Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon / Neil Stephenson

Going to break things up now for a book that is (arguably) not sff at all.

Cryptonomicon is really two books in one. The first book is a story about cryptographers during World War II, while the second book is set during the 1990s and features the descendants of the characters from the first book as they attempt to set up a data haven.

The two stories are connected in many ways but Stephenson leaves it to the reader to figure out what those connections are.

Plot summary

See the previous paragraph.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good if you can get through it. I’ve read it several times and each time I’ve enjoyed it for different reasons.

Both stories are largely about highly intelligent but socially awkward people. The book does a good job of being about technical issues without reading like a tech manual (I’m looking at you, Kim Stanley Robinson). There’s one section that features a couple of pages of code, but it’s not necessary to have any understanding of what that means. 

Most of the technical stuff is techbro in jokes and in no way integral to understanding or appreciating the book.

The World War II segments are funny and present a side of the conflict that frequently goes unnoticed. Alan Turing appears, as does Reagan and MacArthur. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump situation. It’s a fun story featuring viewpoint characters on both sides of the conflict.

The 1990s segments are a little trickier. They are considerably less focused and at times it seems like a serie of unconnected events. There is a coherent narrative here but it’s mostly buried under an exploration of 90s techbro culture.

I initially felt like the 90s half of the book was an extended paean to techbro types. There are plenty of swipes at academics and others who “don’t get” technology and/or engineering. It’s somewhat off putting and the stereotype of the effete bleeding heart professor who tries to save the world but is incapable of understanding people who do “real” work is so tired it needs a bottle of. Klonazepam and a couple decades of sleep.

So on my second read through I really didn’t enjoy the 90s segments. The third time around I saw them in a different light, as the dotcom heroes aren’t exactly portrayed entirey positively either. What’s interesting is that the forerunners of a lot of modern techbro culture are here: weird love of guns, technocratic ideals, naïveté about the groups most likely to invest in a data haven, even nofap shows up.

So I enjoyed those segments more when I viewed them from that angle, that they were foreshadowing a lot of the coming problems with the tech industry. The caricaturization of academia is still somewhat grating but bothers me less now than it did then.

The ending comes out of nowhere and draws on a minor plot point mentioned early on and then never referenced again. It’s a mess but the rest of the book is pretty good.

Recommendation

This is a good crossover novel. Historical fiction aficionados will like the WWII narrative and sff fans will appreciate Stephenson’s obvious geek cred and affection for the community.

I still hesitate to recommend it sometimes because of the number of stories I’ve heard about people struggling to finish it. It’s also a book that gets better with a second reading. 

So I recommend it to patrons who like all those war stories since it’s the closest thing I’ve read, an occasionally recommend it to parents of teenagers frustrated that their kids won’t read “real” novels.

It’s length is intimidating, which is the book’a biggest stumbling block. It’s a great vacation read and a go to for fans of Dan Brown and Clive Cussler. It’s less intellectually dishonest than the former and less racist than the latter.

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