Sunday, July 26, 2009

Neal Stephenson - Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon, Perennial, 1999.

Spoiler warning!

I confess, this is one of my favourite books ever. I must have read it more than ten times in the past few years, and now the paper covers of my copy are curled back, their lamination peeling... So the purpose of this review will be to explain what I like about it, and what sort of readers I think would enjoy it.

I am aware that Stephenson is an author people either love or hate. He writes long works, with intricate plots and descriptive digressions. I think some readers either lack the patience to follow where he leads, or just don't get it. To me, each work seems well-constructed, the digressions are relevant and entertaining, and the writing is good enough to make the effort worthwhile. I like it when authors assume their readers are intelligent enough to follow subtle and complex plots and to understand the connections between various sections. I feel trusted and respected when authors don't have to spell everything out too much. I am sharing a journey of discovery with the characters, and in some cases I know things the characters do not. In the case of Stephenson, his writing style makes the story-telling feel authentic and honest.

Cryptonomicon is the name of a collection of works on cryptanalysis, the breaking of codes. This theme runs through the two time lines of the novel. One part takes place during WW2, the other in the IT business world of the late 1990's. The use of encryption and data security is important in both contexts, and all the characters become connected to it in one way or another.

The WW2 story centres on three characters: Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematician recruited by the US military to work in cryptanalysis and to ensure that the enemy doesn't realize when its codes have been broken; Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine who becomes involved in the project to disguise the code-breaking from the enemy, by staging a series of somewhat absurd "coincidences" that are supposed to explain the Allies' remarkable successes; and Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier and engineer, whose endurance and ingenuity, and internal anguish, serve an important role in both parts of the story.

Meanwhile, the story in the 1990's involves Lawrence's grandson, Randy Waterhouse, a programmer involved in a high-tech project in the Philippines, which develops into more than he expected, and also the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. These stories are interconnected not just by the attempts of the younger generations to learn about the actions of their relatives during WW2, but also thematically, with the relevance of data security in modern-day business being revealed as just as important as it was in warfare.

A quick note on the historical nature of the story: While some real-life characters appear in the story, including Alan Turing and General MacArthur, and many real events are portrayed, this is a subtly different world, as can be deduced from the existence of two fictional island countries: the Sultanate of Kinakuta near Borneo, and Qwghlm, north of Scotland. So it can be counted as "alternative history", although unlike much of this genre, the point here is not to guess what caused the divergence from our reality.

The novel is well-constructed. It alternates between characters and periods, but the segments of each time line are in chronological order, so we watch the development of the WW2 plot in parallel with the 1990's business plot, and gradually learn thing about what happened in the former and how they are relevant to the latter.

During my many readings of the novel, I was interested in different strands of the plot each time. The world of 1990's IT business was fascinating to me at first, though the technology discussed has since become a bit dated (inevitably). There are adventures in the forests of the Philippines, and under the ocean. The war stories show a wide range of experiences, from amusing and absurd, through real nightmares, heroic survival schemes, to self-sacrifice and redemption. The plot strands map a rich spectrum of human experiences, from pure survival to fighting, competing in business, falling in love, self-sacrifice, and even seemingly trivial things like dental pain and the world of role playing games.

While so much of the novel contains humour and entertaining writing, it maintains a core of honest, sincere morality. This makes the story more important than a light read. It obliges the reader to think about issues like avoiding a future holocaust and the most moral and appropriate use of gold stolen from war victims. The idea suggested here, forming a system of educating the potential victims of genocide to protect themselves, is not elaborately described, and some characters allude to its weaknesses. I wonder if the author plans to write about it elsewhere.

I enjoy reading this novel because it has a balance of everything: humour and sincerity; well-developed and authentic characters along with an exciting plot; interesting ideas and good writing; historical flavour and cutting-edge technology (at the time of writing). I recommend it to readers who enjoy long, wide-ranging stories, and who are patient and open-minded. I will write about Stephenson's related trilogy, the Baroque Cycle, in later posts.


Weav said...

I could not have said it better. I am currently on what must be my 14th reading and I find something new every time. My copy, too, is curled back and dog-eared, and has been to Tokyo and back (never quite took it to the Mr. Donut in Akihabara but should have)...

Neal rocks as a writer.

There should be a film of this. Who should play Randy? I keep thinking Jeff Goldblum but Randy is described as beefier. Maybe Jeff as Avi?

Ruth Ludlam said...

Yes, Jeff as Avi would work. Avi is described as tall and thin.

Steven Hall said...

Ruth, excellent posting - I could not agree with you more. Stephenson is my favorite writer. Deep, rich plotting, high intelligence everywhere, a joy to read a re-read.