'Cryptonomicon' - Book Review

by Neal Stephenson
1999, 1130p., Avon Books

Neal Stephenson has written two of Science Fiction's greatest books: Snow Crash and this. They're both big books (this one has the edge in size, by about a factor of two), and they both use parody and absurdity to reach for greater truths about humanity and where we're headed. I love Wikipedia's opening comment on Snow Crash (retrieved 2021-06-18): "Like many of Stephenson's novels, it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy." This is true of Cryptonomicon as well.

I first read Cryptonomicon in 2005, and I did it in 11 days while sitting in temples and other tourist sites in Thailand. This time, it took me somewhere between eight months and a year with a number of stops to read other books.

Stephenson is given to absurd flights of fancy and digressions. My favourite in this book was a couple pages on how Randy Waterhouse (one of our several main characters) was obsessed with staple removers when he was ten, deliberately stapling things together badly so he could get the teacher to take them apart again. Did this forward the plot? Not so much. Was it hilarious and enjoyable to read? Absolutely. The most memorable for sheer length was a six page digression about Randy having his wisdom teeth out several years prior to current plot events. The entire point of this digression was so we understand his immense feeling of relief in the main story line (similar to finally having his wisdom teeth out). The digression is both funny and horrific. And it's intriguing to see how these digressions work in his books: Snow Crash had plenty of them, but this has more and longer - and I enjoyed every minute of it. Reamde is written in very much the same style and structure, but the digressions aren't as much fun - and that book became a horrible slog.

But I haven't even told you what the book is about yet. It occurs in two timelines, one during the Second World War, and one in the modern day (1999, when the book was written). We follow several people in each timeline, and descendants of theirs in the modern day. Both are very much about cryptography and finance. Sound dull? Trust me - not the way Stephenson writes it. It's a great book.