Thoughts on Cryptonomicon

Alex has some choice words for one of my favorite books, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. In all honesty, I don’t really blame him. It’s not necessarily that I agree with all his comments so much as I can see why some people would be bothered by some of the things in the book. For a 900+ page book, it sure doesn’t seem to have a lot of plot. What it has instead is a whole bunch of tangential stories and anecdotes revolving around what basically amounts to a treasure hunt. There are lots of other subplots. There’s a war story, a couple of romantic threads, lots of technology, some history, and a bunch of other junk thrown in for good measure, but in the end, the plot is about Nazi gold.

What follows might seem a bit defensive, but I want to start with a disclaimer that I just can’t resist discussing Stephenson. As I mentioned before, I don’t blame Alex for not liking various bits and pieces of the book, I just don’t happen to agree about most of them.

Alex says:

I don’t strictly look for a point in the books that I read, but nonetheless I found Cryptonomicon distinctly lacking in the department of points, and I feel like it ate my time.

I can see why someone would say something like that after they finish the book. The ending is mildly lackluster (Alex barely mentions my least favorite part of the book, which is Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior). After the first few hundred pages of the book, I had no idea where Stephenson was going with the story. But hell, I was enjoying myself immensely. I don’t mind my time being “eaten” if I’m enjoying the process. Is there a point to the book? Well, it depends on what you want to get out of it. I saw lots of themes that I found relevant and interesting, and Stephenson touches on many interesting topics. For instance, cryptography plays an important role in both the WWII and modern day portions of the book, but it’s also a thematic element that permeates the entire book. A large portion of the book is about separating signal from noise, whether it be Randy trying to decode Amy Shaftoe or Bobby trying to decipher why the heck his unit is being asked to do all sorts of strange things. Maybe it’s just that I find the world mystifying in the extreme, but I like the way the characters in the book strive to figure out the world. Is that a “point” of the book?


Amidst all of the whatever going on, there’s some talk of sex. … Anyway, it’s terrible. You want to personify your protagonist’s prostate, Neal Stephenson? Call him “Little Man ‘Tate”? Okay. You want to spend, let me count them … approximately eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture? Be my guest, I guess. … Then, when you come to write the narrative sex scenes, all I can say is wow. …

I’ve seen this complaint a few times before, and if you can’t tell by all my ellipses above, Alex has a lot more in his post about it. I personally had no issue with it. I mean, sure, it’s a little weird, but the book is filled with weird stuff. The characters are weird. The stuff they’re doing is weird. Heck, real life is weird. Why single out the sex stuff? And sometimes it has a point. Take the aformentioned “eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture.” Why is that important? Because Stephenson is setting up a surveilance technique that will become important later on in the story. In context, those eight pages are important because they’re intensely personal and private to the character who is being surveiled, and yet there are these guys in the next room who are able to invade the perceived privacy and security of being alone, all through extraordinary technological means. The chapter wouldn’t work if the guy was writing out his grocery list. That’s not private. It has to be something personal and perhaps embarrassing for it to make an impact not just on you the reader, but on the characters in the story. So later in the book, when Randy gets into a situation where he’s alone in a jail cell, handling sensitive information, well, it makes sense that he would be a little paranoid about it and goes to extreme lengths to obfuscate what he’s doing. Did Stephenson need to spend 8 pages setting it up? Did he need to write a scene where a character engages in a mathematical discussion of Concentration as a function of Horniness, complete with graphs? Maybe not, but I kinda like that he did. He lets these situations breath, and that’s a big part of why I like his stuff.

Another complaint:

Something that made sense in Snow Crash, it being an alterna-future where the US had split into nation states, was the use of slightly different names for things. I can therefore be forgiven for being confused when Cryptonomicon used the term “Nipponese” all the time while still being set in our own theoretical timeline. This constant, unexplained reference struck me as an act of amazing grease.

I distinctly remember the reason Stephenson gives for this in the book, though he does so in the WWII portion of the novel. It’s in a footnote around the time when Bobby Shaftoe gets sent back to America and he’s talking to some Colonel about his time in the Phillipines (Look, I found it in Google Book Search at the bottom of page 114). The footnote reads: “Men with experience in Asia use the word ‘Nip.’ The Colonel’s use of ‘Jap’ suggest that his career has been spent in the Atlantic and/or Caribbean.” Now, I suppose that doesn’t explain why, two generations later, a bunch of techno-businessmen would go around refering to Japan as “Nippon,” but from the earlier reference to “Men with experience in Asia,” I’m guessing that Stephenson was trying to imply that, you know, Randy and co. had experience in Asia. Now I can see why someone would think this was a bit weird, but as we’ve already established, that doesn’t bother me.

More criticisms:

Which brings me to my final complaint: all of these disparate characters are supposed to combine for an ultimate goal. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal of … well, whatever it is that they end up with. Fifty years later, the descendants of these characters are remarkably untouched by everything that has happened in the WWII segment of the book. Stephenson may as well have written in wholly different characters for all the effect that these ones had. You’re left wondering, at the final page, precisely why everyone went through all of this …

I’ve already mentioned that I can see why someone would be underwhelmed by the ending, so that complaint doesn’t bother me, but the part about the descendents being untrouched by their grandparents deeds in WWII is a little off in my opinion. Once again, we find the theme of cryptography rearing it’s head: the modern day characters are trying to piece together what happened back in WWII, but it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s unusual at all for a grandson to not know what their grandfather did in the war, if only because I had the relatively recent experience of finding out that my grandfather was a freakin’ tank hunter in Europe (I still don’t know the specifics of this). Anyway, to say that the descendents are untouched by the WWII generation is to miss one of the themes in the book, which is that people of our generation are totally in awe of the WWII generation and feel a little awkward working in our world knowing that our grandparents were literally fending off evil on a worldwide scale. This is something you see all throughout the modern day portions of the book, though not put as baldly (or written as poorly) as that.

