What's up with Enoch Root? Part II: The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver and The Confusion

Well now, the Baroque Cycle is out, and we know for sure that something very strange is going on with Enoch Root, but we still don't know what. (At least, I think we don't. I just got the The System of the World and I haven't started reading it yet. I suppose all could be revealed on the last page, but I kind of doubt it, and in any case it will take me a while to get there.) Herewith are some thoughts and questions, hypotheses and wild guesses, based on the Baroque Cycle.

Open Questions:

Some of these may be answered in The System of the World. If you've finished that book, you might also want to read The System of the World page, but be warned. It contains spoilers.

How old is Root anyway?

Doug Jones notes:

Enoch certainly continues his long life habits in Quicksilver, being an adult with a long reputation in 1655 and still hearty in 1713 (i'm only on page 79 so far). If he were 40 in 1655 that would make him 98 in 1713, and at the very least a proto-member of the Howard families (to mingle fictions).

Emmett Barton agrees:

I've just began reading Quicksilver and already Enoch Root's immortality has become almost glaringly apparent. The story opens with Root in 1712 described as "A man of indefinable age but evidently broad experience, with silver hair queued down to the small of his back, a copper-red beard, pale gray eyes, and skin weathered and marred like a blacksmith's ox-hide apron." Further details leave us with the impression that he is young enough still to kick your ass and all your friends.

Here we have our standard Enoch Root characture. Taking into account the sheer technicality of Stephenson's writing, he would not let slide that some two hundred years in the future an Enoch descendant would have exactly the same characteristics. The genetics are impossible.

Secondly, in the second chapter of Quicksilver Root appears in 1655, 57 years before his appearance as a possible 30-something in 1712. He is an adult, looking as Daniel Waterhouse puts it "..so implausibly well-preserved.." Waterhouse himself is already bald and aging at an age similar to Root's.

Currently I am not much past this but already Root's immortality is nearly without question. He is not two or a hundred separate persons. He is simply immortal. A single deus ex machina in Stephenson's world. He is very Gandalf-esque in the fact that his character is for all of time a fixer. Like Gandalf, Root is crossing the world shoring up things, improving technology, giving the future little pushes in the right direction here and there. Root is not omniscient however, he is the hand of Stephenson, and knows not the future until he has written it himself.

Root's longevity is confirmed in several places in The Confusion. On p. 549, Lothar von Hacklheber, explains his interest in alchemy and his family's relationship with Root to Eliza:

My desire was to conquer Death, which took my brothers young and unfairly. It is a common desire. Most come to terms with Death sooner or later. My failure to do so was an unintended consequence of a pact that my family had made with Enoch Root. In order for him to dwell among humankind he must don identities, and later, before his longevity draws notice, shed them. My father knew about Enoch—knew a little of what he was—and struck a deal with him: he would vouch for Enoch as a long-lost relative named Egon von Hacklheber, and suffer him to dwell among us under that name for a period of some decades, if, in exchange, 'Egon" would serve as a tutor to his three sons. Of the three, I was in some sense the quickest, for I came to know that Enoch was not like us. And I guessed that this was a matter of his having discovered some Alchemical receipt that conferred life eternal. A reasonable guess—but wrong.

Here are the "old family connections" that Rudi von Hacklheber refers to on p. 505 of Cryptonomicon. Also note especially that Lothar seems fairly sure that Root isn't human, whatever he is. He also seems to believe that Enoch's longevity is not due to alchemy, but due to his inhuman nature.

Sean Dwyer comments on this passage:

The odd thing is that Eliza, to whom he is explaining this is not only _not_ surprised, but not interested enough to question him further, for von Hackleheber says no more about it.

Neal Stephenson is the most infuriating man alive.

Then, on pp. 693-694, Root tells Jack Shaftoe, "I hope it also explains why I must go and see these Solomon Islands myself. If the legends are true, then Newton will want to know all about it. Even if they are nothing more than legends, these islands might be a good place for a man to go, if he wanted to get away from the world for a few years, or a few centuries...in any event that is where I am bound."

