on April 4, 2003
I don't usually place much weight into the book reviews publishers tag on back covers, but the review on this book really does describe it - this book is Tom Clancy mated with William Gibson with James Mitchner acting as a midwife.
Even though this book is an astounding 1200+ pages, it is an engrossing read. Like Mitchner, the story weaves the lives of many generations together through a common theme. Except Mitchner never wrote about lives so exciting (Apologies to any Mitchner fans - but Hawaii was a little dull.)
There are many character threads and stories in the book, but the two main ones are the story of a WWII cryptographer (Clancy style), and the story of his Silicon Valley grandson's pursuit of an offshore data center and advanced cryptography (Gibson style). Both threads are thoroughly engrossing. The book paces perfectly, it never gets too frentic or too dull.
The character development is also done very well - Stevenson doesn't clutter the book with too many marginal characters besides his main ones and he makes most the characters very memorable. This leaves him lots of time to develop his main characters into complex and interesting people.
Stevenson's writing style is also very readable, yet not as flat as the standard supermarket fiction (or bad sci-fi for that matter). The different story threads are written in a different tone, and Stevenson uses his command of tone to provide even more character and plot development. For example, his savant WWI cryptographer thinks in mathmatical proofs, his modern-day cyberpunk in Tolkein-inspired metaphors.
If I had a complaint about this book (I don't have many) it is that the ending leaves a little to be desired. I won't give anything away, but my overall impression with the last 200 or so pages of the book was that Stevenson got tired and just started typing out some text to finish the thing up. It's not a complete breakdown, but compared to the rest of the book it is a weak showing.
Regardless, I still highly recommend this book to any cyberpunk fans, war story fans, or math geeks.
on August 7, 2002
Going in to CRYPTONOMICON, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I'd never read anything by Neal Stephenson, nor had I read any blurbs or reviews of the book. However, it had appeared on enough "Best Book" lists that I decided to give it a try. And boy am I glad I did.
This novel is fun, huge, funny, rambling, witty, and sprawling. It is clever, engaging, and well-paced. It is full of quirky, eccentric, immensely likeable characters, crazy, interesting ideas, and amusing, often hilarious, looks at various situations including, but not limited to, mathematics, life, how to eat Cap'n Crunch properly, the purpose of beards, and well, just about anything else you can think of. Obviously, then, this book is not for everyone. Those who like tight, meticulously pared-down straightforward stories may not be able to get into this one.
For me, though, as you may have guessed from the title of the review, this book was an absolute joy to read. The books chapters cycled between four main characters, and every time I finished a chapter I found myself in an awkward position: I didn't want to go on, because I wanted to keep reading about the character I'd been following. However, by the end of the first paragraph of the next chapter, I'd be feeling the same way about the next character in the cycle. It was an odd feeling, and a tribute to the skill with which Stephenson created these characters that each of them was so completely engaging.
In addition to the main characters, the settings and situations were vivid and well-drawn. Despite this books immensity and its tendency to ramble at length about inanity, it never got boring, and always retained its charm. Stephenson provides us with a very amusing outlook on life.
However, this book is not without flaws, the two biggest of which have been noted in previous reviews:
1) Women. There are no really well-developed female characters. Most of the women have virtually no "screen time" at all, and the one who does have quite a bit of time is not fully realized as a character. It would have been very helpful to have gotten inside her head once in a while.
2) The ending. This book kind of just ends, without resolving properly. It feels like it just cuts off, and that was kind of unsatisfactory. Randy's story deserved at least another chapter or an epilogue of some sort to tie-up the plot. Alas, Stephenson, at the end, couldn't deliver.
So, as I've said, this book is delightfully readable, and if not for the sudden ending, would easily have garnered a 5/5 rating. I'm definitely looking forward to the next CRYPTONOMICON book (which, if I'm not mistaken, is intended to stand alone; it will not be a sequel, per se).
This book will appeal to people interested in World War II, cryptography, paranoia at the highest level, swash buckling adventures, the power of money, commerce, international communications networking; which probably covers 80% of the readers in the world.
Unlike Stephenson's book called Snow Crash (Highly recommended) this story is one in the present time with deep links back to the 1940's during World War II.
