on March 4, 2004
When I ordered Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson from Amazon, I didn't look into the book too much. I had liked Snow Crash a lot, needed something to read, and heard some vague positive words about the book that I really didn't much pay attention to. So I added Cryptonomicon to my order that included Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive and the most recent Star Trek: Next Generation Companion. Within a handful of days a package arrived at my doorstep, and after wrestling it out of my grandmother's hands, I was able to take it to my room and open it. I couldn't imagine why they'd send me such a big box for such a small order, until I opened the box: Cryptonomicon comes in at almost 1200 pages... TWELVE HUNDRED PAGES!!! Well, if anything, I said to myself, I wouldn't have to buy a new book for a while.
From Pearl Harbor to the near present, Cryptonomicon tells the story of Randy Waterhouse, a present-day UNIX geek who, in the course of being roped into building a start-up with international ramifications, becomes embroiled in the results of the past: World War 2 encryption, Nazi cunning, Japanese atrocity, and stolen gold. How the past affects the present is a major theme of Cryptonomicon and we spend considerable time exploring several characters deeply entrenched in World War 2. Bobby Shaftoe is a highly decorated Marine Raider, survivor of Guadalcanal, is recruited into the mysterious Detachment 2072. Lawrence Waterhouse, Randy's grandfather, is a Navy musician, survivor of Pearl Harbor, who is discovered to be a brilliant mathematician and becomes a primary geek of the Detachment.
Colorful secondary characters, such as Enoch Root, the bizarre medic-priest, Günter, the crazy U-boat captain, Goto Dengo, the Japanese engineer sans faith in the war, Rudy, the gay cryptogenius recruited by the Nazis, Doug Shaftoe, Bobby's son and an ex-Marine, his daughter Amy, the object of Randy's affection when he's not wondering if she's a dyke, Ari, Randy's business partner who's obsessed with Holocausts, The Dentist, an overly rich investor with ties to the Philippine underworld, every featured member of the Secret Admirers with their guns and obsession for hacking and secrecy, richly fill out the text as we traverse the world: everywhere from Manila to Guadalcanal to London, New Guinea, Qwghlm, the Sultanate of Kimakuta, Sweden and the shores of America... an epic world-wide scope of colorful scenes of brutality and survival, discovery and redemption. A true whirlwind of breathtaking imagination.
Let's see if I can condense the storyline: Randy is recruited by Avi, his pen-and-paper role-playing buddy from college to build a complex international Internet start-up. Over the course of their work, a sunken U-boat is discovered off the coast of the Philippines, a location where it shouldn't be, loaded with gold. Meanwhile, the Allies are busy trying to decrypt the coded messages of the Axis, kill a bunch of the enemy and simply stay alive. Secrets become conspiracies that fuel Randy's accidental search for gold as his company struggles with lawsuits and the enormity of their business plan, coupled with Ari's obsession to prevent future holocausts.
I had to draw a poorly drawn and confusing map just to outline the story and characters. Fortunately, the book is not as convoluted as I am. Stephenson brilliantly takes us between present and future, the Pacific and Atlantic theatres without blinking an eye. His tale is so deftly woven that by the end, when all the pieces are brought together you can't help but be marveled by his genius. Cryptonomicon is a brilliant display of storytelling, and despite it's girth, a very fast and extremely enjoyable read that at times is outlandishly funny and outright weird set in a oft violent world of the past that is gripping and intelligent. You must read this book. Now. Thank you.
(The title of this article is a pathetically simple, grade-school crypto. It's so obvious it's pathetic)
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 February 8, 2004
I wanted to like this book. I enjoyed Stephenson's earlier books and was looking forward to this one. Sadly the book's virtues did not outweigh its lame ending so that I can only give it a mediocre 3 rating.
Like his previous books, Stephenson creates a fascinating web of storyline and characters. I loved Bobby Shaftoe. I could totally relate to Randy. The characters are bold and heroic. The storyline is intricate and funny. The WWII story kept me wanting to read more and the history of cryptography was very interesting.
