Clouds's Reviews > Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
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May 08, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction-stand-alone, locus-sci-fi, science-fiction, reviewed, pub-1990s


Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).


Cryptonomicon is a difficult book for me to review.
In many ways it’s amazing – so why not the give it the fifth star?
In many ways it’s infuriating – so how did it get the first four stars?

Simple answer? It’s too long!

Crypto clocks in between 900-1100 pages, depending on which copy you get – and the story is a rambling beast, full of whimsical tangents, studious digressions, chatty dialogue and endearing anecdotes.

It’s an absolute pleasure to read – I find Stephenson’s writing a joy – but it goes in so many directions at once that it’s too often becalmed in the midst of the telling; any sense of forward momentum is diluted by the all-encompassing approach. Often you’re not sure which way is forward!

For me, this book is the perfect example of the ethos that…
“The journey is more important than the destination.”

I learned from this book. I learned about cryptography, maths, military tactics, history, engineering, business tactics, phreaking, currency, mining, academia, etc. But I also learned how to kick-back and enjoy the journey of a book – to stop waiting for the next plot development point to come along like clockwork.

Months after reading Crypto I came back to Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, the sequel/prequel trilogy to Crypto and I loved it! To enjoy a book properly, I need to be in the right headspace – I need to know what I’m getting into and adjust my expectations accordingly. I didn’t have the right hat on for Crypto – so I really enjoyed it, but still kept having little tantrums that it wasn’t doing what I felt it should. My experience with Crypto helped me develop the right mindset to fully enjoy The Baroque Cycle, and if I didn’t have so many other books on my list, I’d be tempted to go back to Crypto a second time and see if I can now appreciate it more on the second go-around.

This is the book I was mid-way through when I got married. Some people sit up nervously on the night before their wedding – I just read a couple of chapters of Crypto and sparked out. I read this on the flight for my honeymoon (between rounds of mushy newly-wed kisses). I finished it around the pool and on the beach.

In much the same way that Blue Mars will forever be linked with the birth of my son, Cryptonomicon will always bring to mind, for me, wedding bells and a feeling of glorious happiness.

Bobby Shaftoe, Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence Waterhouse and Enoch Root are all excellent characters – and the affection I feel for each of them is further enhanced by their association in my mind with the love I feel for my darling, bookworm wife.

P.S. Don't mention the lizard.

P.P.S. My only gripe with this book - and it's not even a gripe so much as an observation: Is this actually sci-fi? At all? No? Good. Just so we're all in agreement then.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Andrea Its sorta alternate reality so therefore a subgenre of scifi.....


Clouds Now I'm familiar with 'alternative history' sci-fi, but Crypto doesn't seem to fit that bracket. What's an alt reality? Google is not my friend with this question.


message 3: by Andrea (last edited Oct 29, 2012 10:44AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Andrea Typo-ish mistake sorry :-(
Alt history I meant....
Cos it wasn't completely true to facts then diverged even more?


Clouds Sorry, possum. Not buying.
Alt-history (as I understand it) is all about one big "what-if".
The Man in the High Castle - what if Nazi Germany won the war?
Yiddish Policeman's Union - what if the Jewish state was settled (then evicted) in Alaska?

Unless I missed something pretty huge, Crypto isn't based on one big "what-if". Sure, it plays fast and loose with historical accuracies, but that alone doesn't make it alt-history in my eyes. The impacts of those alterations are limited to the characters involved, not the wider society.


Andrea This is true. Novel then you think?


message 6: by James (new) - added it

James I'm not convinced by the idea that alternative-history has a be a "big" what-if. I haven't read Cryptonomicon yet, so I can't comment on the categorisation of the book itself, but I'd kinda broken the categories down for myself as follows:

Historical fiction is a story that isn't true, but all the elements in the story are true to that time. So no ray-guns in the middle ages. Individuals can go 'off-history', but by and large the world the story is in has to stay true to what happened.

Alternative history is a story that clearly sits within a specific time, but also includes elements that don't ring true. So that could be a big what-if like The Man in the High Castle, but it could be something as simple as introducing an element that couldn't have existed at that time - like ray-guns as a very poor example.

I've been reading Stephenson's Mongoliad series recently, and while there are strong fantasy elements in there, I think it's also clearly (to me) alternative history. The Mongol hordes are a historical truth, but he's playing fast and loose with the history of their campaigns, and also introducing a series of characters that aren't true to history at all – the Binders appear to have some kind of fantasy-esque system of magic about them.

I think the line between the two categories is a lot greyer than we'd like it to be. The problem with all of these literary categories is that people keep writing books that sit either in multiple categories, or sit somewhere just between two categories.


Clouds Good points, well made.

I agree that genre boundaries are gradients more than clear-cut lines - but for me this still doesn't push far enough into any sci-fi conventions to fit comfortably there - let alone win genre awards.


message 8: by James (new) - added it

James Clouds wrote: "[...] but for me this still doesn't push far enough into any sci-fi conventions to fit comfortably there [...]"

It's up to #20 on my to-read list now, so that should mean I get to it around a year after my post above (I alternate between two reading lists: to-read and next-in-series) assuming nothing jumps the queue. By then I should actually have an opinion on the book itself, I'll try and remember to revisit this discussion then.

I'd agree in principle though that alternative-history doesn't necessarily equate to science-fiction. It's more of a side-category — sometimes within science-fiction, sometimes within fantasy, sometimes within both or neither. I guess that's where this new-fangled speculative-fiction categorisation is coming from as some people try and redefine SF to encompass a wider range of sub-genres than just what we'd historically think of as science-fiction.


Clouds I'm glad I'm not the only one who's reading habits are defined by pre-established lists :-)


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