present in late-1600s and early-1700s Europe.

These themes are in turn related to the overarching theme of that time period: the Enlightenment, and the gradual rise of modern scientific, financial, and political institutions amidst the lingering medieval background that came with it.

Science & alchemy

Stephenson has clearly done his research on the period. Almost every natural philosopher in Europe at the time makes an appearance, including Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christiaan Huygens, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, John Locke, John Wilkins, John Flamsteed, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and Thomas Newcomen. This group of people, all of whom were contemporaries, are responsible for inventing and/or discovering calculus, the inverse square law, the law of elasticity, Halley’s comet, the rings of Saturn, pendulum clocks, the mathematics of probability, the wave theory of light, the particle theory of light, the steam engine, the binomial series, the theory of extinction, the Newtonian telescope, cells, matrices and the method for solving them, dynamics, Boolean algebra, mechanical calculators, and, last but definitely not least, physics as a science.

There are parallels, no doubt intentionally enforced by Stephenson, between the science of Newton’s time and the digital revolution of the late 1900s. In both cases, a new tool (the scientific method / the computer) opened up a new world, which a horde of bright but often eccentric people promptly began exploring, leaving a blazing trail of results and discoveries for later generations to build on. The spirit of discovery and experimentation of this early group of explorers is captured well, particularly in Quicksilver, where we see, for instance, Hooke trying to figure out the law by which gravity diminishes with altitude by lowering a weight into a well.

This period is doubly interesting because even as the vanguard of science made progress by leaps and bounds, earlier superstitions and beliefs remained in favor. At one point, Daniel and Newton discuss how gravity works, with Daniel saying: “The inner workings of gravity, you seem to be saying, are beyond the grasp, or even the reach, of Natural Philosophy. To whom should we appeal, then? Metaphysicians? Theologians? Sorcerers?” Newton replies: “They are all the same to me, and I am one.”

Alchemy, one of Newton’s main interests in addition to physics, theology, and saving England’s economy from ruin, features heavily in the book. In the universe of The Baroque Cycle, alchemy partially works, though it requires knowledge and ingredients that are vanishingly rare. The character of Enoch Root, who also appears 400 years later in Cryptonomicon, is strongly hinted to be immortal (this is not much of a spoiler; the first two chapters of Quicksilver should already make this clear).

The slight speculative touch might seem to be a contradictory addition to a work concerned with the rise of scientific thinking. However, it ingeniously captures something about the spirit of the time. Perhaps the golden age of the supernatural was the dawn of science, the time between the rise of rational inquiry and the discovery of nature’s laws through this inquiry, when theology and alchemy seemed only one experiment away from confirmation. Today we know that we live in the universe of physics, but the people who first charted the border between the natural and supernatural did not have the benefit of this certainty, and often they could not have known which side of the border they were exploring.

Leibniz & Newton

The central scientific figures in the book are perhaps the most important: Hooke, Leibniz, and Newton. All three were polymaths who probed entirely new realms, yet one of those names stands out more than the others.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Newton famously wrote in a letter to Hooke, showing the depth of his humility. Or was he discretely insulting Hooke, who is said to have been hunchbacked and short, and thus a poor giant to stand upon? No one knows, because during Newton’s presidency of the Royal Society, all portraits of Hooke, as well as much of his equipment, were removed.

During his long career, Newton waged bitter disputes over priority against Hooke and Leibniz. In particular he used his role as the president of the Royal Society to get the entire English scientific establishment on his side in the war against Leibniz.

Stephenson incorporates this evidence into his portrayal of Newton as capricious, harsh, unforgiving, and unstable. At the same time, he is ruthlessly obsessive in pursuit of his studies, thinking nothing of personal sacrifices like half-blinding himself to study sunspots, sticking things into his eye to probe the nature of optics, tasting chemicals in his quest for alchemy, and starving himself and foregoing sleep to tend to an experiment.

Newton also has a reverence for the old and the sacred, which drives his obsession with theology (particularly the Old Testament), his pursuit of alchemy, and his disdain of even his own calculus in cases where Euclidean geometry is sufficient.

Leibniz, on the other hand, is portrayed as a far gentler, more genial figure. He is also markedly more forward-looking, particularly in his vision that computation and even thought can, in principle, be mechanized.

One of the main overarching plots in The Baroque Cycle is the dispute between Newton and Leibniz over not just the invention of calculus, but also over the broader differences in their philosophical views. Ultimately, this plot line is somewhat overshadowed by other conflicts, which is somewhat disappointing given the buildup. The System of the World does have one chapter where Newton and Leibniz fight it out over their philosophical and theological views, but it gets cut short by an interruption.

Paying for it all

In addition to his scientific, alchemical, and theological work, Newton was also the Master of the Mint for the latter half of his life. He presided over a recoinage of the English currency that helped stave off disaster, and persecuted counterfeiters with his typical ruthless zeal.

That The Baroque Cycle’s themes happen to coincide so well in this time period and its key figures is no accident. The rise of science happened at the same time, and probably for at least some of the same reasons, as the rise of modern financial institutions.

Stephenson gives plenty of examples of the backwardness of doing business in the 1600s. People were only beginning to trust banks, cheques, and other indirect means of payment. One chapter goes to some length in describing the difficulties of shipping timber across the borders of a few dozen fragmented states and provinces, each with its own complex and expensive system of tariffs. Even in the relatively modern England, the inconsistency of the coins means that paying with them is more like bartering than using money; this, and counterfeiters, are the main problems that face Newton in his role as Master of the Mint.