The main characters are Bobby Shaftoe- a grunt in WW II Marines; Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse - a cryptography and code geek at the highest level; Goto Dengo - a Japanese soldier who follows orders without question, any order; Avi - super super paranoid genius and business person: Rudy - who ends up working for the Nazi's during WW II. Along with a large supporting cast of characters
The bulk of the story revolves around creating and breaking codes during WW II and then extends beyond that as future off spring of the main characters run into each other when developing a data crypt in the Philippines, while looking for some long ago buried gold (literally tons of it).
They intermingle and run into mostly bad guys along the way.
Stephenson fully develops each character and we are privy to what they are thinking during various situations. The evolution of computers is blended into the story line as well.
The various story arcs move along at a fast pace which is god as the book is over 1100 pages long.
Recommended. I have Stephensons ReaMd on my shelf to read and am looking forward to it based on the last two books I have read from this author.
on June 1, 2004
Reviewing an epic novel like "Cryptonomicon" is not easy. The sheer depth of Neal Stephenson's 1,100-page story about World War II codebreakers and modern-day technology entrepreneurs is bound to make any quick summary or analysis seem inadequate. That said, I will mention a few positives and negatives that struck me about this book.
POSITIVES: The story itself is remarkably clever and well thought out. Mr. Stephenson obviously did a tremendous amount of research on the World War II era and the art of cryptography, both past and present. Anyone with an interest in these subjects will not be disappointed. It is also obvious that Stephenson spent a considerable amount of time in the Philippines, where the bulk of the story unfolds. Actually, "Cryptonomicon" is several stories that run parallel to one another throughout the book and then gradually converge near the end. Stephenson makes it obvious from the beginning that these seemingly disparate plot lines are somehow related, but the relationship does not become clear for quite some time. Watching them intersect is very satisfying.
NEGATIVES: The book is far longer than necessary. Those who read Stephenson's fast-paced "Snow Crash" will be surprised by the tempo of "Cryptonomicon," which is much slower and more deliberate. Stephenson often gets sidetracked, using many pages to establish what ultimately turns out to be a minor element in the story line. The book probably would be much stronger without 300 or 400 pages of unnecessary material. Also, there are a few too many coincidences, which hurt the story's plausibility. Some of the coincidences are appropriate and necessary to the plot line, but others were thrown in for no apparent reason. For example, a primary character just happens to stumble upon the Hindenburg Disaster while riding his bike one evening, yet this episode has no bearing on the story (unless there is some hidden meaning beyond my grasp).
Overall, "Cryptonomicon" will not disappoint those who invest their time and money in it. Neal Stephenson is a stylish author with a vivid imagination and a sharp sense of humor. His passion for technology, mathematics, and history practically leap off the page. In "Cryptonomicon," he has combined these elements into an intriguing and unique tale.
on May 3, 2004
This is a very "manly" book, and I'm sure I wouldn't be drawn to it upon hearing only a bald plot outline (WWII battles, ugh, data transfer protocols, boring!) but Neal Stephenson managed to not only draw me in but fascinate me for 900+ pages.
This is a sprawling historical saga, rich in detail and invention, not-so-concerned with characters' emotional states but rather just what *are* they going to do next--which certainly helps propel the book forward.
The story unfolds across two timelines, and the characters of the contemporary plot are the descendents of the earlier. Since no one has any children yet at the earlier timeline, you're guaranteed a certain amount of survival from your protagonists (I always appreciate being able to relax at least a little!).
I had one false start with the book, reading about a quarter into it, then setting it aside when easier, blither books came my way. I'm delighted I picked it up again (I re-read from the beginning) and have moved on to his most recent, which details the lives of the characters' great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (so if you like Cryptonomicon, do pick up the Quicksilver, it's exactly the same idiom).
Cryptonomicon's style is comparable to that of Dickens, in its skillful handling of numerous characters and subplots, to Tom Wolfe, in its exhaustive look at a particular subset of people at a particular time, to Victoria Holt (honestly) in its somewhat Gothic atmosphere and its sense that characters' acitivities can have implications down through generations, and to Eugene Sue, both for the well-handled theatrical sprawl and the intangible sense of purpose the characters convey. A nifty book!
