One of the problems when reviewing Cryptonomicon is that you could easily end up writing a short novel just trying to summarize it. Here’s my attemptOne of the problems when reviewing Cryptonomicon is that you could easily end up writing a short novel just trying to summarize it. Here’s my attempt to boil the story down to its essence.
During World War II, Lawrence Waterhouse is a genius mathematician who is part of the effort to break Japanese and German codes, and his job is to keep them from realizing how successful the Allies have been by faking events that give the enemies reasons other than compromised codes to pin any losses on. Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe had to leave behind the woman he loves in the Philippines when the war broke out in the Pacific and after surviving some brutal island combat, he finds himself assigned to a unit carrying out dangerous and weird missions that seem to have no logical goals.
In the late ‘90s, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy is an amiable computer geek who has just co-founded a small company called Epiphyte that has big plans revolving around the booming Internet in the island nations of southeast Asia. As powerful people with hidden agendas begin showing an interest in Epiphyte’s business plan, Randy hires a company in Manila owned by former Navy SEAL Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe to lay an underwater cable. That’s just a sideline for Doug and his daughter Amy who primarily work as treasure hunters. When they make a startling discovery, it links the personal history of the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes to a lost fortune in Axis gold.
That makes it sound like a beach thriller or airplane read by someone like Clive Cussler, right?
But I didn’t mention all the math. And code breaking. And the development of computers. And economic theories. And geo-politics circa 1999. And how it was ahead of the curve about personal privacy. And it’s about a thousand pages long. And there's some other stuff, too.
Plus, Neal Stephenson doesn’t feel the need to conform to anything close to a traditional three act narrative structure. He’s also often the writing equivalent of Clark W. Griswald in the movie Vacation since he’ll cheerfully divert his readers four short hours to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth.
Sprinkled among all this are appearances by real historical figures like Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur. So what you get is a book that should be a mess of infodumps and long tangets that ultimately don’t have anything to do with the story. And quite frankly, the ending is kind of a mess, too.
So whenever I read criticism of Neal Stephenson, I shrug and concede that there are many things about the guy that should make me crazy as a reader. However, the really odd thing is that he doesn’t. I’ve pretty much loved every book of his I’ve read despite the fact that I could list his literary sins at length.
What’s great to me about Stephenson is that it’s so obvious that he loves this stuff. When he takes up a whole chapter laying out the mathematics behind code breaking, it’s his enthusiasm for the subject that helps carry my math-challenged ass through. He’s not giving us elaborate histories or explanations because he did the research and wants to show off, he’s doing it because he’s a smart guy who is excited about something so he can’t help but go on at length about it.
The other factor that redeems him for me is his sense of humor. No matter how enthused Stephenson is, it’d still break down in the delivery if he didn’t pepper his books with some hilarious lines. Sometimes even his long digressions are done solely in the interest of delivering the funny like a parody of a business plan that includes gems like this:
“Unless you are as smart as Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss, savvy as a half-blind Calcutta bootblack, tough as General William Tecumseh Sherman, rich as the Queen of England, emotionally resilient as a Red Sox fan, and as generally able to take care of yourself as the average nuclear missile submarine commander, you should never have been allowed near this document. Please dispose of it as you would any piece of high-level radioactive waste and then arrange with a qualified surgeon to amputate your arms at the elbows and gouge your eyes from their sockets. This warning is necessary because once, a hundred years ago, a little old lady in Kentucky put a hundred dollars into a dry goods company which went belly-up and only returned her ninety-nine dollars. Ever since then the government has been on our asses. If you ignore this warning, read on at your peril--you are dead certain to lose everything you've got and live out your final decades beating back waves of termites in a Mississippi Delta leper colony.”
It’s also easy to overlook how these seeming digressions help build the entire story. When Randy is trying to retrieve some of his grandfather’s papers from an old trunk, he gets embroiled in his family’s attempts to divvy up his grandparent’s belongings. Since the family is made up of academics a whole chapter becomes a description of a mathematical formula based on an x-y grid laid out in a parking lot that allows family members to place items according to both sentimental and economic value while Randy has to try to find a way to diplomatically claim the papers. There’s no real reason for this scene, and it could have been cut entirely or boiled down a few lines about a family squabble. But the whole chapter is funny and tells us a great deal about Randy and his background by putting him in this context. It doesn't accomplish anything else plot wise, but it’s the kind of scene that makes this book what it is.
Even as a fan of the way he works, I still wish Stephenson could tighten some things up. The goals of Epiphyte and Randy shift three or four times over the course of the novel, and the drifting into and out of plots gets very problematic late in the game. It also seems like Stephenson had a hard time determining exactly who the bad guys in the 1999 story should be. (view spoiler)[ The stuff with Andrew Loeb, a litigious asshole who once drove Randy into bankruptcy, showing up as an arrow shooting/knife wielding attacker wearing a business suit in the jungle at the end seems to come out of the blue since he’s really only appeared in flashback form before that. Even though he's the lawyer suing Epiphyt there aren't any scenes directly showing him in action except for Randy viewing him from a distance during the raid on their server. And while most of the book seems to operate under the idea that the rich dentist is the main threat to Epiphyte, he suddenly tags out and a Chinese guy that we’ve only seen as a slave during WWII is revealed as the hidden hand behind it all very late in the book, yet we have no present day scenes with him. (hide spoiler)]
I should also note that although this is billed as a sci-fi novel as well as being nominated for and winning some prizes like the Hugo and the Locus, it really isn’t. There’s one small supernaturalish element that gets it that reputation, but I’d call it historical-fiction if I had to put a genre on it.
Even though this is a book that really shouldn’t work, the great thing about it is that it mostly does, and it’s just so damn clever at times that I can’t help but admire Stephenson.
