Ask the Guy Who Just Reread Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle for the Third Time

I know there are lots of Neil Stephenson fans here, and elsewhere on the net. I also know that a lot of people who really like Stephenson don’t really get into his Baroque Cycle books - Quicksilver, The Confusion, and System of the World. So this thread is for the following groups of people:

1 - People who have read the Baroque Cycle, and want to discuss it.
2 - People who have tried, and gotten frustrated with it at various points and for various reasons (the first third of the first book, Quicksilver, seems to be the big culprit here), but would still like to know how things turned out
3 - People who are put off by the three immense volumes (2,700 pages in all) or the time period, but who’d like to know more, either to help them decide to read the books, or as a kind of Cliff Notes version.

There will be spoilers. If you’re concerned about that, back out now! Some of the discussion will probably touch on Cryptonomicon, as that book shares “universes” with the Baroque Cycle, including connections between families, themes, and even a shared character (maybe even more than one, actually).

Needless to say, I really enjoy these books. Stephenson ties up the ending in System of the World in what I found to be a very satisfying way, pulling almost all of the characters of the previous books into the events that end the Cycle, and wrapping it up with a nice bow. This is different from other Stephenson books - although I loved Cryptonomicon and Snowcrash, I felt their endings were a little on the weak side, kind of an afterthought. That’s not the case here, at all.

I can’t presume to answer the questions having to do with the science, but I’ll try!

So ask away!

Huh. I’ve only recently read Quicksilver and the first third was my favorite part. I was all settled down to love the book as much as I loved Cryptonomicon, and then the middle section fell flat for me (I didn’t like Eliza) and the third section only partially recovered (Eliza’s letters bogged it down).

So, since the first third of *Quicksilver *was my favorite, am I going to be disappointed with the rest of the series?

What did you get out of it the third time through that eluded you the first two times?

I’m asking because I’ve read it twice. The first time, I think it took me about six months per book. It was quite a slog, but in the end enjoyable enough that I decided to give it another go about a year later, and it only took me about five or six months to plow through the whole thing. Tell me why I should read it a third time.

Liking the first third means you liked Daniel Waterhouse and his story, right? In that case, yes - especially System of the World. To give you some background for that, System of the World concerns what happens in London when Daniel Waterhouse is dropped of by Minerva after escaping Blackbeard.

The Confusion splits its time roughly between Jack, Eliza, and Daniel (probably less Daniel that the other two), but there’s less of Eliza’s letter and more of her life in Versailles. System of the World has less Eliza, and more Jack, and especially more Daniel (although as I’ve said, all the major players are in London and reacting to each other; its not multiple storylines anymore, its all one story coming to a head).

I can totally see not being too fond of Eliza. I do think she grows up a bit in the Confusion

This time I read through the whole thing in about two months. I read on the train to work, so I get a good 90 minutes a day of reading in. I’m a fast reader, but not always great at retention, so I can forget details. That also means I get a lot of value out of rereading as my prior impressions get reinforced and I start noticing things I didn’t get on first reading.

This time through I started noticing a lot of foreshadowing and detail. I noticed how when Enoch Root is talking to young Ben Franklin in Boston in the first chapters, Stephenson is very briefly grounding us in the world background - from the very formal way people of that day acted to political/historical background to touching on the science of the day. Almost all the little things he says to Ben have some relevance in the story to come. On the subject of detail and foreshadowing, here’s just one thing I noted that I never noted before - while Daniel is on board Minerva during the pirate attack, there’s a brief scene with a crew member discussing cannon - one of the cannon has been nicknamed Wapping Wendy, but the crew that mans a cannon named Mr. Foote refers to it as Wayward Wendy. Its a brief throwaway - but Mr. Foote himself shows up in Jack’s story after he escapes from Paris, as proprietor of the *Bomb and Grapnel *in Dunquerque. He’s on the slave ship with Jack that is captured at the end of Quicksilver.

And the Bomb and Grapnel is also the name of a bar in Kinakuta in Cryptonomicon, on the other side of the world…

Do we ever find out exactly what’s the deal with Enoch Root? In Quicksilver it is made very clear that he is immortal, and I believe that somewhere in the next book after that, this fact is stated explicitly and is known to the other characters.

However, after reading Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver and skimming through the other two books, it seems as if Stephenson never bothers to give any explanation or background about him, is that correct? He’s just this incongruous immortal character in a world which does not contain other obvious fantasy elements.

Also, what’s up with the cigar box?

I would also be interested in this:

You may want to use a spoiler box for that, however, since you appear to be saying that this may not be obvious even to people who have read all the books?

