Per the Wikipedia entry about the series -

Despite featuring a literary treatment consistent with historical fiction, Stephenson has characterized the work as science fiction, because of the presence of some anomalous occurrences and the work's particular emphasis on themes relating to science and technology.

My familiarity with the intersection of historical fiction and science fiction lies more along the lines of Modesitt's Ghost Novels, which are much more clearly "stories set in an alternative history".

In contrast, the intent of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle novels almost seems to be expository - introduce the characters into a basically-historically-accurate world, and watch basically-historically-accurate things happen around them or, occasionally, be driven by them.

Is there a sub-genre of Science Fiction where these novels fit, or is Stephenson pretty much alone here?


2 Answers 2


There is a particular trope - and I'm not sure the name for it right now, sorry - which deals with an Outsider, usually a time traveler, going through actual history and interacting with it (sometimes changing, sometimes being proven unable to change it).

It's a little bit of Been There, Shaped History, a tiny bit of Field Trip to the Past. And the catch here is that the device involved isn't time travel per se; it's the unnatural longevity of one character who touches these stories (so he does travel in time, forward, at the same speed as everyone else, but for a much longer period).

In the comments @Hypnosifl suggests that it sounds similar to Secret History; I don't personally think so because it is not in essence revisionist; it proposes subtle influences to things that we know happened as described rather than suggesting we've been misled about what happened. But there's definitely some sympathetic resonance there.

The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon are both stories in this trope; the only exception is that the Outsider is a character and not, by and large, a first person protagonist. Enoch Root is a man out of time, or a timeless man, or an angel, or a successful alchemist... whatever he is is not mundane, and he's woven throughout all of those books. He shows up for important points and has influence (e.g., providing advice for the teaching made available to the boy Isaac Newton, guiding Randy toward an understanding of how to wield Golgotha).

I guess I would sum it up as saying the Baroque Cycle is a very mild alternate history but, since there's an character with some sort of eternal life/resurrection magic that seems to be sufficiently advanced technology, that qualifies it for Science Fiction.

(Cryptonomicon, of course, is a little less history and a little more science, but again, Enoch Root has the only magic technology)

  • This is a very good point, and I look forward to seeing some other examples - but the exception you mention seems to be a pretty major violation of said trope. Enoch Root strikes me as being a lot more like Gandalf than Frodo, and I wouldn't say that The Lord Of The Rings is primarily a story about Gandalf. Off the top of my head, Thomas Covenant might be a better example, but I think that also helps to clearly draw the distinction of having the Outsider as the primary protagonist.
    – Matt Mills
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 20:01
  • 1
    I haven't read the books, but assuming this character Enoch Root plays a pivotal role in multiple historically important events, would this qualify the books as Secret History?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 0:00
  • 1
    @Hypnosifl I would personally hesitate to say yes, because his role is such a subtle background role, but I'll integrate that into the answer for consideration because it's a valid idea to debate. Thanks!
    – gowenfawr
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 0:06

Do not let the author fool you:

The Baroque Cycle is no science fiction at all.

The only element out of the ordinary world is Enoch Root, but his two 'powers', namely to be where he can have influence and to save/heal/restore ill/ageing (or maybe (!) even dead) people (including himself), really are not of any importance to the grand picture.

It is all about luring SF readers into reading this monumental historical novel/epos. What a cool scheme, what a wonderful trick to make space age kids go back and read about the realities of the 16th/17th century..about periwigs and politics and sailing ships and..

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.