Review: Neal Stephenson – Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon (Cryptonomicon, #1)Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh dear, where to begin?

Okay, this lengthy tome has been called ‘the ultimate geek novel’, but I don’t buy into that. What Stephenson has written is an adventure novel with depth and intelligence. Certainly he’s knowledgeable about cryptography and computing, but in Cryptonomicon he also proves himself well-acquainted with the history of the Second World War, the techniques of mining, a number of different geographical locations, (most particularly Manila both now and historically), but you don’t need to be a geek, a historian, a miner, or a world traveller to get the most out of the book. Where guidance is needed, Stephenson provides it and anyway, not so very much guidance is needed.

Alternating between two time lines, (World War II and the late 1990s), Stephenson whips us back and forth between two narratives populated with a host of characters operating in a number of locations around the world.

In the earlier time line, the Japanese – having plundered all the gold reserves of all the nations they’ve invaded – bury it in the Philippines in preparation for setting up their own regional bank. Their activities – and other wartime goings-on – are shadowed by cryptanalysts who are intent on breaking their codes making use of, amongst other things, very primitive computer systems. Much of the storyline early on in the work involves throwing the Germans specifically off the scent when it comes to their codes having been broken by making attacks resulting from the information seem random. This may sound dry, but it’s in this that so much of the adventure lies with intentionally-grounded ships, submarines being hunted, and people rushing around the world conducting special operations.

The modern-day narrative sees the characters intending to start a data haven using new internet technologies, including a digital bank with its own currency backed up by – you got it – gold reserves. The adventure theme dominates again as they get wind of the hidden gold in cryptographic analyses and the race is on to unearth it.

All of which is a gross over-simplification, but I’m darned if I’m going to go through all the twists and turns of the plot, so on with the review proper.

This really ought to have been a five-star review. As it was, I dithered between four stars and three. Stephenson’s writing is frustrating, not because he’s not good at it, but precisely because he is quite excellent. He keeps letting himself, and his work, down badly and inexplicably. Stephenson’s abilities are masterly and broad-ranging. He can get into deep psychology in anecdotes and descriptions that are highly illuminating. When he writes of the experiences of a man on the deck of a ship in Pearl Harbor with the Japanese attack, he tackles it in a wholly original fashion, the experience almost divorced from reality, the character playing catch-up with each new event. Not only do we have this strange dreamlike quality to his experiences, but we also have the physical effects upon the ships themselves described in a manner that is wholly original. In spite of that, reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that he’d nailed it, that there could be no better description of the event from the character’s point of view, that Stephenson had got it in a way no one writing more conventionally could have hoped to have done. In this scene, too, we see his ability to grip the reader with the adventure element that pervades the story. He has a knack for plotting. Everything hangs together pretty well, though the narrative can become convoluted in the extreme. He reveals his knowledge skilfully, never spoiling the plot with over-long explication. He is intelligent without being intellectual and overbearing. This is Boy’s Own stuff for those who want to give their brains something to feed on as well as their ids, but it’s clever without being clever-clever.

Had Stephenson lived up to all of the above consistently, had he but structured things as well as he was able, I’d be raving here in a five-star workout of superlatives and yet, inexplicably, time and time again, Stephenson fails to get it right, and that is frustrating. In spite of his psychological insights, too often his characters seem if not flat, then at least far less rounded than they have the potential to be.

Then there’s the complication of the narrative. I confess that I reached the end of the book somewhat confused by some of the threads and some of the characters, and I have to blame Stephenson for that. Okay, he owes us nothing, he doesn’t need to make it easy for us, but does he have to make it so damned difficult? When we’re bouncing between characters and time lines, threads should be picked up carefully so as not to jerk us around all over the place, but sometimes we find people dislocated from where we expect them to be, for example, and lose the plot entirely until some reference further along in the chapter clues us in, by which time we’re frustrated and flipping back through the book to see if we missed a chapter somewhere.

One chapter in particular embodies all these frustrations and epitomises them. On the surface it sounds great. One of our heroes has flown back from the Philippines to the USA. He arrives at his home to find it’s been wrecked in an earthquake. He is driving away from the devastation when his car is rammed by a small truck and shoved off the road, quite intentionally. He gets out, dazed, to find the driver of the car his soon-to-be-girlfriend he’d thought still to be in Manila. There’s a lot going on there, a lot of potential for the rip-roaring-but-intelligent writing Stephenson does so well, but he’s giving us none of it. Instead, we get this. Our hero, inexplicably, is driving a car fast down a road and the steering’s going wrong. To veer off the road either side means certain death. We wonder why he doesn’t just stop the car and where on earth such an unlikely road may exist then realise, quite quickly, it’s a dream sequence, given that Stephenson has had a spate of them at this stage in the novel, and very annoying they are too. The sequence is not long, is utterly inconsequential, and he lets us off the hook pretty quickly, but we’re already confused. The last time we saw this character, we think, he was jetting out of the Philippines for the USA. Okay, now he’s lying on a floor. The floor is at an angle, hence the dream as he tried to stop himself rolling down the slope in his sleep. Okay, but where are we? Oh. And his girlfriend’s there. Hang on, wasn’t she in the Philippines? Then, and only then, does Stephenson bring us up to speed, not with the adventure unfurling as above, but in a fairly brief explication of what happened. Why the hell didn’t he write it as it was? It would have been great. What was the purpose of the damned dream sequence as a substitute for an excellent bit of emotional, adrenalin-ridden descriptive writing which is presented as a tawdry bit of explication instead? The whole thing looks downright bloody-minded.