Not so much, really, it’s the style of the story that I like. (I had a similar concern about the first third/rest of the books.) I don’t really care who the story’s about. I like how the story is told.

So what’s disappointing about the rest of the book is just that it doesn’t steadily continue with Daniel’s story? That would be fine with me.


We are never explicity told what the deal is with Enoch. We are presented, late in SotW, with the implication that he might be the biblical Enoch. It fits, as we are also introduced to a very old jew who knows all about Enoch, the Solomonic Gold - and thus must have access to the same recipe for immortality that Enoch does, works for the Czar and goes by the name of Solomon Kohan.

The cigar box is where Enoch keeps the ingredients for his immortality concoction; we don’t know any more than that. Enoch does make use of it in the Baroque Cycle. Technically he does so in Quicksilver, though we don’t learn of it until System of the World.

We learn that when Daniel went under the knife for the stone, he actually died. Enoch was there, and brewed up a batch of something. Robert Hooke wrote down the recipe, and Isaac Newton and Daniel find it in System of the World. Later, Isaac manages to decode the recipe. Daniel then brews up a batch, which he uses to bring Isaac back from the dead during the Trial of the Pyx.

I said there’d be spoilers, right?

[spoiler]When Enoch, Günter Bischoff, and Rudolf von Hacklheber sail to Manila from Northern Europe, they are accompanied, if I’m remembering clearly, by a one-handed red-headed man and an African with Dreadlocks.

In Quicksilver, Minerva is captained by a red-headed man with one hand, and the first mate is an African with dreadlocks.[/spoiler]

What about the style did you like? The letters, Jack’s hallucinations, and the occasional digression into stage play description of action are pretty much gone after the first book, in favor of a more straightforward narrative style.

I guess I should be clear that when I’m referring to Quicksilver, I’m referring to all three “books” that are contained within the first third of the Baroque Cycle. This gets especially confusing because there are paperback versions of the books that split out all the component parts into smaller books. Quicksilver consists of Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, if I’m not mistaken.

Thanks for the info!

To be honest, I found the whole Enoch Root angle more frustrating than intriguing. I don’t need every last little story thread to be completely resolved, but you can’t just bring such a huge fantasy element into an otherwise realistic historical novel, and then not do anything with it!

It’s a bit like reading a regular hard-boiled detective novel, and suddenly a fire-breathing dragon swoops over the city, sets fire to a couple of buildings, and then he disappears again and the plot continues…

I recently finished, and loved, Anathem so have been half-thinking about picking up vols II and III of the Baroque cycle. I’ve posted on here before that I wasn’t too impressed with Quicksilver. I didn’t hate it, just thought that it was a bit mediocre for such an exciting writer.

I’m trying to remember what the main problems for me where and one of them was definitely the characters. NS is great at drawing vibrant, stylish characters, but I think he missed his mark with Quicksilver - Jack and Eliza where v dull IMHO, not enough wattage there to power a big book. I also had a bit of wearisome deja-vu with the story itself - the shared themes with cryptonomicon were a bit too shared.

Don’t know what all of the above really means wrt the OP, just thinking aloud on why Quicksilver didn’t click for me.

Jack is the character in the books who has the biggest arc; he changes more than anyone else, and is really very different from his younger self, and all in a very believable and plausible way. Eliza probably changes the least, though she also matures, and becomes less frantic in her schemes.

I tended to really enjoy the second tier of characters - Roger Comstock goes from a pretty minor guy to being a prime mover and shaker. Isaac Newton doesn’t have that much of an arc, but he’s always fun, especially in System of the World where he seems to get outwitted way more often than the smartest man in the world should. Even the more minor characters like Dappa have their moments.

I’m a fan of Stephenson. I’ve read Snow Crash, Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon and enjoyed them all. Then I looked at the Baroque Cycle and had a bad case of TLDR. I think the guy could stand to write shorter books.

Well, one of my other favorites is The Lord of the Rings, so I’m not adverse to long books…

Now that you’ve read these books four times, do you think there will be a fifth?

Probably. I like to reread books that I enjoy, especially ones that are very dense in terms of the ideas and settings. I used to reread LotR about once every two years - 10 times in total, roughly. I imagine I’ll take a couple years before I drift back around to this one - I do get a lot of reading done on the train, and I’m always looking for good material, and inevitably there will come a time where I just don’t have any new books coming out that intrigue me, and I’ll pick these up again.

I got pulled back into this series partly because I was looking forward to Anathem, but it wasn’t quite out yet. That may be my next book to read.