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).
on April 3, 2010
This is the kind of great novel that, without any pretensions of intellectualism (but an enormous display of intelligence), is both immense in scope, bold in vision, and lightheartedly cool and funny. No review could convey the range of issues, both mundane and enormous, that are covered in this book. More than that, no review could convince a reader how enjoyable and laugh out loud hilarious it is in more places than I can count. I really liked the fact that I could get lost in the novel for a while, put it down for a few weeks, then be absorbed again, and again and again. One complaint that some have put down here is that it sometimes gets bogged down in details. That is true; Stephenson has a tendency to digress. But most of the digressions are fascinating; they sometimes do allow you to lose track of the story, such that when the digression is over you no longer feel the irresistable urge to know what comes next, but I liked that about my experience of reading this novel. I found that it can't be read in one or two or three sittings. There's just too much there. I probably read it in thirty or fourty sittings over the course of about a month; when I'd had enough, I could set it down and do something else, and come back to something new and surprisingly intriguing the next day or week. Most novels that took that long would lose their grip on me. Some books that don't lose their grip on me have me staying up all night for a few days. Somehow with this book the digressions and the interruptions in the story as he moves between the points of view of four or five main characters from different time periods allowed me to walk away and come back comfortably. I will say that by the last few hundred pages I couldn't put it down, and kept going until it was over.
on June 26, 2004
Plot Summary: How to summarize this plot...Well, It starts with 2 professors and 1 student riding bikes at a late 1930's Princeton talking about zeta functions and building a machine to do calculations. Then there are WWII stories from Bobby Shaftoe's and Lawrence Waterhouse's (the student above) very different perspectives. They are both part of a code-breaking part of the US military where Waterhouse is one of the chief enemy code crackers, along with Alan Turing for the British from the bike ride above, and Shaftoe one of the soldiers carrying out seemingly strange orders to make the results of these cracked codes look like random occurances. It takes a long time in the book for Shaftoe to realize the true agenda behind 90% of his missions. Waterhouse has added large sections to the Cryptonomicon, the compendium of all crypto knowledge, as a result of his work. The other part of the story involves Randy Waterhouse (grandson of Lawrence) and his new company Epiphyte trying to develop a data haven in the south Pacific and the various legal and technical troubles that it involves and the enemies they accrue. Randy and co. meet up with the Shaftoe descendants as part of a surveying and cable laying venture in the Philippines. One of the WWII era characters, Enoch Root, starts emailing Randy Waterhouse messages concerning a certain crypto system that was not broken during the war. This is the same secret code that Randy's grandfather Lawrence was also working on in his lifetime incidentally. Eventually, almost every decendant of a war era character, if not that character himself, becomes involved in what becomes a large treasure hunt. The plot is in no way as simplistic and boring as I made it sound, despite the seemingly boring subject matter of cryptography and digital currency may be.
Opinion: This is a long book, but I loved it. It is incredibly funny at several points and had me chuckling out loud. The 2 main plotlines are pretty seperate for like 700 of the 900 pages but come together in a very nice way. I liked the writing style most of the time. Long, train-of-thought sentences, very descriptive. It drew a nice mental picture of things. The story was very engaging all around and I never felt like the novel was dragging. The characters were very believable. I'm an engineer and didn't get lost in any of the technical, code-breaking and cryptological discussions, some people might. There are graphs in this book which usually deal with something like Lawrence's work performance vs. how many times he has ejaculated and how to optimize his work, so don't be intimidated with those, they are tangents most of the time. For the super nerdy among us, there is a complete description of the "Solitaire" encryption method in the Appendix...not to mention a PERL script in the text somewhere around page 450.
