Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Avon, 1999, 918 pages, C$39.50 hc, ISBN 0-380-97346-4

Wow. Where to begin?

By the physical object itself. Cryptonomicon is a big book. At 918 pages, it’s a pitch-black hardcover that will occupy fully 4.5 centimeters of your shelf. That is, if you decide to plunk down the 40 Canadian Dollars that will grant you the privilege of carrying this pound brick.

Judging from my local bookstore, however, even the monetary argument will deter few. (I grabbed the last of six copies, three days after its arrival in the store) Only the “Neal Stephenson” is required to attract fans. After a much-remarked SF debut titled Snow Crash (which has since become a cult classic), Stephenson won the Hugo with The Diamond Age and co-wrote two superb contemporary thrillers with his uncle under the pen name Stephen Bury (Interface and The Cobweb).

Cryptonomicon is far closer to the meticulously-detailed, intricately plotted Bury novels than either of Stephenson’s own SF novels. For one thing, more than half the book takes place during World War Two (echoing Bury’s description of another conflict, the Gulf War, in The Cobweb) and the other half takes place in the present.

Techo-geeks should be relieved to note, however, that Cryptonomicon is no “mere” WW2 or present-day thriller. Cryptonomicon begs to be fitted in a new genre, “Wired-Fiction”. Stephenson has written for the magazine several (including one of the best article the magazine ever published, “Mother Earth, motherboard”) and his latest novel reads a lot like the ideal novel for Wired-heads. This is a good thing, mind you.

Judge for yourself: The present-day plot concerns Randy Waterhouse, an Internet expert who finds himself in business to construct a data haven in Southeast Asia. The WW2 plot revolves around Randy’s grandfather, a brilliant mathematician who spends the war breaking Axis codes. Cryptology, technology, hacking, computers, business and a myriad of other subjects are frenetically explored and brought together in Cryptonomicon, at the greatest pleasure of all the techno-geeks in the audience.

The charm of Cryptonomicon lies largely in its unrepentant didacticism. This is techno-docu-fiction at its most extreme, including graphs, equations and pages-long digressions on arcane subjects (Few reviewers have resisted the impulsion to note the four-page exposé on how to eat Captain Crunch cereal, and I will not be an exception.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, Cryptonomicon might have been an interminable bore. But fans already know Stephenson’s quirky prose style, and the result provokes emotions oscillating between intense fascination and audible hilarity. This is an amazingly well-written novel.

This book is filled with so many good scenes that it’s hard to know which ones to highlight. At least keep two of them in mind: The most hilarious is certainly the wonderfully-funny business plan. The most impressive is Randy’s character-defining hacking apex. Thinking of it, Randy’s expedition account (“The Weird turn Pro”) is also mesmerizing…

It’s not a perfect novel by any mean; the ending -while stronger than Stephenson’s other solo novels- is still annoyingly incomplete. At least one character is still mysteriously unexplained —what’s this about several other volumes in the series? And, for a 918-pages novel, it’s curiously lacking in plot. My own techno-nerd sensibilities kept wanting to go back to the present-day thread, but I’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the novel worth editing out.

No matter: Much like Interface and Snow Crash were stupendous books, Cryptonomicon easily ranks as a must-read novel of 1999 for technically-oriented readers. It’s big, it’s impressive, it’s exhilarating and, in all seriousness, you get a full forty Canadian dollars’ worth of entertainment.

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