Saturday, March 28, 2009

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 28, 2009

I like Neal Stephenson’s science fiction books. And I also liked volume one of The Baroque Cycle, a three (or eight, depending on how you buy it) volume narrative of historical/scientific fiction set in the 17th and 18th centuries. A book named Cryptonomicon was mentioned there, so I bought it. Well, this isn’t it, but the book Cryptonomicon is mentioned in this book too.

A little confusing? A lot of the passages in this Cryptonomicon book start off like that, but you just have to keep reading, and all becomes clear. The narrative develops two stories, one that plays out during World War II, and one in “present day.” The major present day characters are children or grandchildren of the World War II characters.

With 918 pages, Stephenson has plenty of time to fill in the background and develop the story. A lot of his narrative goes into very detailed descriptions of the technologies central to what the characters are doing, ranging from cryptography to mining to digital communications. Unfortunately, “present day” is 1999, and the Internet has spawned a lot of interesting technology since then, making Stephenson’s descriptions feel a little dated. Also, the reader needs to have a nerdish streak to find the detailed descriptions interesting. I loved it, and I would have been happy if the book was half again longer!

The story jumps around between the two time frames and between multiple characters, making Cryptonomicon a little challenging to read, but fun so long as you stay alert. The characters are mostly men, engaging in various physical or intellectual adventures, often missing female companionship, which leads to a few R-rated passages. There were just enough women in the story to produce the characters for the present day story.

And what is this story about? It seems to me that it’s about the characters and the extensive quirkiness each one expresses. Bobby Shaftoe is a very gung-ho Marine who endures without complaint a wide range of adventures during the big war. Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe is Bobby’s son, a Vietnam vet, and runs a sort of marine salvage company in the Philippines. Lawrence Waterhouse is a math whiz who meets Alan Turing before the war and gets involved in cryptography then and during the war. And Randy Waterhouse is Lawrence’s grandson, a computer geek who is helping set up a data haven in the Philippines. And then there’s the puzzling Enoch Root, who shows up when needed—both during the war and in the present day, and also in The Baroque Cycle.

Oh yes, the story is about hiding treasures (World War II) and finding treasures (present day). And inventing cryptographic codes and cracking them. It was fun to read. I’m looking forward to reading my next Stephenson book.

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