Recommendation: Read it. 5 out of 5 stars. Did I mention this is funny? I will be reading more Stephenson due to how much I enjoyed this book.
on May 2, 2004
Last year I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, but was left dissatisfied by the abrupt ending. It was clear to me that Stephenson was something of a genius, with an exceptional grasp not only of science and technology, but also history, politics, anthropology and sociology. I was also struck by his sheer literary talent--mind-boggling creativity and a wicked sense of humor coupled with an ability to create memorable and engaging characters. Diamond Age failed, however, to provide a conclusion that properly brought together all the threads of the complex plot and to tell the reader what happened to all the main characters.
Cryptonomicon is a better book because Stephenson manages to match or even improve upon the strengths of Diamond Age while providing a more satisfying conclusion. It is difficult to summarize a book of this scope, which comes close to a thousand pages and follows a large cast of characters through two pivotal periods of modern history: World War II and the information revolution of the 1990s. Stephenson's book makes most of Charles Dickens' works look spare by comparison.
As indicated by the title, the book's central focus is cryptography and the role of computers in both processing and concealing information. Stephenson describes a fascinating crew of fictional characters, from hackers and nerds to Navy SEALS and leathernecks, who interact with the likes of Douglas MacArthur and Alan Turing to show the importance not only of military and economic might, but also the use and control of information, in determining the destiny of nations and the course of world history.
No book is perfect, however. Stephenson has a unique authorial voice: breezy, conversational, and definitely never dull, whether he is describing the intricacies of cryptography or a bloody marine landing on a Pacific island. Yet the blunt, colloquial style of writing may not appeal to readers who prefer more elegant, refined prose. (Stephenson's characters don't make love, they f*ck, for example, and Stephenson pulls no punches when describing bodily functions that some people would rather just be left to imagine themselves--or not think aobut at all). I didn't mind it, but I'm sure many others will. What did irk me was that many of the characters (particularly the American hackers of the 1990s) speak and write in almost exactly the same tone, use exactly the same vocabulary, and ruminate on exactly the same subjects as Stephenson himself. In some cases, even characters like Enoch Root, an enigmatic and apparently ageless ex-Catholic priest, also fall into an identical style of speech. While this does lend the book a certain stylistic unity, it also sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief and to distinguish the characters' viewpoints from those of the author himself.
Ultimately, though, any criticism of this book pales in comparison with its immense achievements. No review can do justice to the genius of the Cryptonomicon--it transcends genres and is one of the few books that really deserves the overused adjectives "unique" and "original". Read it!
on March 7, 2004
The first time I read Cryptonomicom, my reaction at the end was very much like other reviewers': "Where's the rest?" My next thought was along the lines of, "Almost a thousand pages and it still isn't enough!" If you can't tell, I personally love this book. It has wonderful moments of pure hilarity, sometimes embedded in scenes of pure horror, but other times just happily "out there." It has plenty of "huh?" moments, resulting in me going back to reread whole sections, sometimes several chapters back in the book, to make sure I was on the right track.
The second time I read Cryptonomicon, I had a little better sense of the history portrayed in the book, especially the histories of the fictional characters (and the fictional histories of the real characters). Knowing how the book ends (or doesn't end, depending on your opinion), I was able to put all of the events into a different context. Kind of like when you know what the end result of some big world event, and then go back to read the history books of how it happened. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.
Just like history, this book reminds us that sometimes stories don't have an ending....
on June 14, 1999
Stephenson's new novel is a refreshing throwback to his earlier works like The Big U and Zodiac. Without mentioning Snow Crash I think we can all agree that Diamond Age was good content, bad execution. That said, this book was compelling in an interesting way; I rarely put down a book (especially after a gruelling 2-day 1k-page read) and wait for DAYS before picking up another book. It was that compelling--I was afraid I would hate whatever the next book might be to cross my desk, and even read lingusitics texts to distract myself for a few days until I ran across the tepid Bombay Ice. Anyway, the worst part about Stephenson's new book is the copy editing. There was approximately one error every three to four pages, indicating that no one read it before sending it out, signalling a lack of respect for readers. I know publishers work for the almighty $, but jeez, they could at least hire a copy editor. I volunteer--Neal, send me your next novel and I'll check it over for the desk copy.
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.