Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

the Cryptonomicon logo I finally finished Cryptonomicon a few weeks ago and I really, really enjoyed it. However, it’s probably not for everyone, even though it’s one of Those Books You Have to Read for certain groups.

Stephenson, in this novel at least, has a very particular style, which contributes to the book’s brick-like proportions (as I wrote about previously). I found it fascinating and at times hilarious, some may find it tedious or pointless. There are about three or four main narrative threads in Cryptonomicon, but they occupy two chronological streams: the nascent days of the web as a consumer/public tool and both theatres of World War II. There are obvious connections that Stephenson gives us early on: two characters are related (grandson and grandfather), data encryption’s roots in cryptography, and mathematics. However, these connections seem more coincidental and conceptual that narrative or structural. Stephenson spins these amazing but fairly straightforward plots into over 1,000 pages in two ways: by narrating the scenes from the mental perspective of the character, who often has only a small idea of what’s happening to them, and by delving into very thorough explanatory tangents. You’ll either revel in this or be driven crazy by it. I reveled in it.

For example, here’s Stephenson’s description of a scuffle that is triggered by a misspoken greeting in a foreign language:

Waterhouse turns towards the sound of the voice. The sloppy grin draped across his face serves as a convenient bulls eye, and Mary’s date’s fist homes in on it unerringly. The bottom half of Waterhouse’s head goes numb, his mouth fills with a warm fluid that tastes nutritious. The vast concrete floor somehow takes to the air, spins like a flipped coin, and bounces off the side of his head. All four of Waterhouse’s limbs seem to be pinned against the floor by the weight of his torso. Some sort of commotion is happening up on that remote plane of most people’s heads, five to six feet above the floor, where social interaction traditionally takes place.

This narrative style is quite fun to read if you enjoy following the description and figuring out what’s being described. The humor is often delivered in a matter-of-fact style, requiring this extra level of attention. It’s a kind of reading-what-you’re-reading process that can slow you down, but I found very rewarding. Plus, all of the additional description and historical tangents end up giving more weight and importance to the pay-offs.

Reading Cryptonomicon is a lot like watching someone carry large stones to a stream so they can throw them in and make really big splashes. It takes a long time to get the rocks to the water, but if you like big splashes, it’s all worth it. You’ll keep on waiting for them to heave those stones to the stream, and maybe even get into watching them carry them. In the case of Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s throwing the rocks, and for a long time you can’t tell that he’s building a dam with each stone as the narrative moves towards its finish. Eventually, you’ll begin to see it and no longer care about the stones and the splashes, because you’re so invested in each of the characters that now you want to see how he finishes the dam. In that respect, Cryptonomicon works very well. But, like I said, you have to really like watching someone carry heavy stones and make big splashes for a good chunk of the novel, as you wait to see why they’re being hefted around in the first place.

There are many wonderfully developed themes and remarkable quotes in this novel, particularly with so much historical content and characters. Anyway, instead of droning on about Cryptonomicon, here are some of my favorite excerpts of the novel:

“So, what’s the point?” Shaftoe asks. He asks this because he is expecting Root to give him an order, which is usually what men of the talkative sort end up doing after jabbering on for a while. But no order seems to be forthcoming, because that’s not Root’s agenda. Root just felt like talking about words. The SAS blokes refer to this kind of activity as wanking.
Waterhouse is thinking about cycles within cycles. He’s already made up his mind that human society is one of these cycles-within-cycles things and now he’s trying to figure out whether it is like Turing’s bicycle (works fine for a while, then suddenly the chain falls off; hence the occasional world war) or like an Enigma machine (grinds away incomprehensibly for a long time, then suddenly the wheels line up like a slot machine and everything is made plain in some sort of global epiphany or, if you prefer, apocalypse) or just like a rotary airplane engine (runs and runs and runs; nothing special happens; it just makes a lot of noise).
This is what a boy of his age ought to be doing: working, hard and honest, at a simple job. Kissing girls. Walking into town to by some smokes and maybe have a beer. The idea of flying around on heavily armed warplanes and using modern weapons systems to kill hundreds of foreign homicidal maniacs now strikes him as dated and inappropriate.
Goto Dengo notices after a while that the sculptor has arranged the three nails in a perfect equilateral triangle. He and Jesus spend many hours and days staring at each other through the white veil that hangs around the bed; when it shifts in the mountain breezes, Jesus seems to writhe. An open scroll is fixed to the top of the crucifix; it says I.N.R.I. Goto Dengo spends a long time trying to fathom this. I Need Rapid somthing? Initiate Nail Removal Immediately?
Comstock grins and says, “You sound awfully sure of yourself, Waterhouse! I wonder if you can get me to feel that same level of confidence.” Waterhouse frowns at the coffee mug. “Well, it’s all math,” he says. “If the math works, why then you should be sure of yourself. That’s the whole point of math.”
“See, you are being a little paranoid here and focusing on the negative too much. It’s not about how women are deficient. It’s more about how men are deficient. Our social deficiencies, lack of perspective, or whatever you want to call it, is what enables us to study one species of dragonfly for twenty years, or sit in front of a computer for a hundred hours a week writing code. This is not the behavior of a well-balanced and healthy person, but it can obviously lead to great advances in synthetic fibers. Or whatever.”
“Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

So, I’m sold on Cryptonomicon. I’ll give his other books a look sometime in the future and see if I’m sold Stephenson, too.

By the way, there’s a website on Cryptonomicon as well: www.cryptonomicon.com/main.html

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