While I'm still making my way through my auto-graphed (thanks Chris!) copy of Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, new reviewer Nathan Bruinooge sent us over an excellent review of what it appears to be my favorite fiction of 1999. Click below - it's well worth it.
Cryptonomicon is about crypto, which is to say cryptology, which is to say it's about codes. The title is the name of a book of code-lore which has accrued over the years, though its role in this novel is actually pretty marginal. Cryptology is the glue that holds together a plot that alternates back and forth between World War Two and the present day and focuses on three (almost four) main characters:
Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mild-mannered midwesterner who hangs out at Princeton with Alan Turing and is playing in an army band at Pearl Harbor when it gets blown to hell. Then his mathematical mind is discovered by the military brass and he quickly becomes involved in the information war to which the actual, physical fighting is a series of inevitable afterthoughts and conclusions.
Bobby Shaftoe, the unkillable, morphine-addled China Marine who sees a vision of a Lizard at Guadacanal and ends up fighting his way through a series of inexplicable missions for the top-secret British-American Detachment 2702.
Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, Lawrence's grandson, a computer geek and crypto hobbyist who helps found the Epiphyte Corporation in the present day with some of his friends. He finds himself quickly eye-deep in data havens, underwater cabling, and buried treasure.
The other one vying for billing as a major character is Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier. Bobby's descendants come into the mix too, as well as a motley assortment of hackers, a sultan, a U-boat commander, a Holocaust-obsessed entrepeneur, and the enigmatic, wonderful pseudo-priest Enoch Root.
So the ground is laid for a rather exciting techno-thriller, and we at least know from Snow Crash that Stephenson can deliver technology-soaked excitement with a deft hand. Cryptonomicon delivers in spades, but it goes a step or two beyond that as well. Crypto shows up again and again not just as a central element in the plots of both timelines, but as a theme that informs everything from Bobby Shaftoe's wartime haikus to Randy's attempts to decipher the love signals sent to him by Bobby's granddaughter Amy. Discovering the hidden patterns within seeming randomness, discovering the order out of chaos -- these things are not just in the book, they are what the book is. The plot works in precisely this way, following different people in different times until their lives inevitably collide and interconnect.
We also get treated to more of Stephenson's razor-sharp cultural insight. The same eye that made Snow Crash so prophetic even while it was being zany and over-the-top informs Cryptonomicon. Instead of inventing a future reality, he digs up the most unusual facts and locales of the real world, and, spinning them into his own idiosyncratic vision and prose, turns it into something so odd and scary and wonderful that we barely recognize it as our own. This is especially jarring in the World War Two scenes, probably because we are used to hearing and reading and seeing those tales in a certain mythic, grainy black & white style. Stephenson can't quite resist doing some fictionalizing of his own, as with the more-Celtic-than-the-Celts realm of Qwghlm and the South Pacific island of Kinakuta. These are fun in their own way but almost disappointments -- he is so able to bring to life the quirks of existing places that going out of his way to make up new ones is unnecessary, a frivolity.
As he was in prevous novels, Stephenson here is highly multicultural in the sense of setting his stories literally worldwide in a wide variety of cultures, and displaying a fair amount of knowledge and insight about each one. What's different and fresh (and will probably piss off some people) is that no culture is safe from his scathing observations about what is worst about it. Much of the novel takes place in the Philippines, past and present -- a cultural & economic & historical crossroads that makes a perfect setting for his melting pot plot. (He is at his best realizing and describing its complex urban & rural dynamics.) He's extremely harsh on the Germans and the Japanese, of course, and yet the two most admirable characters in the book are German and Japanese, respectively.
Cryptonomicon's World War Two subplot is timely in its arrival, what with the upsurge in interest in the period marked, for example, by Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's bestselling book The Greatest Generation. A certain amount of ancestor-worship is going on here, and this novel takes some part in it. There is a marked difference between the past and present storylines -- our WWII heroes are constantly getting into life-and-death situations, improvising brilliant ways to escape or to kill people, breaking unbreakable codes, inventing the digital computer, etc. By contrast the entrepeneurial exploits of Randy and his friends seem hopelessly mundane. Fortunately it's a good deal more subtle than that, though. For one thing, the constant juxtapositions of events past and present (a present-day corporate board meeting next to a WWII war room, for example, or the hauntingly similar sexual dilemmas of the respective Waterhouses) remind us that what separates these people is not so much essence but circumstance. And in the later pages, too, the present-day subplot gets every bit as life-threatening and globally significant. Stephenson also doesn't idolize or sugar-coat the foibles of his "greatest generation."
