Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson
Science fiction, thriller, history, cryptography, etc. (reread)

Having thought about this book while reading Seveneves, I had to reread it.

It's something of a stretch calling Cryptonomicon a novel at all, much less assigning it to a category. It breaks every rule in the novel writer's handbook, for one thing.

  • Three major and several minor viewpoint characters
  • Two different time periods
  • Long, often technical digressions on cryptography, software, geek culture, philosophy, etc.
  • A complete lack of clarity on who or what the various protagonists' antagonists is/are.
  • Such plot as exists only becomes clear in the last quarter of the novel.
  • It's 918 pages long (more or less).
Jane Austen it is not.

I loved it when I first read it. I love it even more now. You get your Picaresque Hero (Bobby Shaftoe, USMC) having WWII adventures all over the world, while your historic (Lawrence Waterhouse) and modern (Lawrence's grandson Randy) Nerd Heroes intersect with him in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Those long digressions? Not only essential, but fascinating. The philosophy? Has something in common with the notion of the Apollonian vs. Dionysian dichotomy, with Stephenson firmly on the side of Athena over Ares. 

Also, it's screamingly funny in spots.

I do not recommend Cryptonomicon to everyone. I do recommend it to everyone who is not technology-averse and who really likes to think. (And if you don't ... please double-check the name of the blog.)


  1. This is a book that I always meant to get around to reading. Given the recommendation (again) I shall have to get hold of it.

    1. I'll be very interested to hear what you make of it. Some of my reaction is undoubtedly shaped by the fact that I'm near the center of the target audience. I will say that anyone who didn't like Snow Crash probably won't like Cryptonomicon, and probably vice-versa.

      Also, I got more out of it on the most recent read-through, in part because I've read up on Alan Turing in the interim.

    2. Interesting chap. Brilliant. Done in by his government in such a sad way. No one stepped in to save him. His work was so needed. Now I understand everyone leaving you to fall though.

      I think that his presence in Stephenson's book would be integral. I enjoyed _Snow Crash_ you know. It felt like a ride through the back alleys of so many places with so much going on. Like college with people trying to kill you.

      Have you compared it to Anathem?

    3. Anathem is quite a different novel (although I also liked it). I've describe it as a hard science fiction novel in which the hard science is philosophy. It doesn't have the gonzo tone, the frenetic pacing, or the technological edge of Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash, but like all of Stephenson's works it's long on idea content.

      His more recent Reamde is almost entirely a straight thriller, and a fairly good one at that.

      Re: Turing: the movie The Imitation Game gets most of its facts wrong, but I liked it very much anyway. It gives a true feeling for the man and his time, even if the truth was somewhat less dramatic. I read the biography it was based on a couple of years ago, and recommend that as well--detailed and not overly technical.

  2. I enjoyed the Cryptonomicon. Its been a long time since I read it, so my memory is a bit blurry, but I remember how well researched it seemed. There was a part of the book when a main character was in modern Japan, in a section of Tokyo where the most advanced electronics in the world are available, Akihabara. Not only was the description perfect, but he even described the Mister Donuts shop I (and apparently all young expat geeks) frequented when in town. It was like he lived there.

    1. Yes, I was thinking about you when I read that bit. Is it still that way? There are some dated bits in the book--it came out in 1999, for crissakes, when people hand-chipped their modems out of flint--but surprisingly few of them.

      Incidentlly, I highly recommend this (long) essay by Stephenson, which evidently formed part of the research for the book.