Note: a 3 star ranking from me means a pleasant enough read; 4 stars indicate a very enjoyable work; but I'll only give 5 stars to books that are or ought to be classic; sadly, most books published seem to warrant 2 or less ... I try not to read those.
on April 8, 2004
Let me preference this book by stating that I am a WWII history buff that rarely reads historical fiction. My friend gave me this book after I expressed some interest about WWII codebreaking techniques and I couldn't put this book down. As an Engineer, it kept me interested from a technical point of view but overall was very entertaining as well. The book has a great plot tying together several main characters ranging from a WWII Marine to a WWII codebreaker to a present day computer programmer. This book also taught me a lot about the history of computers as well as teaching me a few Unix commands. This book is so well written and has so many interesting thoughts and good information that I felt like using a highlighter while I read. The only reason I give this book 4 rather than 5 stars is that to me the ending came a little to fast. The ending worked but to me felt like the author ran out of steam or had to get the ending in before a deadline as the final events aren't quite as deeply discussed as the rest of the text. Regardless, this is a great book to read.
on February 15, 2004
This book differs from other works of Neal Stephenson (at least, that I've read, such as 'Snow Crash' and 'Diamond Age') since it's not about the future but more about the past. There were quite a lot of books written about code breaking wars during World War II but this one is definitely unique (well, no less would be expected from the writer). The book has very interesting characters, very good story with all kinds of technical observations and considerations embedded in it. Having said this I must say that the book is not an easy read. I cannot take on myself to say that it is bloated. Yes, it is big (in volume) and there are many times when I thought that particular description or explanation has nothing to do with the theme of the book. But in the end, who knows, maybe it all serves the purpose. I wouldn't agree with some reviewers who criticized the ending of the novel. I believe the reason it's happening (and the same could be said about other Neal Stephenson books) that we expect his novel to end on some extraordinary note, matching the spirit of whole book. I guess it's very difficult thing to do. At the same time, I find the ending to be quite adequate. Highly recommended to all Neal Stephenson fans (who, I am sure, don't need my recommendations) and computer geeks. For others it will probably better to start from some other works of this author, such as famous 'Snow Crash'.
on November 22, 2003
While this book is obviously long (1132 pages for the stubby paperback) there is so much going that progress thru the book moves quickly. Think of Bobby Shaftoe as a combined Forrest Gump and John McClain (Die Hard) rolled into one. Starting with Lawrence Waterhouse and Alan Turing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens (20 minutes from my place of residence) and going to present day jungles in the Philippines and many characters transversing the globe, this book has alot going for it. Code breakers during World War 2 (Enigma) set out to keep each other on one`s collective toes. Company executives for Epiphyte in the present work to get a complicated internet system established. The chapters go back and forth and are connected with the relatives and offspring of L. Waterhouse (past)/Randy Waterhouse(present) Bobby Shaftoe (past)/Amy;Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe (present). A number of scenes are beyond hilarious with Bobby being ask to open the crates on the ship with an axe.....no spoilers here, and Goto Dengo tring to remember a message to the Corporal`s family keep this book going. While the people in the book are brilliant, the technical aspects and code breaking math are made simple and occupy little of the story. WHY they all do it is interesting. Other reviews I`ve read seem to pick on one thing and that`s the fact that most of the character`s refer to Japan and the Japanese as Nips or Nipponese. Maybe in 1942 but a lawyer in the present would not tell Randy he should get a hold of Sony/Panasonic or some other Nipponese company. Also one review said there was too much profanity and gratuitous relations......not in the book I read. All of us want great reading , but B. Shaftoe would not know about a Casbah in Algiers or La Pasyon art. Finding out why the guys (Randy/Avi/Tom/Ed/the Dentist) go thru all the trouble they do makes for a wonderful read sorta like "It`s A Mad , Mad, Mad, Mad World". My interest in languages and unbreakable reading of texts (the Voynich Manuscript) along with a recent documentary on a missing U-boat of the Jersey coast made this a special read for me anyway.
on November 17, 2003
I suppose most people start reading "Snow Crash" or "The Diamond Age" when they want an introduction into Neal Stephenson's writing. Perhaps I should have done that. Instead, I began with "Cryptonomicon", quite an undertaking for someone who abandons rather than finishes most of the books he reads. I quite enjoyed the majority of the story, though it did take me a considerable amount of time to get through the first third of the book. However, the rest flew by and I could not get enough of most of the storylines, wishing at the end that there was much, much more.
Reading about science-driven and math-driven characters took me back to my childhood when such things were highly encouraged in my life. The funny quirks of each of the characters make me smile quite a number of times. The description of one of the two fictional places that Stephenson creates for the story, Qwghlm, reads like it could have been written by a more prolific Douglas Adams. This, by the way, is one of the highest compliments I could pay an author, as I am a die-hard Adams fan.