Side note: given that we know from Quicksilver, that Root did not stay on the Islands for a few centuries, may we surmise that he left to tell Newton because the legends are true? What legend is that? Root explained on p. 692:

it has long been supposed that Solomon—the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem, the first Alchemist, and the subject of Isaac newton's obsessions for lo these many years, departed from the Land of Israel before he died, and journeyed far to the east, and founded a kingdom among certain islands. IT is part of the legend that this kingdom was fabulously wealthy.

New Ideas

Jon Paul Henry suggests that Enoch Root might be a robot:

In "Confusion," when the bonanza crew are in India, Root shows up with Jack's two boys. Whilst Jack is showing Enoch the ship they are building there is a brief reference to the smell of Root's breath, to the effect – I can't find the page reference offhand – that it is metallic and oil-smelling, i.e., what a post-industrial revolution nose would identify as mechanical.

Numbers of readers have speculated about time travel, or that Root is some sort of angelic being, but to me this metallic smell reeks of "robot," or at least, some sort artificial person. As to who created him, and why, perhaps these are mysteries that are not to be revealed until the "third" book, the one dealing with the future which Stephenson said was carved out of the original drafts of "Cryptonomicon" and which will become, we hope, a future book. Note that Enoch seems to be around at almost every crucial change in the plot, or at least, those parts of the plot that deal with the defeat of obscurantism, and the "victory" of science and Enlightenment.

If he is an emmisary from the future, and his purpose is clearly to make sure that the future turns out the way his makers want it to, then he would of course have to be long-lived, and an artificial being is probably the only way to guarantee that. The cigar box then, is not some magical philosopher's stone, but perhaps simply a power source of some kind.

And of course, if the above is true (possibly a large assumption) then two conclusions follow. First, Enoch isn't likely to be anyone's father – unless he is also a "genetic" mechanism of some sort – and second, he could very easily go into hibernation until his presence was again required.

A more obscure conclusion might also be that the future is itself somehow endangered, thus necessitating Root's "on-the-spot" presence, but here my eyes dim. "Obscure, it is, the future," as Yoda would say.

This hypothesis is completely based on this passage from QuickSilver, pp. 578-579:

Jack levitated. Enoch clapped a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. Enoch was facing toward the fire and the light [579] glinted weirdly in the dilated pupils of his eyes: a pair of red moons in the night. "Jack, it is not her. She has done well for herself, it's true—but not so well that she can dispatch an arsenal halfway around the world, simply because a Vagabond writes her a letter."

"What woman can?"

"A woman you saw once, from a steeple in Hanover."

"Stab me!"

"And now you appreciate, I trust, how deep the matter is."

"But I should not have addressed the letter to Enoch Root, if I did not want it to become deep. What are her terms?"

The red moons were eclipsed for a little while. Enoch sighed. His breath on Jack's face was hot and warm like a Malabar breeze, and laced—or so Jack imagined—with queer mineral fragrances.

I wasn't at all convinced, especially since a few pages earlier we saw Root tasting Jack's saltpeter to test its purity. Henry replied:

once I found the passage again last night, I realized that I probably was reading into it a bit too much; and your suggestion that Enoch being alchemically involved might have odd smelling breath makes a lot of sense.

But something nags at me with those "queer mineral fragrances" especially since there's just been a deliberate attempt at distancing, with the eyes like red moons. On the previous page too, 577, Enoch's weird longevity is foregrounded by Jack. Moreover, Enoch hasn't been alchemically involved recently; he's been travelling from Europe to India, surely enough time for his breath to rid itself of any residual chemical taints. Few people in the 3 novels so far have been as close to Enoch, physically, as Jack in this scene, so it struck me immediately upon reading that this was A Clue, in capital letters.