But like a lot of books today (Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Michelle West), this one suffers from its own length. While only mediocre at 900 pages, it could have been excellent at 600 pages. These prominent authors seems to have no editors, and they ramble on and on, weakening their own stories. Since this is a one of a kind book, it does not suffer from sequelitis (yet) but lots of the 900 pages were taken up by stream of consciousness irrelevancy in the Infinite Jest vein. If you enjoy these passages, you will like the book more than I did. I felt that they wasted ink that was sorely needed for a good ending.
In addition to the many, completely unnecessary pages about ejaculation and the like, I was stunned by the ending. After reading 900 pages, the book just, well, ends. The story wasn't tied up at all! I kept turning pages looking for more content but in the end just had to accept the fact that the book has a sucky ending.
Books today have become a lot like politics. The product just doesn't seem to be as good as in the past but you have to pick someone, so you keep going back to usual, albeit disappointing, suspects. I will continue to read Stephenson's books (for a while) but the publishing game today offends me; it seems to be about big names, big thick books, and never-ending sequels. The industry is pushing quantity over quality and these three factors are clearly designed to part you from your money... I miss the days of JRR Tolkien, when an author could write a great beginning, middle AND ending.
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.
on October 26, 2003
The size of CRYPTONOMICON varies depending on which individual printing that you get ahold of (although, presumably, they all contain the same amount of text). Depending on the size of the margins, the typeface and the paper, the page count of your copy of CRYPTONOMICON will range from nine hundred to eleven hundred. My own copy weighs in at nine hundred, eighteen pages. No matter how you look at it, that's a lot of words, and a lot of reading. And I'll say this from the onset: in addition to everything else I will mention, Neal Stephenson's CRYPTONOMICON was engrossing and absorbing. It rarely bored me, and kept me interested for its entirety. No mean feat, considering the length, though I certainly felt as though I had completed a marathon by the time I finally turned over the final page.
To reduce the book to a summary is an extremely difficult task. As a start, we can say that the story takes place in two different time-periods, although there are separate strands running in each setting. The first part takes place during World War II; much of it concerns the exploits of the mathematicians who broke the German codes as well as the people who tried their hardest to make sure that the Germans themselves did not figure out that the Allies had broken the encryption techniques. The WWII sections are the book's strongpoint, with the historical details and diversions providing an excellent background. A lot of the humor in this section works well, although some of it reads like a watered down version of CATCH-22.
The second portion of the book takes place in the modern day. It vaguely feels like it's trying to be a sort of techno-thriller. Of course, it's difficult to describe more precisely, because it seems like it's trying to do half a dozen things at once, and it isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Some plot points begin, are expanded upon, and then promptly vanish. There's a lot of geek humor on display, and some portions of the plot will require quite a bit of technical knowledge. Stephenson explains much of what the audience needs to know, but I bet that a fairly significant portion of the book will fly over the head of many readers.
Could the story have been told in fewer than 900+ pages? Absolutely, but the question rather misses the point. The plot itself is relatively minimal. What the book does is to allow itself to go off into tangents and branches nominally related to the main subject. Characters (or even the narrative itself) will suddenly launch into long speeches about unrelated topics to varying degrees of success. Some of the discussions are fascinating and thought provoking. Others are utterly self-indulgent and should have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor. One gets the impression that the editor (or editors) were afraid suggest cuts, leaving us with a flawed work.
I got the inkling that Stephenson had thought of about a dozen good ideas for a book, but instead of developing them individually, he decided to throw them all into a single volume. This gives us a mixed result. It's decidedly fresh, unpredictable and exciting, but I also felt that he wasn't doing justice to all of his ideas. Some threads don't have time to flourish before they are cast off, and it's a shame to see their potential flushed away.
