24 December 2015

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Posted by Callan Bentley

cryBecause I was impressed with Seveneves, I decided to make my next read another novel by Neal Stephenson.  There are several highly-praised options to choose from, but the one that came to hand first in the library was 1999’s Cryptonomicon. It’s a monster of a tome, clocking in at just over 900 pages, which is a good reason you haven’t seen any book reviews from me in this space over the past month. It took a long time to read all that. But the reading was very enjoyable – Stephenson is a virtuoso writer, and to run one’s eyeballs over his sentences is a treat for the mind. He offers a blend of technical detail, character portraiture, reflections on modern life, tasty vocabulary, and awesome analogies that make the reading a totally fun time, regardless of topic. In this case, the topics are: code making and code breaking, computers, World War II, gold, digital currency, and southeast Asia. In contrast to Seveneves, the cast of main characters are all male, set in two eras: during World War II, we follow the stories of an American soldier, a Japanese soldier, an American code-breaker (and confidante of Alan Turing), and a mysterious priest. During the “modern day” (late ’90s, nascent tech boom), there is one main protagonist, a descendant of one of the WWII characters, and he interacts with the descendants of several of the other characters as well as with some old-timers who span the two periods. Ultimately, it all comes down to a tremendous cache of Japanese war gold, but when they get there, it feels like a moderate let-down. I’ve been told that this is frequently the case with Stephenson novels – that they have this ‘feel’ of building towards something powerful and major, but that the climactic payoff is frequently the weakest part of the book. That’s how I felt with Cryptonomicon – there was enough of a momentum to keep me flipping 900 pages, but when I got to the end, I wondered if I had really gotten anywhere.

Additional critiques: It’s tough to read the 1999-era computer stuff with the hindsight available from late 2015, so that part of the book doesn’t hold up so well in a way that feels fresh or compelling. With one exception that I noticed, Japan is referred to as Nippon throughout, with derivative adjectives like Nipponese standard vocabulary. This isn’t wrong or anything, but it did feel strange. There are several items that are raised and then never really explored or resolved – key numbers, secret societies, motivations of certain characters. It feels kind of like a wordy season of LOST in that regard…

That said, it’s got to be written really well if its going to hold one’s attention over close to a kilopage, and it was. It’s hard not to be impressed by Stephenson’s lexical ability, even if I didn’t close the book with a feeling of satisfaction achieved.