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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Cryptonomicon moves from WWII to the 1990's, from Shanghai, to the U.S. to Britain, to Manila--globe-hopping across the world, character hopping across the novel.

There are two basic stories:  one involves the WWII code breakers and the other, the programming geeks in the "present" who want to set up a data haven of encrypted information.

 How are they connected?  In many ways that are not obvious at first: through descendants of the characters involved in the WWII story line; codes, computers, and code-breaking; and gold.

The children and grandchildren of many of the characters from the war era, as well as some of the original characters themselves, find themselves coincidentally entangled in the second story line.

Stephenson's entire book works as a puzzle in itself as he moves from one character and one time period to another with little preparation or explanation.  First, you are in Shanghai with haiku-writing Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe, then in North Dakota reading about the genealogy of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, and then at Princeton with Waterhouse, Alan Turing, and "Rudy von something-or-other"  discussing complex algorithms (Waterhouse can't remember names; he would no doubt be diagnosed today as having Asperger's Syndrome, but Lawrence does have some social skills), and then to the present and his grandson, Randy Waterhouse in Manila, and so on and on.

Everything and everyone is connected eventually.

One of the most interesting characters is Enoch Root, a Catholic priest and member of the Societas Eruditorum.   He doesn't get as many pages, but he pops up to save Bobby Shaftoe at Guadalcanal, he pops up in Finland, in Manila, etc. and always plays a pivotal role.

 (spoiler:  at one point, I grieved for Enoch Root's death in Finland and was a bit annoyed, hoping it might be a trick.  Yet, even allowing for that possibility, it did seem that he died.  I thought maybe the emails from were either from the organization itself or from a descendant of Enoch Root.  I'm still not sure about Enoch Root; he is a mysterious character, indeed. At one point in a jail cell with Randy in Manila...I heard Neal Stephenson rather than E.R. discussing myth)

Goto Dengo, the Japanese soldier who befriends Bobby Shaftoe before Pearl Harbor, also has fewer pages, but turns up in different scenarios and also plays a crucial role in the plot(s).

Shoot!  I can't even begin to get into the complexities of this book and all of the characters (I haven't even mentioned all of them).  I give up.

Cyptonomicon is fascinating, involved, unbelievably detailed, and covers so much territory that reducing it to a review is beyond my abilities.

What I liked best:
1) the alternate view of history and inclusion of idiosyncratic versions real characters like Turing and MacArthur, etc., and especially, everything about Bletchley Park which has long fascinated me
2) the development of the fictional characters
3) the remarkable detail, and
4) all of the marvelous excerpts that I failed to flag so I could use them as quotes.

What I liked least:
1) the role of Andrew Loeb.  It didn't hang together that well for me.
2) the abrupt conclusion

I've read many books of 900-1000 plus pages, but this one is in a league of its own.  It is a slow read and a satisfying one.  Fascinating.

Fiction.  Science Fiction/ Alternate History.  1999.  910 pages.


  1. I have always been curious about Stephenson, but that is as far as that has got... One day I will try him!

  2. This is one of those books I'm really interested in but it is far too long for me to pick it up right now.
    I wasn't aware it was about code breakers specifically. A fascinating topic.

  3. Kailana - I'm eager to read more of Stephenson. Snow Crash is next on my list of his books...when I can find time.

    Caroline - It is a long book, and one that doesn't necessarily read quickly. I spent a lot of time rereading certain paragraphs because I loved his tongue-in-cheekiness!

    Anything about Bletchley Park, the Enigma machine, and code breaking fascinates me, but Stephenson's wry humor and detail are like icing on the cake.

  4. I liked this book lots too, especially the code stuff. I read it a number of years ago now so I only remember the goos things about it and have forgotten the little things that annoyed me. It is astonishing though how such a huge book never once failed to hold my attention.

  5. Stefanie - It is a strange and riveting read, but I enjoyed it tremendously!