Related material: The Baroque Cyle is the follow-up/prequel to this that delves even further into the history of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe familes. These are my reviews to the three hardback editions, but those were such kitten squishers that it was also broken up into a longer series of paperbacks.
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My copy of this was a paperback that I had picked up somewhere in my high school years. It was printed in the ‘50s and cost 60 cents per the cover priMy copy of this was a paperback that I had picked up somewhere in my high school years. It was printed in the ‘50s and cost 60 cents per the cover price. The pages were yellowed and an old dog of mine (dead 20 years now) chewed on a corner of it at one point, and his teeth marks are still on it. But I held onto that copy over the years through multiple changes of residence and numerous paperback dumps to used book stores and library donations. When I was trying to organize some of my stuff packed away in the basement, I found my battered old copy and felt the immediate need to read it again.
But I also decided to invest in a better edition. Frankly, I was scared the old one would fall apart, but I’ve carefully packed away that copy again. I’m thinking about putting it in my will that I should be buried with it. That gives you an idea of how highly I regard this book.
My new copy says on the cover that it’s the greatest war novel of all time. I’m not going to argue about that statement. I’ve often thought that this book should be required reading for any politician with the power to declare war. Only a madman or Dick Cheney could send troops into combat after reading this.
Paul is a 19 year old German soldier in World War I. Living though artillery shellings, gas attacks, trench warfare and seeing a generation of men blown to bits has made Paul old before his time. He has a soldier’s profound weariness and cynicism. Some of the more heartbreaking parts of this are when Paul and his fellow soldiers realize that they’ve been changed far too much to ever care about anything but survival again. Paul and the other soldiers try to find small comforts where they can since there’s almost no chance they’ll survive the war unscathed.
On the very short list of books that I think everyone should read at least once.
Trivial Side Note or No, I Don’t Work for the Kansas City Tourism Board
The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial is something I recommend to anybody who likes this book, or has any interest at all in these types of things. (My wife is usually not interested in war stories or memorabilia at all, but she found this museum fascinating.) It’s got tons of actual equipment from the war, interactive multi-media displays, and some truly eye-opening exhibits.
For example, there’s one room you walk into that is a recreation of what it looked like when a large shell hit a French farm house from the basement perspective. So you walk in and it feels like you’re in a giant crater with house debris above you. There are also recreations of the trenches and one battlefield set done below a wide screen documentary playing that gives a vivid and eerie feeling of what a hellish landscape was created by the war.
This book is a military style space opera with …..Wait! Where are you going? Get back here. I hadn’t got to the good part yet. Give me a second to expThis book is a military style space opera with …..Wait! Where are you going? Get back here. I hadn’t got to the good part yet. Give me a second to explain. Geez…
OK, so yes, there is an interstellar war with human troops in high-tech armored suits battling an alien enemy on distant planets. I know it sounds like another version of Starship Troopers or countless other bad genre sci-fi tales that copied it, but this one is different. Hell, when it was published in 1975 it won the Hugo, the Locus and the Nebula awards for best novel so you know it’s gotta be pretty decent.
William Mandella has been drafted as one of the first troops that will be sent to fight the Taurans. There are points in space called collapsers that are like wormholes that will transport your ship to a distant area in the universe instantly, and humanity is fighting the Taurans to use them. Both races like to build bases on nearby planets to establish control of the area around the collapsers.
Unfortunately, most of the planets out there aren’t anything like what we’re used to seeing in Star Wars. They’re usually cold lifeless rocks, and just training to use their suits in these environments is dangerous, let alone trying to fight an alien race they know little about. Mandella gets through training and manages to survive the first battle with the Taurans.
That’s where the book gets really interesting.
While the collapsers provide instant space travel, the ships still have to get to the nearest one and that means months of travel at near light-speed. It turns out that Einstein was right about relativity and traveling at near the speed of light makes time do some funky things. So while the troops on the ship feel like a journey only took months, years have passed for everyone else. When Mandella returns to Earth after his first battle, he’s only aged two years, but ten years have passed on Earth.
Since Mandella has to do more and more light speed journeys, centuries pass on Earth even though it’s only been a few years for him. Mandella will return from missions to find that humanity has changed so much that he has almost nothing in common with the rest of the people, and since he manages to survive several campaigns when almost everyone else dies, he’s quickly becoming one of the oldest men in the universe during his ten year (subjective) enlistment.
Another quirk of the time differences is that when the humans meet the Taurans, they can’t know if they’re battling alien troops who are centuries ahead or behind them in terms of military intelligence and weapons technology. So Mandella and his fellow soldiers may have a huge advantage or be severely outgunned. It just depends on if the Taurans they’re fighting started their light-speed journeys before or after they did.
As the war drags on for century after century, it is both sustaining and draining Earth’s economy. Mandella finds himself losing all his family, his friends and his lovers to war or age. He is increasingly out of touch with Earth and the rest of humanity. The army continues to promote him, mainly because his seniority has reached ridiculous levels after centuries of service.
One of the things that isolates Mandella is that homosexuality becomes the norm due to Earth overpopulation. In an ironic reversal of don’t ask-don’t tell, Mandella is the outcast that disgusts many of his fellow soldiers due to his unenlightened ways. Even the slang spoken by other soldiers becomes incomprehnsible to him. Increasingly lonely and out of sync with everyone around him with almost no chance of surviving his enlistment, Mandella nurses the hope that the war will someday end during the large gaps of time he skips as he travels to his assignments.
Joe Haldeman is a Vietnam vet, and this is an obvious allegory for that war with a weary soldier stuck in a seemingly endless conflict and realizing that even if he makes it home, he won’t fit in to the world he left. While Haldeman’s science and military background gives the book its detail and depth, it’s the tragedy of Mandella’s predicament that makes it a sci-fi classic. ...more