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.