BOOK REVIEW: "Cryptonomicon" by Neil Stephenson (1999)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

I may never read another Neil Stephenson book.

It's not that he's a bad writer, or that he writes about bad things, per se, it's just that he's getting progressively more longwinded and saying less. The first book I read by him was Snow Crash, a rambling, giddy-fun trainwreck of a book that managed to really stick with me for a long time after I finished reading it. Next I read Diamond Age, which was entertaining, but after reading it one and a half times, I concluded that I really had no idea what the hell the story was about, even though it held my interest while I was reading it. Next up came Zodiac, which, despite disingenuous marketing to the contrary, is not a Science Fiction novel. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I read 'straight' fiction as well as SF, but the publisher deliberately marketed this 'straight' book as an SF book. Hence, I kept waiting for the big reality shift that would kick the book into overdrive, and it never really happened. This isn't to say that Zodiac was a bad book – it was merely average – but the disappointment was probably akin to what one might feel upon walking into a place with big gaudy neon signs that advertise Naked Girls and Booze”, and discovering the inside was actually a Christian Science Reading Room.

As such, despite reading rave reviews of Cryptonomicon for the last decade, I've deliberately put off reading it, both because Mr. Stephenson seemed to be suffering from the law of diminishing returns, and also because I was more than a bit daunted by it's 1148 page length. Yikes! Fortunately, I have a job that requires little of my time, and I managed to plow through it in about two weeks.

Structurally, the book is actually three full-length novels that are inter-related, and sometimes overlap. The book jumps between these three novels a chapter at a time, one from novel A, one from Novel B, one from novel C, then back to Novel A and so on. The book is pretty steadfast in this structure for it's first 500 pages or so, then gets sloppy, dropping Novel B for more than a hundred pages, then abruptly picking it up again. All of these constituent novels have a rather messy structure, spending scores of pages on absolute minutia (There's an entire chapter about the correct way to eat breakfast cereal), and then jumping over months or years of significant character events with nary a mention. The most jarring of these is in Novel A (The best of the bunch), where the Protagonist dies 2/3rds of the way through the book, and we abruptly change to a new Protagonist. Also, most of the chapters are told in a kind of needless flashback in which the chapter starts with the aftermath, and then tells us what led up to that. For instance, a character last seen in jail, is on a plane writing Email to his friends, and the rest of the chapter relates how he was released from prison and got on the plane. This becomes tedious quickly, but isn't as bad as the 'fables' that Nell is forced to read in Diamond Age. Also, characters from Novels A, B, and C cross over a bit, though with the exception of Enoch Root, and to a lesser extent, Goto Dengo, these come across as little more than cameos.

Novel A is more or less about ass-kicking Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, who is one of the most engaging characters I've ever read. He's intelligent, but uneducated, always a hard trick to write about, but Stephenson pulls it off. We follow Shaftoe around various misadventures, until he's assigned to a covert unit who's main job is attempting to cover up the activities of other covert units, then he semi-unwittingly deserts, gets involved in a cabal with several ex-Nazi deserters, re-joins the service and clears his name, goes to work for Douglas MacArthur, and so forth. We also follow Japanese Lieutenant Goto Dengo survive (A) the destruction of his fleet, (B) six months in the jungle, (C) a secret Japanese death camp, and (D) MacArthur's invasion of the Philippines.

Novel B is more or less about Lawrence Waterhouse, an autistic Virginian mathematician who breaks Nazi and Japanese codes, and ends up being the guy who more-or-less gives assignments to Bobby Shaftoes' unit. This is somewhat less interesting, given it's very long asides into mathematics and cryptography, but Lawrence is a kind of engaging guy. His plot-necessitated transformation from Autistic Kid to Perfectly Normal and Horny Adult is not very deftly handled, however, and the more normal Lawrence gets, the less interesting he is.

Novel C is the weakest of the bunch, taking place in the current day (Circa the late '90s), rather than World War II, like the others. It mostly concerns the descendants of the World War II characters. For instance, it's protagonist is Randy Waterhouse, the amazingly dull, and pathetically west-coast grandson of Lawrence. We spend some time with Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, the illegitimate son of Bobby. Of course Randy eventually hooks up with Bobby's granddaughter. A whole bunch of stuff happens, but none of it ever really goes anywhere. Then it stops, and the book stops.

Basically, what we've got here is an 1148 page novel, of which 382 pages simply don't work. There are points in the narrative where Stephenson seems to be deciding what to do by rolling dice. There are other points that were clearly much longer, but go chopped out in some kind of ham-fisted editing process. The last third of the book seems rushed, but not in a 'oh, I've only got 20 pages left to wrap things up in' way, more in a 'I wrote 1500 pages, but my publisher will only let me use 1100 of 'em' kind of way.