So what about the comparisons to Thomas Pynchon? Now that Stephenson has a World War Two novel (or at least half of one) under his belt, they are both inevitable and ubiquitous. Behind it is a larger implied question: does this novel have literary worth? (Whatever that means.) Stephenson can write well, but he's not a prose maestro in the same class as Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. You could also take him to task, perhaps, for "lack of deep character development," if you were into that sort of thing. (Interestingly, Randy is the most well-developed character in the book, probably because the others are too busy doing things for Stephenson to dwell on their inner states overmuch. It takes a certain amount -- no, a tremendous amount -- of courage to make one of your chief protagonists a nerdy UNIX hacker and ex-fantasy roleplayer who's a little soft around the middle. But he does it and it works.) What Stephenson does have is the knack for plot (in this case, an exquisitely complex one), the ability to tell a good, long story. He does it a good deal better than Pynchon or D.F. Wallace or most other big writers these days. For my money, that's the most important part of what makes good literature good, and it's what this novel does best.
Just as important, as long as we're talking about fin-de-siecle literature, is the fact that Stephenson has a flying clue about technology and computers. The world is full of modernist and postmodernist gripe about the existential dilemmas of a fragmented society and the epistemological chaos implicit in the information age. The fact of the matter is that things still seem to be trundling along pretty well -- I for one, don't feel particularly spiritually crippled because I get my news on the Web and stay in touch with most of my friends via email. Any novelist who's going to write about where we are and where we've been can only get so far as an outsider -- he or she has to have the sort of understanding of our hyperlinked world that comes from growing up inside it and around it. That's Stephenson. Bruce Sterling called him a "second-generation cyberpunk author," which is basically saying the same thing in a different context. Cryptonomicon takes us through the origins of the computer on the one hand and their fringe applications with cryptologically-obsessed hackers on the other; in both cases he knows of what he speaks. He can write about people visavis computers with specificity and circumspection.
At root and at heart, though, Cryptonomicon is a technothriller. Adventure, excitement, and discovery are its primary traits, and any status it may claim as a document of cultura insight or a novel for the end of millenium is of necessity a secondary one. This is exactly as it should be -- the person who sets out to write a "great novel" probably won't make it. The person who sets out to tell a cool story just might.
Pressing Question Number One: Does this book have any business being 900 pages long?
Opinion may vary on this one, but I think the answer is yes. We have essentially two novels here, one for each of the timelines, that eventually become fully enmeshed but each have their own arcs of development. Stephenson is not an overwriter in terms of prose -- stuff is happening all through these pages. There are certainly diversions, and maybe it's these that some people would just as soon see removed. Moby Dick had its whaling chapters; Cryptomicon has chapter-long diversions into mathematics, number theory, Van Eck phreaking, and Captain Crunch cereal. A good number of these aren't actually diversions, since you have to absorb a good bit of the cryptological theory before you can fully understand all the subtleties of the plot. Even the truly frivolous diversions are enjoyable in their own right. Sure, we didn't need to have the part where Randy meets a friend amid a bunch of collectible-card-game-playing geeks, but as a geeky gamer myself, I'm sure glad he did.
Pressing Question Number Two: Has Stephenson learned how to actually end a novel?
This question haunted me through much of Cryptonomicon's length. I tossed The Diamond Age across the room in anger when I realized, thirty pages shy of the end, that there was literally no way he could wrap it up satisfactorily. And, indeed, it didn't end so much as get dragged, half-developed, over the finish line. I didn't have as much trouble with the Snow Crash finale as others, but I could always see their points. But now, finally, he's got it right. Fittingly for a novel largely about math, it ends with an almost geometric precision, alternating timelines fleshing out the answers to our lingering questions, crucial bits of witheld information casting whole vistas of previously mysterious action suddenly and satisfyingly clear.
But this is not a novel without weaknesses. It's so big and diffuse that different people will probably be bored and annoyed by different things. My personal biggest gripe comes toward the end, when a minor character lurches onto the scene, barely justifiably, to provide an impetus of danger and climax for Randy & his companions in the jungles of the Philippines. It was, to put it mildly, a stretch. Just the sort of thing that I could imagine happening if Stephenson were desperately cranking out the final pages of the novel, stuck for just what could possibly get in Randy's way, and finally coming up with . . . this. But while a lapse of this kind completely broke the ending of The Diamond Age, here it's just an annoyance. And the annoyances that are to be found don't amount to anything more than the sum of their parts.
Word on the street is that this isn't the last big-ass crypto novel that Stephenson is going to write. There are certainly stories hinted at in here but not explored, especially regarding the mysterious Eruditorium. Yes, there are conspiracies in this novel, and even a gonzo quasi-philosophical worldview worthy of the "nam-shub of Enki." And who were the guy in dreadlocks and the Indian-looking guy, anyway? I have a feeling we'll find out in a few years. We haven't seen the last of the Cryptonomicon. I take that as a good thing.
Pick the book up at Amazon.