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Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

05 Jan 2008 · 3 Comments

Cryptonomicon has several attributes that will be familiar to readers of other Stephenson novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. There’s the crazy see-saw between action that’s basically naturalistic and surreal, exaggerated sequences. If Cryptonomicon were a movie, I feel like most of it would be live action, but many of the scenes featuring Corporal Bobby Shaftoe, especially when a certain historical figure is present, would be rendered anime-style. As with the other two novels, somewhere near the end of the book, the plot gets put on a hold for a largish brain dump of not-uninteresting philosophical speculation.

Unlike the other novels I mentioned, Cryptonomicon is not science fiction, although it has a distinctly techie-friendly vibe. It’s roughly half WWII historical fiction and half, well, “contemporary techno-thriller” probably comes closest, even if that’s not particularly close. Stephenson interweaves real people, events, and locations (mathematician/computer science pioneer Alan Turing plays a significant role) into his fiction, often blurring the lines: his character Lawrence Waterhouse is reminiscent in some ways, deliberately I presume, of legendary cryptologist Herbert O. Yardley and physicist Richard Feynman. Rudolf von Hackelheber is not a fictionalized version of Kurt Gödel, but neither is he completely un-Gödel-like.

I thought Cryptonomicon’s strong points outweighed its weaknesses, but I didn’t love it unreservedly. Partly this is because military-oriented fiction is not generally a personal favorite. I also had the same problem I often have with the portrayal of race in historical fiction. One of Cryptonomicon’s most sympathetic characters is Japanese, so the work is not unbalanced, but I still found the degree to which the 1940’s characters thought and talked in racial slurs a bit wearisome. The vast majority of the book is written in present tense, and that was not a plus either.

Cryptonomicon also joins the list of works (like Hal Hartley’s The Girl from Monday) that were written before September 2001, but which presume future government action to limit civil liberties in the United States not completely unlike the PATRIOT act.

Since I work with a lot of MIT grads these days, I’m more qualified than ever to assess and praise the degree to which Stephenson nails how nerds think and speak. Plenty of times I had a lightning bolt of “that’s the guy down the hall from my office” or even “that’s me!” revelation. My single favorite passage also has a lot of personal relevance. Randy Waterhouse was born with very weird wisdom teeth, and spent years looking for an oral surgeon capable of extracting to them. Thus he has:

had a few girlfriends in his life — not many — but all of them were like oral surgeons who just couldn’t cut the mustard. Amy’s the only one who had the skill and sheer balls to just look at him and say “okay” and then tunnel into his skull and come back with the goods.

And I for damn sure got a blast of self-recognition from that sentence.

Needs More Demons? Could actually do with a little less demonization, I’d say.

Tags: c-title · historical · s-author · thriller

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tim W. // 6 January 2008 at 03:01

    By coincidence, I read this last week. I had the same problem with the racial issues (especially because “Nip” is used throughout, but “Kraut” not once IIRC).

    My main complaint is that it’s such a blatant cop of Gravity’s Rainbow, in both subject matter and style (although Stephenson makes it much breezier and more plot-driven).

    All that said, I found it very enjoyable, and it didn’t fall apart in the second half the way his books often do.

  • 2 Jeff C. // 12 February 2009 at 10:02

    I’ve read it twice and enjoyed it twice. Stephenson’s research must be pretty damn good. I’ve studied WW2 all my life and was searching for inaccuracies in the details and found only one (ignoring the obviously fictional portrayal of Gen. MacArthur, entertaining as it was). He lost me when plowing through probability theory and the all the associated mathematics, but I did my best to keep up. Otherwise, a colorful and huge book, sensual and rich in trivia. I’ve been in a U-boat, I’ve lain face down in jungle mud, I’ve sweated until I thought I’d die, I’ve nearly drowned, and I’ve been exposed to sharp, capable women at very close range. I can relate. My favorite Shaftoe haiku (though short one syllable):

    This is my rifle
    There are many like it but
    This one is mine.

    I would add that during World War Two, Americans had MANY not-so-sensitive names for the Japanese….”Nip” is certainly not one of the worst by a long shot.


  • 3 KPinSEA // 1 June 2009 at 18:55

    One of the first books I loaded onto my Kindle because it’s one of my all-time favorites. I work at a network security start-up (that’s actually survived for my 12 years here!) and the storyline set in the present day continuously had me recognizing people from my company, Stephenson nails the crypto/security dev community dead center.

    The dialogue of Bobby Shaftoe … well, he would have spoken that way about those of Nipponese origin, so it didn’t put me off … and Shaftoe is just so danged funny that it made up for a lot. When he has his interview with young Ronald Reagan and answers the question about what he and his buddies did at the end of the day: “Pile up dead Nips with a bulldozer and set fire to ‘em … then go down to the beach with a jar of hooch and watch our ships get torpedoed …”, how can you not laugh at the mental image of Ronald Reagan listening to that?

    I recommend the book to every friend who hasn’t read it, and warn them that getting through the lengthy Lawrence Waterhouse tangents on math and cryptography will either be a chore or joy depending on their background, but the book as a whole is so worth it, and so frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

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