Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Posted June 7, 2010on:
This review was originally posted here in October of 2008. Only after I read this book, and most of Stephenson’s Baroque cycle, did I realize that Cryptonomicon is not only vintage standard Stephenson, but an unofficial fourth book in the Baroque Cycle.
Not quite science fiction, and nothing like what I expected, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is a mental mind screw of the highest voltage.
I read Cory Doctorow’s short story Little Brother a few weeks ago. Enthralled, I couldn’t help but read every snippet of end note and commentary at the end, in which Doctorow mentions how inspired he was by Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Off I was to the library, to seek out what seemed to be the only copy in the county library system.
A novice in the science of crypto (that’s code breaking for you other novices), I wasn’t expecting a history lesson that sent me right to Google Maps to find all these places in the Pacific Theater of WWII (it is too bad the book didn’t have any handy maps). Documentaries on TV might only mention the German Enigma machine these days, but there was plenty of other code breaking going on during the war, much of it based on random numbers, mathematical equations, and the gamble that a hundred people in a room backwards engineering the formula wouldn’t figure it out in years. It was a pretty smart gamble, until early computers showed up, and could crunch the numbers in a matter of days.
Math buddines Alan Turing, Lawrence Waterhouse, and Rudolf von Hackleheber meet at Princeton in the 30s, and sit around talking math. At the beginning of the war, Turing heads to England, Hackleheber to Germany, and the socially inept Waterhouse gets bounced all over the place breaking enemy codes like nobodies business. The world powers are up to their eye balls in Enigma, Windtalkers, and any other way of getting secret messages across the oceans. Meanwhile, marine Bobby Shaftoe is stuck in the Philippines trying not to get shot, and hoping his Filipino girlfriend isn’t pregnant. For the first few hundred pages, Stephenson introduces a quadratic equation worth of characters. Would be a waste if they all didn’t meet up eventually in the same place at the same time, wouldn’t it.
In alternating chapters, the reader is transported to the present (or 1999, when the book was published), where a 20-something Randy Waterhouse and his programming buddies are working on yet another very expensive computer venture – this time to create a data haven with better security and privacy than an old school Swiss Bank. If Randy and his friends can just get the funding, they can bury a few hundred servers under a small island off the Philippines. Things get complicated when Randy’s cable-laying, treasure hunting associates find something that shouldn’t be under that much water. It’s not that it isn’t buried treasure. . .
As Randy and his crew circumnavigate the legalese of getting their data haven set up, and praying their investors aren’t all drug dealers or sue-happy millionaires, World War II is exploding on the next page. Shaftoe and Lawrence Waterhouse appear shell shocked from the beginning – they can’t not do what their country is asking of them, but they don’t want to be responsible for killing anyone either. Much of Cryptonomicon has a surreal, shell shocked Vonnegut feeling to it, with characters going through the motions, resigned to the outcome.
The first handful of pages of the book are filled to the brim with praise, snippets of reviews, etc. Cryptonomicon is said to be intoxicating, geek-chic, addictive, engrossing, insightful, etc. Well, I think I got some of that out of it, but maybe not the way Stephenson or other critics did. Sure, the present day PC hacking and whatnot is fun, smart, and snarky, but I was always looking ahead a few pages to find out how far I had to to read to get to the good World War II parts. I think I read plenty of awful, tear jerky, propaganda laden World War II novels as a kid, so these days, I tend to avoid them in general. This is not one of those. Stephenson’s marines have social issues, love sushi and guns, talk like drunk sailors, and don’t much care for losers who got stuck in the army or on Gaudalcanal. Then you meet Goto Dengo, who might just be the most honorable literary character I have ever met. I wish I could have gotten to know him better, earlier on. Once Goto Dengo’s place in the narrative became clear, I stopped caring about everyone else. I was surprised I felt that way about such a minor character, and even more surprised that Stephenson didn’t put as much work into other, more primary characters. Maybe he planned it that way all along?
At over 900 pages, Cryptonomicon isn’t ever going to be a fast read. Instant gratification it ain’t. The end drags, the stereotypical socially challenged computer nerds get trite, and after a while I was ready for the damn thing to be over. That said, it isn’t that Cryptonomicon is a bad book (really, it’s good!), and I do recommend it, just realize what you’re getting yourself into when the librarian hands you the 20 pound behemoth, because what you thought it was going to be about? yeah, it’s not about that at all.
I’ve now read 4 and a half Stephenson novels, and other than Zodiac (watch for the review!) I can say his epic novels run hot and hold – 10 pages that blow your mind with their awesomeness, followed by 10 pages that any editor worth more than a cup of coffee should have used the Mr Fix It sharpee marker on. I’m coming to the conclusion that Stephenson novels aren’t read, they are lived, they are survived, until they become assimilated into the readers worldview. And readers seem to love his stuff, or hate it.