Then again, maybe it ain't; but an artificial person is at least capable of explaining the appearances, which is all we can ask of a hypothesis so slender.

Is there any other evidence for this? Maybe. Kevin Purcell noted a curious omission:

Another amusing data point: neither Enoch Root nor Enoch the Red nor anyone else called Enoch is in the Dramatis Personae at the back of Quicksilver.

I noticed this yesterday when I was trying to explain to a friend about the character who didn't die and I couldn't remember his name (a senior moment). So I looked though the Dramatis Personae in the back of Quicksilver and nothing rang a bell. Then turned to the opening and the first word of course is "Enoch".

Isn't that odd for a personum :-)

I checked Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, andThe System of the World. None of them include a Dramatis Personae. Interestingly, there's at least one other major character who doesn't appear to be listed in the Dramatis Personae: Nicolas Fatio de Duillers. Is there any evidence there's something strange about him? Unlike Root, Fatio is a real, historical, figure. Are there any other characters left out of the Dramatis Personae?

Marie wanted to know if Enoch had sexual relations with any woman in any of the books. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any. (Despite his marriage, G.E.B. Kivistek is likely not Root's biological son.) Stephenson doesn't shy away from sex in these books. That Root doesn't participate in such matters may suggest that, unlike Commander Data (Didn't you just know Star Trek was going to come into this sooner or later?), he is not "fully functional".

Hmm, I did find one place where Root admits to sexual relations. On pp. 534-535 of Cryptonomicon, we have the following exchange:

They go into the cabin. Root declines to turn on any lights and keeps looking out the windows like he's expecting someone. He smells faintly of Julieta's perfume, a distinctive scent that Otto has been smuggling into Finland by the fifty-five gallon drum. Somehow Shaftoe is not surprised by this. He proceeds to make coffee.

"A very complex situation has arisen," Root says.

"I can see that."

Root is startled by this, and looks up blankly at Shaftoe, his eyes glowing stupidly in the moonlight. You can be the smartest guy in the world, but when a woman comes into the picture. you're just like any other sap.

"Did you come all this way to tell me that you're fucking Julieta?"

"Oh, no, no, no!" Root says. He stops for a moment, furrows his brow. "I mean, I am. And I was going to tell you. But that's just the first part of a more complicated business." Root gets up, shoves hands in pockets, walks around the cabin again, looking out the windows. "You have any more of those Finnish guns?"

John Deighan likes the artificial person hypothesis:

The one quote that I have not seen regarding Mr Enoch Root is where he says that finding square roots is considered entertainment where he comes from (not a direct quote, it could be some other mental mathematical manipulation just as daunting to us "normals"). [Editor's note: This is on p. ???? of Cryptonomicon where Root says, "Where I grew up, memorizing the digits of pi was the closest thing we had to entertainment."] O.K., fine. Where does he come from? A Secret Society? A collection of "really, really smart guys" rarely gets their hands dirty, or send one of their own to perform a "boots on the ground" service, or do anything as risky as mess around with the course of history.

Unless, of course, they know where that history is going. And have a vested interest in making sure it gets there. Maybe even in "better" shape than the "original" (don't get me started on the Multiverse).

Here Goes: Enoch Root is an agent from the End of Time, Judgement Day, the Omega Point, The Singularity, The Place Where It All Goes In and Doesn't Have To Come Out*, what-have-you. "The End". The Place where God either Wakes Up or is Switched On.

If that qualifies Mr. Root (it? her?!? How about it, Neal? can we gender-bend Ole Enoch next book around? After all, it's only a body...:)) ) as an Angel, O.K. To me, it qualifies Ole Enoch as an AI (and perhaps an AI that has been "dumbed down" sufficiently so that it's comprehensible to Homo Sap but still good enough to get the job done). He's there to make sure Things Go the Way They're Supposed To, quietly and "behind the scenes", with only as many "miracles" and anachronisms as necessary.

