Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

cryptonomicon-by-neal-stephensonGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow & Co.
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: threehalfstars
Book Review by Lalith Vipulananthan

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Cryptonomicon was first published in 1999 and continues Neal Stephenson’s fairly meteoric rise from obscurity to the bestseller lists. After attracting the praise of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling with his two previous novels, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, Stephenson has been categorized as a (post)cyberpunk novelist, but has shown the potential to defy genres and to simply write brilliant books. Although Stephenson’s ability to finish a book properly has been oft called into question, his highly entertaining stories and speculations on future technology and culture normally make up for any shortcomings.

Having said that, the mammoth 918 pages of Cryptonomicon had me worried at first and wondering if the editing process had somehow been circumvented. However it is packed to the gills with thrills, spills and lengthy expositions on deep subjects such as the consumption of breakfast cereals. Quite.

The first in a planned series of books about cryptology, Cryptonomicon spices up a potentially boring concept by adding the themes of money, war and power. Two timelines are followed: one set during World War II and the other in the present day. The present day story is fairly complex, charting a technological start-up as it tries to make money from a newly established data haven whilst avoiding the machinations of the local crooks and predators. The WW2 story follows a crypto-analyst and a Marine as they attempt to convince the Germans and the Japanese that the Allies have not broken their codes. Here, Stephenson blends real life events and characters with fiction in a way that has been likened to Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (books that I now intend to read). Both timelines are interesting enough, but are diametrically opposed with regards to pace. The WW2 is more dynamic and thrilling at the start of the book but then lags towards the end.

The present day story is slow at the start but kicks off around the last 200 pages. Although this has the effect on the reader of wanting to skip certain sections to get to the meatier bits, shortfalls in one story are made up with developments in the other and so the peaks and troughs in pace average out in the end.

Throughout the book, Stephenson throws in explanations and descriptions of scientific and mathematical concepts in a manner that is wonderfully clear and yet detailed at the same time. The range of these ideas is broad to say the least–WW2 cryptography, van Eck Phreaking (a sophisticated method of ‘eavesdropping’ on someone’s computer) and the equations underlying a character’s sex life are all included among many others. It is no mean feat to be able to explain science and technology without being patronizing. If Stephenson’s career as a fiction writer doesn’t pan out then he would do very, very well in the popular science arena.

The book’s finale isn’t that bad, but has a rushed feeling about it compared with the average pace of the the book. There are also a few other niggling factors that mar the book, such as the relegation of important supporting characters to the shadows and the use of a minor character as a wildly implausible and dire bad guy. However these flaws can be ignored in light of the sheer quality of the rest of the book. There is going to be at least another couple of books in the series and I look forward to them with a great expectation of better things. Bigger is not necessary.

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