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Cryptonomicon Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 1, 1999
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Neal Stephenson enjoys cult status among science fiction fans and techie types thanks to Snow Crash, which so completely redefined conventional notions of the high-tech future that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if his cyberpunk classic was big, Cryptonomicon is huge... gargantuan... massive, not just in size (a hefty 918 pages including appendices) but in scope and appeal. It's the hip, readable heir to Gravity's Rainbow and the Illuminatus trilogy. And it's only the first of a proposed series--for more information, read our interview with Stephenson.
Cryptonomicon zooms all over the world, careening conspiratorially back and forth between two time periods--World War II and the present. Our 1940s heroes are the brilliant mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse, cryptanalyst extraordinaire, and gung ho, morphine-addicted marine Bobby Shaftoe. They're part of Detachment 2702, an Allied group trying to break Axis communication codes while simultaneously preventing the enemy from figuring out that their codes have been broken. Their job boils down to layer upon layer of deception. Dr. Alan Turing is also a member of 2702, and he explains the unit's strange workings to Waterhouse. "When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first.... Of course, to observe is not its real duty--we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed.... Then, when we come round and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious."
All of this secrecy resonates in the present-day story line, in which the grandchildren of the WWII heroes--inimitable programming geek Randy Waterhouse and the lovely and powerful Amy Shaftoe--team up to help create an offshore data haven in Southeast Asia and maybe uncover some gold once destined for Nazi coffers. To top off the paranoiac tone of the book, the mysterious Enoch Root, key member of Detachment 2702 and the Societas Eruditorum, pops up with an unbreakable encryption scheme left over from WWII to befuddle the 1990s protagonists with conspiratorial ties.
Cryptonomicon is vintage Stephenson from start to finish: short on plot, but long on detail so precise it's exhausting. Every page has a math problem, a quotable in-joke, an amazing idea, or a bit of sharp prose. Cryptonomicon is also packed with truly weird characters, funky tech, and crypto--all the crypto you'll ever need, in fact, not to mention all the computer jargon of the moment. A word to the wise: if you read this book in one sitting, you may die of information overload (and starvation). --Therese Littleton
From Library Journal
Computer expert Randy Waterhouse spearheads a movement to create a safe haven for data in a world where information equals power and big business and government seek to control the flow of knowledge. His ambitions collide with a top-secret conspiracy with links to the encryption wars of World War II and his grandfather's work in preventing the Nazis from discovering that the Allies had cracked their supposedly unbreakable Enigma code. The author of Snow Crash (LJ 4/1/92) focuses his eclectic vision on a story of epic proportions, encompassing both the beginnings of information technology in the 1940s and the blossoming of the present cybertech revolution. Stephenson's freewheeling prose and ironic voice lend a sense of familiarity to a story that transcends the genre and demands a wide readership among fans of technothrillers as well as a general audience. Highly recommended.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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This is a good introduction to Stephenson. It's set in current times (actually more turn of the century, being published in 1999), with parts also set in WWII. It deals with interesting issues of war, computing, and economics. It ties together disparate story lines so that they come together beautifully in the end.
There's action, characters you'll root for, intrigue, and prose that's magnificent. Stephenson is one of the few writers that makes me sometimes stop and re-read a sentence just because of its sheer artistry.
If I had to make a criticism, it's this: as brilliant a writer as Stephenson is, he tends towards abrupt endings that feel like he just got tired of the story and wrapped it up in a hurry. But this is a tiny price to pay in a book this good.
The other thing I like about this story is the fast paced, adventurous, and far-fetched situations the characters get into. One character is introduced by way of a survival story, where over the course of a couple days or weeks he survives against the most ridiculous odds, over and over again... and yet Stephenson manages to suspend your disbelief the whole way through.
There is also lots of humor.
There is very little sexual content in one part of the story, developing one of the characters. It is not graphic.
The violence is sprinkled in here and there, mostly in the WWII part of the story. It is not central to the story, but certainly serves illustrating the intense situations you might find yourself in in wartime.
If your interests tend toward tech and history and adventure, you'll love this book.
I am now reading Stephenson's prequel Quicksilver (written after Cryptonomicon), set in pre-revolutionary Boston and the European Enlightenment. The same entertaining style but in a more slowly moving story loosely including a cast of giants (Ben Franklin, Isaac Asimov, etc.)
A couple of years ago, he penned a “thriller” titled Reamde, which I felt was an abysmal failure. I put it off to a departure from his sci-fi/cyberpunk roots, unaware that he had written a prior novel outside the genre, Cryptonomicon.
This work is a real doorstop, clocking in at about 1,140 pages. It follows two distinct timelines involving generations of the Shaftoe and Waterhouse families, World War II crypto-analysis, modern day (at the time it was written) telecommunications technology and search for hidden treasure centered in Indonesia/Southeast Asia.
Unlike Reamde, which I felt involved absurd and ridiculous scenarios and activities, the events in this novel are extremely realistic, inasmuch as they are based upon actual code breaking activity that took place in World War II. While there are sections which get a little deep in code theory, they don’t go so deep as to completely swamp the novice reader.
While the first couple of hundred pages act to set the stage, what follows is quite simply magnificent, both with respect to the quality of the writing and the educational value of the contents. Around the 2/3 mark of the book, you begin to see the threads coming together in a fascinating manner.
This is quite simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read.