Review of Neal Stephenson’s “The Baroque Cycle”

(This is a repost of a review written in 2008)

Neal Stephenson's trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, is a must read if you are interested in any of the following: history, The Enlightenment, science, philosophy, reason, how ideas shape world events, the birth of capitalism, pirates, battles, or love stories. Yes, this isn't so much a book review as a trilogy review, but the books can't really be separated.

Stephenson is perhaps best known for his "cyberpunk" science fiction work, most prominently Snow Crash (1992). The Cryptonomicon (1999) was a break from the pure sci-fi realm, and was a brilliant integration of the themes of pre-Internet bubble high-tech entrepreneurship, cryptography, and WWII history. Yes, the book really did span from WWII to the late 90's, and it worked.

However, The Baroque Cycle is unlike anything else he has written, in theme, scope, and depth. It's not just a work of historical fiction, but a celebration of reason and ideas, and the impact both had on the world. First, let's look at the history.

The books follow three primary fictional characters as they weave in and out the massive scientific, philosophical, economic and political changes of the period from 1680 to 1713, and the real world people who shaped the events. As a quick refresher, here is a short list of some of the events from that period in history, all of which are integral to the novels:
  • The failed 1683 siege of Vienna by the Ottomans
  • Protestant revolution and Oliver Cromwell
  • The Restoration
  • The Glorious Revolution in England (overthrow of James II and the Catholics)
  • 30 Years War
  • War of Spanish Succession
  • The rise of the Hapsburgs
  • Principia Mathematica and the philosophical battles between Newton and Leibniz
  • The emigration of Protestants from England to the American colonies
  • The Spanish Inquisition
The first character we meet is Daniel Waterhouse, an eminent Natural Philosopher, member of the recently established Royal Society, and close friend of Isaac Newton. The second main character is Jack Shaftoe, an English vagabond who by chance takes up with the Polish army at the siege of Vienna, meets and kills a Janissary (Ottoman warrior), and in the process rescues the third character, a young slave girl from the northern British Isles, Eliza.

Through the course of the novels, these fictional characters interact with all sorts of famous historical figures, from Newton and Leibniz to Kings (James II, William III, Louis XIV), Queens, Electors, a young Ben Franklin, Peter the Great and John Locke, just to name a few. The reader follows them on travels throughout Europe, the Middle East, India, the Americas, and Japan. There are thrilling naval and ground battles, political intrigues, and sword fights.

This is just the backdrop, however. The primary focus of the novels is to showcase the enormous changes in the "system of the world" as Stephenson put it, and these changes were wrought by ideas.

Through Daniel Waterhouse, we see the battle of ideas between reason and mysticism, science and religion, at the start of the Enlightenment. We see the political changes in England, the fight for representative government and religious freedom.

We watch as Eliza rises to become a brilliant, self-interested and rational capitalist, playing and creating the early stock markets, all the while orbiting in the nobility around Louis XIV. As a former Turkish slave, we see her use her money, influence and intelligence to battle slavery and attack the Asiento trade.

Through Jack Shaftoe's travels and adventures, we explore the state of the rest of the world and see the stark contrast between the brilliant energy and progress of England and the backward mysticism and barbarism of the Spanish colonies, India, and southeast Asia. We see Jack struggle with understanding the economic changes in the world as the feudal systems are replaced by markets, banks, complex investments and production of wealth.

All of these threads are woven together in a great heroic story, and through it we witness an amazing period in history as old systems of government, economy and science are turned on their heads, and the stage is set for the birth of a new nation in the Americas. The books end in 1713, but they present the rebirth of reason, progress of representative government, and nascent ideas of individual rights that were exported from England and were the bedrock of American thought.

Stephenson portrays these ideas with a great sense of life and expert skill. The books aren't without some philosophical problems, but they are minor. Overall, they make up a brilliant work of art, and you will be glad to have read them.

If you intend to buy the books...
On Amazon, you will notice that there appear to be many more than just three books in the series. This is because after they were initially released, Stephenson split them into sections, roughly three per original book, and sold as smaller volumes. I recommend buying the original three, however. Their titles are:
  • Quicksilver (Vol. 1)
  • The Confusion (Vol. 2)
  • The System of the World (Vol. 3)

Update: Make sure to read my review of Ed Cline's Sparrowhawk series. If you would be interested in an amazing historical fiction portrayal of the American Revolution that rivals (and I think betters) the quality and scope of The Baroque Cycle, you'll want to read this review and then the books.

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