On p. 879 of Quicksilver, Daniel Waterhouse, actively challenges Root's humanity. Root evades the question:

"You are very rude," Daniel said.

"What did you say? Root?

"Rude, to drink alone, when others are present."

"Each man finds his own sort of rudeness. Some burst into houses, and conversations, uninvited."

"I was bearing important news."

"And I am celebrating it."

"Aren't you afraid that drink will shorten your longevity?"

"Is longevity much on your mind, Mr. Waterhouse?"

"It is one the mind of every man. And I am a man. Who or what are you?"

Locke's eyes had been going back and forth, as at a tennis match. Now they fixed on Enoch for a while. Enoch had goot a look as if he were trying to be patient—which was not the same as being patient.

"There's a certain unexamined arrogance to your question, Daniel. Just as Newton presumes that there is some absolute space by which all things—comets even!—are measured and governed, you presume it is all perfectly natural and pre-ordained that the earth should be [populated by men, whose superstitions ought to be the ruler by which all things are judged; but why might I not ask of you, 'Daniel Waterhouse, who or what are you? And why does creation teem with others like you, and what is your purpose?' "

"I'll remind you, sirrah, that All Hallows' Eve was more than month since, and I am not of a humour to be baited with hobgoblin stories."

"Nor am I of a humour to be rated a hobgoblin or any other figment of the imagination; for 'twas God who imagined me, just as He did you, and thereby brought us into being.

Note two things here:

The conversation then turns to alchemy, and Root's status as an alchemist:

"Your tankard brims over with scorn for our superstitions and imaginings; yet here you are, as always, in the company of Alchemists."

"You might have said, "Here you are in the center of the Glorious Revolution conversing with a noted political philosopher,' " Root returned, glancing at Locke, who flicked his eyes downward in the merest hint of a bow. "But I am never credited thus by you, Daniel."

"I have only seen you in the company of alchemists. Do you deny it?"

"Daniel, I have only seen you in the company of alchemists. But I am aware that you do other things. I know you have oft been at bedlam with Hooke. Perhaps you have seen priests there who go to converse with madmen. Do you suppose these priests to be mad?"

"I'm not sure if I approve of the similitude—" Locke began.

"Stay, 'tis just a figure!" Root laughed rather winningly, reaching out to touch Locke's shoulder.

"A faulty one," Daniel said, "for you are an alchemist."

"I am called an Alchemist. Within living memory, Daniel, everyone who studied what I—and you—study was called by that name. And most persons even today observe no distinction between Alchemy and the younger and more vigorous order of knowledge that is associated with your club."

"I am too exhausted to harry you through all your evasions. Out of respect for your friends Mr. Locke, and for Leibniz, I shall give you the benefit of the doubt, and wish you well," Daniel said.

"God save you, Mr. Waterhouse."

Again Root demonstrates a way of thinking that is more than a little anachronistic. His perspective appears to be more that of the 21st century than the 17th.

Did Leibniz found the Societas Eruditorum as a German response to the Royal Society? or a Protestant response to the Jesuits?

On p. 201 of Quicksilver, "Leibniz proposes to found a Societas Eruditorum that will gather in young Vagabonds and raise them up to be an army of "Natural Philosophers" to overawe the Jesuits."

On p. 431 of Quicksilver, it's revealed that Leibniz founded a journal named Acta Eruditorum. Is this the journal of the Societas Eruditorum?

On p. 668 of Quicksilver:

The first part of the journey was like being nailed, with several other people, into a coffin borne through a coal-mine by epileptic pallbearers. But at Chelmsford some passengers got out of the carriage and thereafter the way became straight and level enough that Daniel could attempt to read. He took out the printed document that Roger had given him in the coffee-house. It was a copy of Acta Eruditorum, the scholarly rag that Leibniz had founded in his home town of Leipzig.