The ending feels a bit rushed, which I found to be surprising, given how much time is spent setting up all the plot threads and strands. And looking back on what I've written, I notice that I've probably spent too much time going over the book's flaws, so I feel the need to point out that there is a lot of great stuff contained between these covers. A lot of the little passages lead to fascinating discussions. Had this been a more disciplined work, it would probably have been absolutely amazing. As it currently stands, however, it is a flawed work, albeit an interesting one.
on October 20, 2003
Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon has to be read to be fully explainable or appreciated. An epic book, it details two interlocking plots involving two interlocking families: The Waterhouses and the Shaftoes. Part of the novel is set in the current day, and we follow two Silicon valley types, Randy Waterhouse and his friend Avi as they set up a "data haven" in the Philippines -- and as their fiber optic cables are laid on the ocean floor by the Shaftoes, American expatriate adventurers, a sunken German submarine is discovered off of Manila, filled with Nazi gold. Strangely enough, the submarine contains a document with the world "Waterhouse" on it, and Randy is confronted with a mystery -- what did his grandfather actually do in World War II?
The other part of the story is set in World War II, and we follow Randy's grandfather, and a marine named Bobby Shaftoe, through their adventures, which involve high level crtyptograhy and a secret military detachment which exists to spread disinformation to the Nazis and the Japanese, in order to protect the secrets that the broken Enigma codes have revealed.
But this is no mere Clive Cussler tale -- it contains levels of irony, comedy, and just pure information that bring it to a very high creative level. There are portions of this work that will have you laughing out loud -- the cameo performances by Lieutenant Ronald Reagan and General Douglas MacArthur are masterpieces of sublime absurdity -- and other portions that will leave you in wonderment at Stephenson's technical erudition (van Eck Phreaking anyone? 4096 bit encryption? "One-time pads" generated by a deck of cards?).
It is a breathtaking performance -- a fascinating, complicated work that can be enjoyed on many different levels.
on October 13, 2003
So you want to break a code?
Noble undertaking. Be careful, though. What you learn might spur you to action. And, in taking said action, your Enemy might realize you've broken their code. They change it. Suddenly, zap! You're back to square one.
In Cryptonomicon, that's just the beginning. In a book that spans from World War II to present-day, covering almost every continent, jumping back in forth in geography and time, you get the feel for connections that turn out to be more than coincidences. It is almost as if the codes everyone tries to break suddenly come to life and take on personalities, and you are left to ponder how one piece of the code relates to another.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly. Between the codes and code breaking, the numerous analogies Stephenson uses to explain how codes work (especially the bicycle chain), the injection of various Famous People (like Turing and... oh, you'll find out),and just the author's overall world view (similar to my own), I found myself unable to put it down. Entertaining and informative.
And... BUMJU EBTWW DUFRX DUQVK UMEBU FBVIB EVTOU XFHXV KZTVU PKXLM UMMXW XMUYW BAUM. Off the tongue-in-cheek scale. OK, not exactly a strong cipher. But it's fun to work through, much like the book.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in codes or code-breaking, history (especially recent history), and security.
on September 20, 2003
Have you ever read a book and gotten that feeling that you were being lied to? That the author is being intellectually dishonest for the sake of his weak storyline or to sell more books or for his own personal foibles? Do you encounter examples of character behavior that make you say "Oh, for crying out loud!" and throw the book down in disgust because people simply do not act that way? Neal Stephenson always does that to me. Time and again he uses plot devices and premises that frankly, offend my intelligence as a reader...but damn him, I can't stop turning pages! The specific examples of his authorial misbehavior are legion, but if you pick this book up you will finish it, and probably in at most three days. The man has great storytelling talent, there's no denying it. I just wish he would spend a little more time in the real world and make his characters a little less, well, unbelievably freakish. In short, if you buy this book it's money well spent...but the phrase "suspension of disbelief" will be more than appropriate. Kind of like when you read a Tom Robbins book.