by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Publisher: Perennial
Copyright: 1999
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-380-78862-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 918

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Neal Stephenson built his reputation in SF on fast-paced, humorous cyberpunk (Snow Crash) and idea exploration around nanotech (The Diamond Age), but all of his books featured portrayals of smart people who liked taking things apart and figuring out how they work. His heroes were technical, skilled in some often abstract specialist discipline (usually computer programming of some variety), and generally geeks of some sort. He has always been one of the best writers of the infodump in SF, scattering chunks of exposition about neat ideas and cool bits of science (or history or mathematics) into the middle of the plot and still making them entertaining. Prior to Cryptonomicon, he kept this technique submerged in the plot; in Cryptonomicon, he gave it free rein.

This is a sprawling, meandering monster of a book that runs over 900 pages in trade paperback with small print. The mass market printing pushes the limits of publishing at over 1,100 pages. In it, Stephenson does tell a story (actually, four interlocking stories in two time frames), but mostly he uses cryptography and cryptanalysis as a jumping-off point into an exploration of the mindset, pastimes, interests, personalities, and paranoias of, for lack of a better term, geek culture. He tries, from several different angles, to show what it's like to be fascinated by mathematical puzzles, computer behavior, and intellectual problems, using the infodump asides as a subtle form of characterization. One does not read about Stephenson's characters so much as get dunked into the stream of their thoughts and watch their internal monologues, digressions, and bizarre bits of trivial flow by.

This makes Cryptonomicon a book that asks for different reviews for and from different audiences. I have many of the same interests and cultural affiliations as Stephenson's modern-day characters, so I get caught up in the detail of the cryptography and analysis of his portrayals of "my" culture for errors. It's a slightly odd feeling, like reading anthropology about one's own culture, but Stephenson knows what he's writing about. His portrayal of programmers and hackers is dramatically exaggerated in places but culturally perceptive, and while the details of cryptography and computers have aged poorly in places, his handling of technology is almost as good. How this reads to someone from outside this culture, unfamiliar with its background, I can't tell. It feels like Stephenson also does a good job introducing it to the uninitiated, but I know too much to judge. Judging by how well this book sold, though, he apparently reached a mass audience; quite a feat given that this novel contains graphs and equations and a detailed description of a manual cryptosystem.

The plot divides into a World War II war story of sorts and a modern-day adventure in company formation and international intrigue. The World War II plot centers around Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematical genius with some markers of autism and a love of information theory and cryptanalysis, and Bobby Shaftoe, a Marine grunt who gets sucked into a bizarre set of missions to try to hide the fact that the Allies have broken the codes of both the Germans and the Japanese. Later, a Japanese soldier Goto Dengo fulfills a similar role to Shaftoe from the Japanese side, showing the insanity of the war and giving Stephenson a viewpoint character from which to show the creation of mysteries that are being simultaneously untangled in the contemporary plot.

Most of the contemporary characters are direct descendants of the World War II characters. Randy Waterhouse forms a company with a long-time friend and collaborator to better connect the Philippines to the Internet, an endeavor that's mostly cover for a longer-term goal to build a secure data haven. In the process, we're treated to a parody of business formation, shareholder lawsuits, business plans that evolve faster than cash flow, and other exaggerated aspects of the insane world of startup companies. Mostly, though, the contemporary story is a brilliant pastiche of the beliefs, lifestyles, obsessions, and attitudes of the most paranoid and talented crypto-obsessed geeks.

If you've been around the Internet for a while (a decade or so), you have almost certainly heard of the cypherpunks mailing list and the brilliant and bizarre people who gathered around it. This is clearly where Stephenson draws much of his inspiration (the mailing list itself even shows up in the book, renamed to Secret Admirers). He manages to capture the combination of almost-insane ravings, brilliant theoretical understanding, extreme politics, and anti-establishment adventure and intrigue that surrounded the most notable members. I expect a lot of cypherpunks insiders will disagree with the use Stephenson made of the material, but as someone who only watched the outside edges, I think he did a great job capturing the most entertaining parts and putting them to the service of the plot.

Some of this same material is present in the Lawrence Waterhouse sections of the WW2 narrative. He is a confidant of Alan Turing, is heavily involved in the invention of the digital computer, and is deep in the middle of the code-breaking operations of the US and British, both the theory and the day-to-day practice. His parts of the book are full of bizarre trivia about the information aspects of WW2, a parody of Wales and Welsh, and a look at the war from the oddly askew perspective of data analysis. Randy is considerably more normal than his grandfather.

The rest of the WW2 segments, those following Shaftoe and Dengo, are a war story from a much different tradition: Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Stephenson is a bit less biting (and far more plot-driven), but the same spirit of the essential insanity of war underlies the story. In Cryptonomicon, though, there is less outright incompetence and idiocy. Instead, nearly all of the soldiers are Yossarian in their own way, and the insanity is an emergent property of the horror and desperation of war. There is less of Heller's critique of bureaucracy and leadership (although there is some). General McArthur shows up memorably in the late parts of the book, acting like a bizarrely effective crazy person; in Cryptonomicon, those two characteristics go hand in hand. Many of the most effective characters relate to reality in bent ways, and everyone, even Shaftoe, has a bit of the geek tendency to focus on results and be annoyed rather than afraid. Stephenson does, though, maintain surreal tone similar to Heller's, a picture of bravery driven by motivations far unlike what we expect in bravery, and a sense of vast disconnect between the high ideals behind war and the day-to-day weirdness of being a soldier.

Even with all this going on, Cryptonomicon does sometimes suffer from pacing. This is a huge book full of detailed descriptions of places, people, and obscure trivia. The plot pulls one along to a degree, but if you don't enjoy Stephenson's digressions, plot tension won't be enough to keep the book from bogging down. I do — this is my second read through and I enjoyed the book almost as much as I did the first time (more, in places, from having read Catch-22 since). However, this probably isn't for everyone. I think the key to whether this book bores or entertains is whether Stephenson's humor matches up with yours. His dry, tongue-in-cheek descriptions are what make his anecdotes and infodumps so enjoyable for me, and humor can be hit and miss. To appreciate Cryptonomicon, I have to be willing to immerse myself in it and wander through the minds of the characters without being in a hurry for things to happen.

Highly recommended if you liked the digressions and asides in Stephenson's previous books, but if you've never read Stephenson before, I recommend starting with Snow Crash instead of Cryptonomicon. It will give you a feel for his style and humor while providing more traditional novel pacing (and is less daunting).

The publisher's information for Cryptonomicon indicated that it was the first book of a series, but if so, the rest of the series has yet to materialize. It does, however, take place in the same universe as Stephenson's later Baroque Cycle series (starting with Quicksilver) and shares some thematic links.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-01-02

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04