Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle consists of three volumes (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System Of The World), published in quick succession between October 2003 and October 2004. At over 2,100 pages (and over a million words) it represents one of the most ambitious works in speculative fiction in the last couple of decades.
The Cycle deals with some of the ideas that Stephenson originally explored in Cryptonomicon, to which the Cycle is a prequel. At the heart of Cryptonomicon is an exploration of cryptography, computing and the modern financial system, and the ways in which all three fields are related and dependent on each other.
"Around the time that I was closing in on the end of Cryptonomicon, I heard from a couple of different people about some interesting things having to do with Isaac Newton and with Gottfried Leibniz. One person pointed out to me that Newton had spent about the last 30 years of his life working at the mint, which was interesting to me. In Cryptonomicon there was a lot of stuff about money, so I had been thinking about money anyway." -Stephenson
This prompted Stephenson to set aside his planned sequel to Cryptonomicon and go back some three hundred years to the late 17th, and early 18th century, the time of Isaac Newton, The Sun King and the first Scientific Revolution, and explore the interdependence of modern science, finance and politics in that period. The choice seems quite natural, since many of the themes that Stephenson explores in Cryptonomicon have strong similarities with the events of that period. Indeed, some of the (many and interwoven) story lines in the Cycle are so similar to those in the Cryptonomicon (for example, the founding of the Bank of England and the creation of The Crypt, or Jack Shaftoe's pursuit of the Solomonic Gold and his descendant's attempts to acquire the same, or Turing's development of computational theory and Newton's own System Of The World) that they could have been copied and pasted directly from the Cryptonomicon, with just the names changed.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether the Baroque Cycle should be considered science- or historical fiction. There's nothing especially "SF" about it (no aliens, ray guns or robots), but you could never call it pure historical fiction - Stephenson never bothers to use authentic contemporary dialogue, and the keen-eyed will find many references to modern "geek" culture (the one that I particularly remember is an offhand remark from Enoch Root that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo"). Ultimately, the Cycle fits (a bit awkwardly, perhaps) into both categories. Stephenson himself says that it's SF.
Quicksilver sets the scene for the Cycle, introducing the key locations (the streets of London and Paris) and characters (Daniel Waterhouse, distant ancestor of Cryptonomicon's Lawrence and Randy), Jack Shaftoe (again, the ancestor of Bobby and America), Enoch Root - no, not an ancestor, but the same person (this is an example of one of the other more subtle themes that weaves through the Cycle and its precursor, of which more later). The story follows two threads: firstly, Daniel's involvement in the early years of the Royal Society, and his friendship with Newton and his contemporaries - Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Liebniz; and secondly Jack's adventures in Europe during the Wars of Religion with his love, Eliza, a former slave and native of Qwghlm. Of the three volumes, Quicksilver is the most typical of Stephenson's previous work, with nothing very much happening, but in a very readable way.
The Confusion takes a very different path, largely abandoning the lofty intellectualising of the natural philosophers for the High Seas, and Jack's adventures with his galley-slave comrades across the Atlantic, Africa and the Orient. The Confusion also follows Eliza (now Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm, Comptesse de la Zeur) and her involvement in the intrigues in the courts of Louis XIV and William of Orange. The Confusion comes across as a mix of fast-paced swashbuckler, with lots of action, and an in-depth spy story, replete with hidden meaning and double-crossing.
The System of The World once and for all demolishes the notion that Stephenson can't write endings - perhaps because of such criticisms of his previous books, he seems to have gone to great lengths to tie together all the disparate threads of the previous books into a comprehensible (and satisfactory) conclusion. Finally, Daniel, Jack and Eliza are all brought to London, all with their own agenda and intent. In this volume we see the first hints that the great works wrought by Newton and his ilk are about to change the world - the last gasps of the old order and the first glimpses of The Enlightenment.
One of the less overt themes through the books, one that's overlooked in a lot of reviews, is that of religious mysticism. One of the main prizes in the story is the mythical Solomonic Gold, imbued by the biblical King Solomon with the power to grant immortality, and possessing the powers of the Philosopher's Stone (in myth, Solomon was the first alchemist). Another frequent reference is to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill (coincidentally, Athena's Roman name is Minerva, the name of Jack and his co-conspirator's ship). It was from Athena (and Hephaestus) that Prometheus stole "wisdom in arts". In another (almost certainly deliberate) coincidence, some scholars make a connection between Prometheus and Enki, the Sumerian demigod who also makes an appearance in Stephenson's Snow Crash.
Also to be considered is the enigmatic, apparently immortal Enoch Root, also called Enoch The Red. The name "Enoch" has many mystical associations. The original biblical Enoch was the son of Cain, and the father of Methuselah, who lived for 969 years. Amusingly, the Star Trek episode Requiem for Methuselah speculates that he was in fact immortal, and had assumed a number of identities, including that of King Solomon (for it is he), Merlin and Leonardo da Vinci. This same Enoch is believed by some to have been transformed by God into the angel Metatron. In the Quran, Enoch is named as Idris. Idris is the Arabic pronunciation of the Egyptian name Osiris. The god Osiris was the supreme god and judge of the dead - the symbol of resurrection and eternal life, and provider of fertility and prosperity to the living.
For Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle to have such a complex system of mystical references and relationships surely cannot be a coincidence, and it is a testament to the broad interests and research skills of Stephenson that he managed to construct such a compelling subtext in his books.
Overall, the Cycle is a vast, enthrawling, sprawling, highly impressive body of work, covering history, science, technology, economics, politics (domestic, geopolitical and sexual), mysticism and alchemy, with many complex interweaving storylines and so much detail that sometimes you can get bogged down, but if you stick with it, the reward is more than worth the effort.