A more forgiveable gripe – though still a gripe – is the ‘unlikelihood’ factor. Given that the work dwells so much on the ‘What are the odds?’ scenario of broken German and Japanese codes leading to the allies having to make attacks that seem highly unlikely unless those codes were broken, therefore having to resort to subterfuge to make it all look like coincidence so no one in the axis nations asks ‘What are the odds?’ Stephenson himself presents us, as readers, with precisely the same conundrum. I mean, what are the odds that the main characters in the 1990s story line are the direct descendants of the characters in the 1940s story line? Well, they are. Stephenson could have got away with it given the shared heritage by having them all come together as a result of their family histories, but too often it appears to be pure chance that brings them together. As between the story lines, so within them. What are the odds on three of the central characters, knowing one another well, converging at the same time upon the same playing field in Manila having come from three totally different parts of the globe? It may be that this is all intentional on Stephenson’s part, that when so much of the work is devoted to making the unlikely seem purely fortuitous that he throws the unlikely as fortuitous into the narrative as some nod to postmodernism, but if that’s the intention it certainly doesn’t feel that way. When you get to thinking about it, it simply clashes with the realism which Stephenson, largely, writes so well and deposits the work again and again into ‘With one bound, Jack was free’ territory, a seemingly lazy author who can’t be bothered with plotting things better to get rid of such anomalies.

In summary, as a four-star review, this is a recommendation. Read it, by all means, but be prepared for frustrations. Take it slowly. Have a couple of Valium to hand, and be ready to resist the desire to find Stephenson’s email address so as to write him long, pained rambles along the lines of “Why on earth did you do that there? What is wrong with you? Why? For God’s sake, why?” (I didn’t, but I certainly wanted to).

Cryptonomicon is good but oh, my dear Mr. Stephenson, it should’ve been so much better.

5 thoughts on “Review: Neal Stephenson – Cryptonomicon

  1. Good review of a book I really enjoyed. Something you didn’t pick up on is the Enoch Root character. Enoch in the 1990s narrative is NOT the descendant of the WW2 Enoch: he is the same character. He also appears (indeed, is the first to appear) in Stephenson’s ‘Baroque Cycle’ set in the 1660s. He bears some comparison to the wandering Jew of myth. Thus the book is not strictly ‘realist’ but has a mythic quality, which goes some way to how we might look at coincidences.

    The only part of Cryptonomicron that really irritated me was the scenes set in the pseudo ‘Outer Hebrides’ of Qwghlm. I just thought, if he can describe Manila, surely he can describe a plausible Benbecuela, or Harris.

    • Ah, I realised about Enoch Root having read up a bit on the novel, and on the trilogy which I’m now reading, before undertaking so mammoth a task. As far as Cryptonomicon goes, though, it’s a fairly minor aspect, and I didn’t want to complicate the review still more with reference to it. The presence of the mythic in that respect may go some way to explaining away some of my reservations about ‘What are the odds?’ perhaps, I shall find out as I read the Baroque Cycle, but taken in isolation I can’t see how it relates.

      I’m wondering now whether I should have read the cycle first, then Cryptonomicon, and I’m also a little concerned about the way I see reference to the work as ‘#1’ as if it, too, is part of – or to be a part of – some longer ‘cycle’ of its own. From the research I’ve done it doesn’t seem so. Do you know anything about that?

  2. Pay attention for this is complicated.
    The Baroque Cycle is three novels, each the same size as Cryptonomicron: They are titled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

    Or rather, that’s the way The Baroque Cycle was first published: it’s actually 8 ‘novels’ bound into three books. To complicate things, the three ‘novels/volumes’ comprising Quicksilver (following me) were also published in separate volumes, with the first of them also titled Quicksilver. This has pissed off many people on Amazon who’ve bought a novel only to find it one third the length they expected!

    If you have a novel called ‘Quicksilver’ and it contains three volumes, Quicksilver, The King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, then you’re okay. Once you’ve read that you have The Confusion, and The System of the World to follow. If, however, you have three separate novels titled Quicksilver, The King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, then you have two more novels to go, each as big as those three put together.

    Many of the ancestors of the characters in Cryptonomicron also show up in The Baroque Cycle, along with lots of real people like Hooke and Newton. I find Stephenson amazing in his depth and story-telling but I wish he’d write shorter novels. His output is stupendous. Anathem and Reamde, two of his more recent novels, are as long if not longer than Cryptonomicron. In the end I gave up halfway through Quicksilver, despite realising how good it was, just because it wore me down.


    NB, Stephenson wrote Cryptonomicron first so I doubt there’d have been any benefit reading The Baroque Cycle first.

    • Fortunately, I have all three, and am just getting into ‘Quicksilver’. Not quite sure what to make of it as yet. I find the timeline-jumping unnecessarily obfuscatory again, I would have to say.

      He’s certainly a good writer, but every now and then I want to shake him.

  3. Pingback: Review: Neal Stephenson – Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Book 1) | Pete Marchetto

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