Novel A is a rip snortin' World War II yarn. Novel B is a moderately interesting World War II Espionage yarn. Novel C is, wow, it's just a mess. It has no focus, no particularly memorable or even endearing characters. We're never even sure what it's about, exactly. At the start, it's about some guys trying to set up a company that'll make money by building a communications network in the Philippines. Then it becomes a story about the same bunch of guys trying to start a Data Haven in some stereotypically imaginary-but-real-sounding 3rd world country somewhere. This is put forth as a Good Thing, but, really, I never understood why. I mean, I'm as tolerant of pot-smoking libertarian daydreams as the next guy, but, really, why would setting up something that lets Drug Lords, Terrorists and Pedophiles protect their records be a good thing? I mean, really?

No matter: This gets abruptly dropped as they attempt to find a huge trove of Japanese Imperial Gold buried in Novel A. This, then, turns into a fools errand as it seems all the important characters (Enoch Root, Goto Dengo) know where the gold is anyway. Then there's some shuck about setting up a stable currency for Asia, which desperately needs one. Then it ends. There is no resolution.

The problem is that basically the novel is a tricycle with one flat tire. Now, despite the fact that Novel C was pretty boring, I was willing to cut it some slack because it had some funny bits in it. For instance, there's a lot of open bashing of west coast politically correct types. They're portrayed as unhappy self-important Caucasian artsy fartsy types with no real understanding of the world or history, but with vast powers to delude themselves into believing themselves intellectually omniscient. This is funny, as Stephenson himself displays some of these tendencies, and it's always entertaining to see a guy make fun of his own. Conversely, there's a lot of jokes at the expense of the paranoid fringe of gun toting conspiracy nuts. Again, Stephenson displays some of these tendencies, and as such he can skewer them quite well. There's also a bizarre polemic against masturbation that takes up a large part of the final third of Novel C. But all this is beside the point: the fundamental problem here is that Novel A takes place during a time of extreme world changes, and Novel B is the thing driving most of those changes, and creating the world that Novel C takes place in. Meanwhile, Novel C is just a meander, it doesn't really go anywhere. Since Novels A and B were about titanic changes in the past world, I assumed Novel C was also about titanic changes in the modern world. In fact, really, there's no way it can really get around the fact that structurally it needs to be about some huge, fundamental change in the world.

But it isn't.

It's not really about anything, it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. I mean, I suppose it could be considered a cautionary tale about the perils of all forms of masturbation: Physical, intellectual, and self-preservational; or it could be an impassioned plea for the need of a stable currency in Asia, or perhaps an extended treatise on why the right temperature of milk is so important at breakfast, but any way you slice it, it's not really a story worth telling. It certainly isn't a story worth taking almost 400 pages to tell!

A random example of what I mean: Neuromancer by William Gibson is essentially a Raymond Chandler novel set in a cyberpunk universe. After all it's globetrotting and peril, it offers very little that readers hadn't seen before in different forms. However at the end, the protagonists end up creating a new order of intelligence that is unfathomable to humans. Granted, we don't get to see this, but at least we know that the world will never be the same again, so even if the story didn't grab you, at least you know that something big happened that made it all worthwhile.

Conversely, in "Cryptonomicon" novel C, there is nothing new, and there's no payoff whatsoever.

A lesser problem is stylistic: Gibson has always struck me as basically an SF writer who's trying really hard to avoid writing SF. This book is not *really* SF, though occasionally it's been marketed as it. I wasn't about to fall for that again, though. SF is basically a ghetto art form, and those seldom get compared to Pynchion, as the critics did with this one. Never, if we ignore Kurt Vonnegut. Stephenson uses the styles and modalities of SF, and he uses them pretty deftly, however as this novel takes place alternately 60 years ago, and in the Very Late 1990s, this style never really pays off. The breathless sense of wonder for things so mundane seems a bit of a cheat.

In the end, all the reviews have been strangely glowing about this book, although Stephenson is a talented writer, and individual parts of it are quite good, but it's ultimately nothing more than an exercise in tossing off: a passable enough hobby, but frustrating and ultimately pretty much useless. My opinion? Don't bother.


Actually, probably, yeah. There's a healthy dose of anti-state paranoia and leftie-bashing. The book is, on the whole, pragmatically amoral, without a real agenda insofar as I can see, and there's a couple prominent gay character, but there's definitely some stuff in here our kind would like.