And finally:

It’s as I’ve said before: being long is not the same as being epic. Cryptonomicon has many pages, but never once does it feel like a grand adventure.

I really feel like I’m trolling Neal Stephenson, but I’d prefer to think this is not the case. It’s just that somewhere, buried amongst the mountains of digressions, is some interesting material; it’s just a shame that you have to dig through evolutionary badasses, stockings, barely mentioned one-legged crazies, and the apparently insatiable sexual desires of WWII soldiers to get to it.

I certainly agree that being long is not the same as being epic, but I wouldn’t call Cryptonomicon an epic. Sweeping? Yes. Epic? No. Also, I think Alex misses the point. The interesting material isn’t buried amongst the mountains of digressions, the interesting material is the mountains of digressions. Without the digressions, the book isn’t nearly as interesting. In his post, Alex mentions that Snow Crash worked as well as it does because it’s relatively compact. Well, I think Cryptonomicon works as well as it does because it’s distinctly not compact. Different strokes, I guess.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the book is perfect, and I think Alex makes a lot of valid points, but I love it anyway. Even things that used to bother me about it (like Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior) don’t loom as large as they used to. As a commenter at Alex’s site suggests, perhaps having read the Baroque Cycle has given me a little more depth into Cryptonomicon, but I don’t think that’s it (though you do tend to notice many more connections between the characters). If Alex didn’t like Cryptonomicon, he’ll be doubly confounded by Quicksilver. Even I was complaining a bit that those books needed some editing. But then again, I ended up enjoying them and want to read them again someday. In the end, I love almost everything Stephenson has written, and greatly look forward to his next novel.

Oh, and incidentally, the Australian cover art for Cryptonomicon (pictured in Alex’s post) is awful! On the other hand, the Australian cover art for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (also at Alex’s site) is awesome (I think I like it better than the American art). And to digress even further, I agree with Alex in wondering how on earth the Coen Brothers will adapt that book to the screen (I suppose if anyone could do it…)

Update: Alex responds at the bottom of his post and in the comments here. I may respond later, but it’s late now, and I need to go to bed…

Update 2/27/08: Shamus comments

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cryptonomicon”

  1. That other commentor is actually my brother, who has borrowed my copy of The Confusion. I updated my own article with a bit of a further response to you; the good thing is that we don’t have to agree but that we can do it without attempting to murder one another.

    I originally had a bit about Alan Turing in there but his fate is out of the scope of this book and out of the scope of my own write-up; I did think it somewhat amusing that Lawrence Waterhouse was written as totally oblivious so that he could be a golden, non-homophobic, semi-aspie genius.

    I’ll directly mention the idea of “point” here: I’ve no problem with meandering stories which are just characters hanging around and being cool, but I didn’t think that was strictly the case here. There’s so much overlap, you wonder why so many different stories are being told, and the culmination is, in my opinion the anti-climax that we are given. I didn’t feel like I’d particularly learned anything from this book, not that this is necessarily a goal of reading either. I do kind of expect to get something out of it, though, which I did not really.

    Anyway, I’ll get back to you about the Baroque Cycle, but … not for a while yet.

  2. Oh, I don’t think that last paragraph was there before – they’re ridiculously expensive, too! Each book in the Baroque Cycle, plus Crypto, retails for $28! I got them each for 40% off, but still.

    The rest of the Stephenson books are like that here, too. I have an American copy of Snow Crash and I almost couldn’t read it simply based on our terribly type set it was. But this will probably not go through first up because it’s in such close proximity to my previous comment.

  3. “You do realise that, if you compare sex to Star Wars, and then go on to refer to an Imperial pint of semen, you�re going to make your readers think of Stormtroopers. I had almost thought it was deliberate. It probably was deliberate. Neal Stephenson, you�re a sick, sick man.”

    That made me chuckle.

    There’s certainly an element to Stephenson that requires you to take him with a rather large grain of salt. I’ve always been…well, bemused, to borrow a word, by his worship of “hackers,” and the hacker-like community.

    “I did think it somewhat amusing that Lawrence Waterhouse was written as totally oblivious so that he could be a golden, non-homophobic, semi-aspie genius.”

    I never thought of that along those lines before, but that is pretty amusing, but also one of the things I liked best about Lawrence Waterhouse as a character. That seemed a pretty effective tactic by Stephenson; Lawrence’s obliviousness lets the reader discover things as he does.

  4. I don’t think it’s unusual at all for a grandson to not know what their grandfather did in the war, if only because I had the relatively recent experience of finding out that my grandfather was a freakin’ tank hunter in Europe (I still don’t know the specifics of this).


    I know that my grandfather served in Korea, but, until relatively recently, I was unaware of a lot of what that entailed, and, honestly, there’s still a lot I don’t know. I know he was an officer, and I know that he’s got a number of medals, but the most I was told while he was alive was that he didn’t like talking about the war because he watched a lot of his friends die.

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