Ryan's Reviews > Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
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Nov 06, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, fic-speculative, i-like-big-books-and-i-cannot-lie
Read in January, 2006

I read Snow Crash in the 90s and thought it was annoyingly overhyped. So, I didn't touch Stephenson for a long time, until a friend persuaded me to read this book.

Now I understand the acclaim. This book is f***ing brilliant. Stephenson takes the interesting subject matter of cryptography, mathematics, control of information, data heavens, and electronic currency, expands his scope to the fascinating personalities drawn to these fields and the enormous stakes around them, and from there launches into a globe-spanning, across-the-decades, conspiracy-filled adventure. Roughly half the book takes place during World War II, and the other half in the modern day (i.e. the late 1990s). Aside from the intellectual showdowns, there's plenty of action -- dangerous WWII missions behind enemy lines, a secret Japanese base, a search for lost treasure, and dangerous rivals from the past. Stephenson's awesomeness lies in making ideas and history seem connected in a vital, exciting way, by giving both a bit of a Raiders of the Lost Ark treatment.

But the real reason to read Stephenson is the fact he writes with such geeky, inspired lunancy, seeing nothing wrong with (for instance) writing a madcap scene in which a Doctor Strangelove-esque version of General Douglas MacArthur stares down strafing Japanese fighter planes while clad in a pink bathrobe, then following it up with a Powerpoint-like lecture (complete with graphs) on how a young math genius's productivity correlates with his horniness level, explaining some nuance of cryptography in the process. Stephenson clearly finds his subject material fascinating, and the book leaps from manga-like action scene, to discussions of made-up cultures, to digressions into technical subject matter, the author bent on sweeping the reader up in his exuberance.

This book (like his Quicksilver series) feels less like a history and more like a reimagining of history, told in a language that falls somewhere between science fiction, tongue-in-cheek adventure (e.g. The Princess Bride), and a Wired Magazine cover story. It seems that what Stephenson is really trying to do is foretell the future, but by reverse-extrapolating it into the past.

Crytonomicon certainly has a few flaws in its many pages; Stephenson's main weakness is that he tries to juggle a few too many balls at once, which causes some of the plot threads to underwhelm, but never mind -- few writers try to connect so many ideas in one work, and pull it off with such elan.
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