My biggest pet peeve about the novel, and it appears that this criticism is shared with many readers on Amazon, is that the ending seems a bit unfulfilling. However, it's not that bad, and what he's really leaving out are details that we can all surmise on our own. I get the idea that this happens with all of Stephenson's books, but I have yet to read them (I've started "Quicksilver" recently, but have not finished it yet). Stephenson addresses this criticism on his website:
"I always write the endings that I want to, and am as satisfied with my endings as I am with any other aspect of my writing. I just have an opinion about what constitutes a good ending that is at variance with some of my readers."
Well, that's his prerogative. I won't complain too much until I can write a decent 900-page story that can keep a reader with a short attention span, such as yours truly, fairly occupied.
I'll definitely keep reading Stephenson's work and recommend it to others, as long as one adage is kept in mind: "Good things come to those who wait." I'm sure this will be a focused mantra as I tackle the epic "Baroque Cycle" trilogy.
on November 14, 2003
Successful writer Neal Stephenson jumps headlong into main stream fiction with anything but main stream storytelling. At 900+ pages this book is awesome in scope if not its size. The story is about cryptography, and its use in the modern world to try and secure man's inalienable, but often tramped rights. The book is split between a cast of WWII cryptographers and service men and their modern day grandchildren. Randy Waterhouse is a network engineer and computer hacker(coder). He and his business partners are trying to set up a worldwide secure data repository, a digital vault, were a person's information (digital cash) can be safe from the prying hands of crooks, dictators, or nosy governments. Regardless if these same people are crooks themselves. The key to accomplishing this task is cryptography, encoding data in a nearly unbreakable form.
Stephenson interleaves this modern day story with a great rendition of code breaking history from WWII. Lawrence Waterhouse, Randy's grandfather, and marine Sgt. Bobby Shaftoe are part of the fictitious "detachment 2702". A group that among other assignments is sent out to spread false data so that Germany will not figure out that the Allies have broken the "unbreakable" Enigma machine code. Sgt. Shaftoe is Stephenson's alter-ego. Not surprising that a self proclaimed geek would choose pure hearted (excepted for sex) man of action to offset the techno-nerd portion of the book. He is by far the best character. Besides beating back the Axis powers the story turns to a second plot involving gold transfers and the generation of even more secret codes. The past and present come together when young Randy must some how duplicate his now late Grandfather's work in order to free himself from the modern day villains that oppose the creation of the vault. The gold storyline is what is really captivating about this book. We all know how WWII ends. We keep turning the pages to find out if the modern day charaters will win the day. Sadly they do not even meet their adversaries. The one sacraficial villain offered up in the end is an off screen character mentioned on about page 100. Many good characters are dumped along the way and we never find out what happens to them.
Stephenson knows his stuff. And he manages to convert many areas of technology into a slam-bang, in-your-face, narrative style that will often leave the reader laughing. The scientific one-two punch style is enjoyable but does get old when he tries to adapt it to memories of childhood playgrounds and family heirloom squabbles. The concepts of starting, maintaining and attaching faith to a completely digtal currency are put forth in clear rudimentary form. He does not ascribe to the typically network huckster mantra that the WEB will solve everything. Currency must be backed and he gives us a smattering of what may happen should anyone realy try to pull off a real vault. More drama could have been wrung from this point if the author was as savy about politics as he is about computers. Is it well plotted? Yes. Is it traditionally plotted? not really. A young Orson Wells was criticized for showing the audience the ceiling in his movies (it was never done before), later he was called a genius. Stephenson shows us the ceiling, the plaster, the studs, and the copper plumbing, complete with scaly build-up.
There are two major criticism for this book; a very bad ending, and little actual character interaction. After 800 pages of completely engrossing story the ending appears to have been written by another author who did not even know what the rest of the book was about. Words like "lame" fail to describe it. Each character seems to act and react soley within their own head. Many interesting secondary characters are not brought fully to life because of this isolation.There is also no real male/female story. The lead male and female instantly become an item half way through the book. Bang! they are together. Amusing that this perfect woman, who is professed to be a virgin, settles for a 5 minute "quickie" in a dirtly Jeep for her first time. Historical figure cameos by, Yamamoto, MacArthur, Reagan, and Turing. I was surprised that there was no Patton, Romel, Monty or Nimitz.