Cryptonomicon

So, today, I’m going to talk a bit about Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

Some information you might want to know before hand: this book was published in 1999, almost ten years ago. This was a fair bit before the time of blogs and, really, even before the time of popular internet usage the way we think of it today. This was back in the days when the gray blocks of Windows ’95 had only just been updated to the gray blocks of Windows ’98. A time when e-mail was still considered fairly impressive communication. Keep that thought in mind: focus on it.

Cryptonomicon, really, is two stories combined into one. Given that the book is 1000+ pages long, and very dense reading for most of those pages, this is a good thing—it splits the readers attention nicely.

One of these plots is set in WWII, where we follow the trail of Bobby Shaftoe, a United States Marine, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician who finds himself in the Navy (as a Glockenspiel player), and then through an odd twist of genius, as one of the single most important mathematicians in the allied forces, working on decrypting enemy messages.

The other story is set in modern times (remember: 1999) and mainly follows the hacker Randall Lawrence Waterhouse—the grandson of our WWII mathematician friend—and the company he works for, Epiphyte(2), as they seek to 1) increase shareholder value, 2) prevent all future holocausts, 3) find an entire mountain full of hidden Japanese gold and 4) use it to fund an entirely online form of currency, completely independent from taxation or regulation by any of the world’s governments.

So, if you didn’t catch it yet, the plot of this entire thing is very complex. The 1100 pages is well spent on Stephenson’s part. There’s not a lot of unnecessary narrative, and I actually felt that if it were any shorter, the book would have been hurried and confusing. Don’t be misled though: this isn’t a page-turner, Barnes&Noble best seller we’re dealing with here. This book takes time and energy to read, and isn’t one to be rushed through in one night.

Those familiar with Stephenson’s writing will know that he is very, very technical in the way he works. His roots are in science fiction, and unlike some authors of the genre, Stephenson always goes out of his way to explain the science portion, instead of just making up whatever technology he wants to suit his plot. Most of his books are equal parts educational and entertaining. Just by reading this one, you will automatically get a crashcourse in: WWII cryptology, modern information technology, computer architecture, basic economics, and a certain amount of sociology. It’s like going to a liberal arts college, only you might learn something from the gen. eds.

But don’t be completely discouraged, the reading isn’t like slogging through a textbook. We’ve got a nice little setup here, to keep the reading from getting bogged down too much. On the WWII front, we have the dual adventures of Bobby Shaftoe—always narrated in a rough and tumble sort of way that is well suited to a Marine, but not so crass and foolish as to be annoying to read—and the work of Waterhouse—who’s narrated in such a mathematical way that it almost implies a mental disorder. Bobby Shaftoe’s scenes are always beautifully narrated. Stephenson has a real talent with the language, no matter what he’s doing, but one of the places he really shines is when describing action. Action scenes are hard to write, because language is a naturally an intellectual medium of communication, rather than an emotional one, but Stephenson handles things with such clarity that you are never once bothered by the fact that you’re limited to only reading what’s happening. And on the other side, the mathematics are handled with an ease of explanation that even a layman could get it—most of the scenes of really heavy mathematics are utterly hilarious, although the humor might be a miss for some.

Same applies for the present day story, where we have action in the form of business intrigue and treasure hunting (and a little romance between Randy Waterhouse and Filipino diver and salvage worker, America Shaftoe), and intellectual stimulation from Randy’s computer-and-math oriented friends and coworkers, along with a bit of reflection from Randy himself, who has a mind not dissimilar to his grandfather’s.

(There is, for instance, a segment of about ten pages devoted entirely to Randy reflecting on the proper physics and engineering of the preparation and consumption of a quality bowl of Cap’n Crunch. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading, but this is one of many points in this book that I was rendered completely unable to read further until I regained the ability to breathe properly.)

So it’s good. Really good. On a purely linguistic level, not many can touch Stephenson: his sense of word placement, sentence structure, and style are completely top notch. The composition of this story is really ingenious too: in addition to all the above praise, it’s also completely enjoyable to watch how the WWII plot affects the modern day plot. Many of the present-setting characters are descendants of the WWII-setting, and the events between the two stories are absolutely interrelated; the present-day folks keep looking for the treasure the past-day folks hid. And, even more happily, the pacing of the two plots together is such that any plot twists you do figure out ahead of time are pleasant, rather than predictable.

With all that out of the way, there are some gripes: firstly, this book is dense. I, being a bit of a techie, really enjoyed some of the more mathematics/engineering oriented bits. They are excellently done, but might not necessarily be for everyone. Stephenson might teach well enough that even non-math-oriented people can understand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will want too. For some, this book might be a bit more work than they’re wanting to put into a read. And another thing Stephenson is pretty famous for are letdown endings, and this isn’t quite the exception. No spoilers here; the ending isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels like it could have been a bit stronger, with a few more loose ends tied up.

Nevertheless, a subpar ending is an unpleasant blemish on an otherwise good book: noticeable, but forgivable.

You should pick up a copy of this: it’s a good book. Healthy doses of treasure hunting, WWII submarine warfare, mathematics and apocalyptic economic theory makes for a read that is entertaining, rewarding, and thoughtful—and getting all three of those in one go is pretty good in anyone’s book.

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1 Comment

  1. Hannah said,

    June 21, 2008 at 12:06 am

    You make this book sound really interesting. All the ideas are appealing to me but I’ll certainly admit that tons of pages and a really long dense read isn’t quite my thing. Maybe when I’m out of college and craving something dense and informational I’ll have the determination to get through something like this. Hopefully someday I’ll enjoy this plot and find out if Stephenson is as much of a wordmaster as you make him out to be. (I rather suspect he will be.) …is this what you were talking about when you said writers should stretch themselves and their tates to keep growing and learning?


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