Just like with science, The Baroque Cycle portrays a world in transition from one system another. And also just like with its depiction science, parts of the older system refuse to budge: Jack’s dealings in The Confusion center heavily on gold, the eternal store of value.


The Baroque Cycle also deals heavily with the politics of the time. This is probably partly due to plot reasons: historical events are the core of the plot of many a historical novel, and historical events tend to be driven by politics. But another factor is that many of the political changes of the period are part of the grander narrative of the Enlightened world order that The Baroque Cycle charts. The dispute between Whigs and Tories, or between the Roundheads and Cavaliers before them, features heavily, as do the schemes of Louis XIV.

As with natural philosophers, countless political figures of the time make an appearance, including William III of England, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, James Stuart, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, Caroline of Ansbach, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, and Peter the Great, who makes an “incognito” visit to London during which he tears apart half the city.

Even the Spanish Inquisition makes an unexpected appearance. But though Jack bemoans that “This Inquisition is as patient as Death. Nothing can stop it”, another character replies: “Nothing […]except for the Enlightenment”.

Baroque is the soul of wit

Upon being handed a draft of Isaac Newton’s Principia, a character in Quicksilver complains about its length and exclaims: “Some sharp editor needs to step in and take that wretch in hand!” I can’t help but think that Stephenson was reflecting on his own experiences when he wrote that line.

Neal Stephenson is known for complex, lengthy works, and The Baroque Cycle is the lengthiest and most complex. While each page may not be quite as significant as a page of Newton’s PhilosophiƓ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, it is not nearly as bloated as it may seem.
In any fictional work of this scale, there will be slow parts. Especially in Quicksilver, the plot occasionally meanders a bit too much, though The Confusion and The System of the World are a lot better in this regard.

On the smaller scale, Stephenson explains historical background in great detail, often hijacking two characters into having a somewhat stilted conversation that conveniently reveals relevant historical details. But this also means that readers do not have to do their history homework before reading to follow the plot. In addition to historical details, Stephenson delights in relating the particulars of different mechanisms, whether mines or phosphorus purification plants. How interesting these are depends heavily on the reader.

Like Stephenson’s other novels, The Baroque Cycle features plenty of his enviable dry wit. Stephenson is also not afraid to freeze the narration for a paragraph, or even half a page, to go off on some tangent that eventually circles back like Halley’s Comet after setting up the perfect metaphor or humorous remark. The Baroque Cycle does not have any of the hilarious multipage tangents found in Cryptonomicon, and thus has less laugh-out-loud moments, but on the other hand the tangents and humor in The Baroque Cycle tend to be more topical and better integrated with the atmosphere and setting. Some may find the idiosyncrasies of his style distracting, but I found Stephenson’s prose to be very enjoyable.

Winds of change and engines of change

The Baroque Cycle is certainly baroque. The number of characters, subplots, and events - let alone pages - nears the astronomical. But from this mess Stephenson manages to erect a surprisingly compelling image of a world in transition.

Consider medieval society. The standards of human welfare are atrocious and stagnant. The world remains at least as great a mystery as it was a thousand years prior. The Spanish Inquisition is knocking on doors. And then consider the modern world, with its unprecedented and ever-expanding level of well-being, depth of knowledge, and individual freedoms.

What’s more important - at least for a novelist - is that somewhere in between things changed, and the world was caught in the turmoil of that change. Somewhere in between were the people who first thought of science and liberalism, and the forces that supported them, and the people and forces that were against them.

The Baroque Cycle is a story about this change - specifically, about the moment when the roots of the modern world began to sprout. For a while, alchemy coexisted with science, swords with guns, pirates with stock-markets, and slaves with steam engines - and in each case it was still unknown which way the scales would tip. The new mixed with the old, and the old with the new. It is this moment that The Baroque Cycle captures so well, and from which it forms its soul.


  1. Thanks for this review. You have encouraged me to give the Baroque Cycle another try. I think Stephenson is a brilliant writer (judging by his Cryptonomicon) but I found Quicksilver too slow moving for my taste, a bit of a yarn, and I never finish it. Perhaps, with some perseverance, I will enjoy it on my second attempt.

    1. The slow start is definitely the great weakness of the series. The Confusion moves a lot faster, though it focuses less on the main plot. I found The System of the World to be all-around brilliant, and not just because of the sunk-cost fallacy.

      I read Cryptonomicon more than a year ago, and I doubt I've since laughed as hard at a book as when I read the part where Stephenson satirically describes the art of writing a business plan (the chapter is called "Way").

  2. As a historian I would say that it’s a magnificent book, this ”Quicksilver” – yet don’t know if it’s a good novel, as that is something beyond my competence … In any case, “Quicksilver” is quite a reading, burdened with a massive amount of details, some dug out from a vast amount of historical literature, possibly partly even from the original sources. Mr. Stephenson is a man of letters, really. Much, of course, is created and fabricated in the seemingly productive course of artistic licence …

    Anyway, I consider it a very good description of the time. Also, I guess the writer’s understanding of the history of science and magic is very deep, indeed.

    I’m still in a process of wading the book through … So this is an intermediate time review (after a few hundred pages …).

    PS. I have learned very many new English words like “Leprechaun”, “forecastledeck”, etc. Yet I think they are mostly useless in small talk …