Leibniz had been trying for along time to organize the smart germans. The smart Britons tended to see this as a shabby imitation of the Royal Society, and the smart Frenchmen viewed it as a mawkish effort by the Doctor (who'd been living in Hanover since '77) to hold up a flawed and tarnished mirror to the radiant intellectual life of Paris. While Daniel (reluctantly) saw some justice in these opinions, he suspected that Leibniz was mostly doing it simply because it was a good idea. At any rate Acta Eruditorum was Leibniz's (hence Germany's) answer to Journal des Savants, and it tended to convey the latest and best ideas coming from Germany—i.e., whatever Leibniz had been thinking about lately.

This particular issue had been printed several months earlier and contained an article by Leibniz on mathematics. Daniel began skimming it and right away saw distinctly familiar terms—the likes of which he had not glimpsed since '77&mdash

"Stab me in the vitals," Daniel muttered, "he's finally done it!"

"Done what!?" demanded Exaltation Gather, who was sitting across from Daniel hugging a large box full of money.

"Published the calculus!"

Hmm, it should be a matter of historical fact where Leibniz first published the calculus. Did the Acta Eruditorum and the Societas Eruditorum actually exist? In any case, it doesn't seem like the Societas Eruditorum is very secret at this point in time.

IT appears there really was a German journal known as the Acta Eruditorum. It was founded by Otto Mencke, not Leibniz; but Leibniz did contribute to it; and indeed did publish the differential calculus in this journal in 1684 and the integral calculus in 1686.

On p. 756, Eliza tells Fatio that she knows he's a member of some secret society:

Have you learned so much of me, then, from talking to your brethren? For I know that they are to be found in every Court, Church, and College, and that they know each other by signs and code-words, Please do not be coy with me, Fatio, it is ever so tedious.

Possibly it could be she's talking about the Societas Eruditorum, but it seems more likely she's talking about what is referred to on the next page as "the esoteric brotherhood"; i.e. the Alchemists. It's also remotely possible she's talking about the Freemasons, though that's really a stretch as they haven't been mentioned in the books up to this point.

Random Notes

William Chesser writes:

I think Enoch is some sort of meta-character. I thought he was just a long lived guy (although I had had some suspicions otherwise, as had many of your other contributors) the first time I read the Cryptonomicon. I think there is much more evidence for this in Quicksilver (as you no doubt know).

A friend and I have been discussing the idea that, charismatic as they are, Stephenson really doesn’t like the shaftoes. I mean, pardon the pun, but they are constantly getting the shaft. And, most of the shaftoes are really sort of the ultimate warriors. Perhaps they are Ares? Or perhaps something else – just the weapons of Athena? Weapons always lead hard lives of service.

Having read much of Quicksilver, I’d like to make the observation that Stephenson is painting a picture (and possibly an accurate one) of a world in which all significant scientific breakthroughs are made by queer (in both/either senses of the word) men. I find this very interesting. Von Hacklehaber (sp?), Turing, Newton and Leibniz are all homosexual, and the early Waterhouse, the /really/ early Waterhouse from Quicksilver, and Hooke are all pretty odd ducks. I think this is an interesting point.

October 2004 updates

David Parmet found an interesting clue supporting the time traveller hypothesis:

I did notice one thing in Quicksilver that's almost touch on in your second 'Just who the heck is Enoch Root' page.

In the list of characters at the end - NS notes that characters listed in italics (presumably fictional characters) should be approached by time travelers with caution.

I don't know the exact phrasing since I don't have the book in front of me.

But why would NS even mention time travelers? Unless there was some element of time travel there for us to discover?

Which just might lend credence to the theory that Enoch is a time traveller.


Interesting Links

Comments to elharo@metalab.unc.edu are appreciated. If you'd like your thoughts to be added here, please make sure your e-mail states that it's OK for me to post it. Please note that I tend to work on this page in bursts, every few months to a year, so it may be a while before I add your comments. Thanks!

Back to Cafe au Lait
Last Modified October 16, 2006
Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006 Elliotte Rusty Harold