Review of Cryptonomicon (1999)

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Neal Stephenson (writer).

Read in 2021.

WW2-era secrets become important to some dot-com entrepreneurs.

This is about two novels’ worth of theme in five novels’ worth of plot on three novels’ worth of pages, with more asides than Tolstoy. An infinitely higher proportion of those asides are devoted to male sexual release. Slashdot gave it a 10/10, back when Slashdot was big.

It tries to be many things: A portrait of the IT business in the late 1990s; a sweeping history of the 20th century at large from WW2 through Vietnam to the rise of the Asian superpowers; an action adventure; a series of zany character portraits—some historical—and Seinfeldian jokes; a melodrama about an evil man hunting an innocent one; near-science fiction about averting future genocides; near-science fiction about virtual currency (not cryptocurrency); near-science fiction about a couple of different fictional places (Kinakuta & Qwghlm); a travelogue of some real places; a history of the Pacific War as such; a thriller about some improbably badass comrades from many nations and their Axis gold heist; a fictionalized history of cryptography; a fictionalized history of electronic computing; and an extensive guide to eating Captain Crunch.

The title comes from “Necronomicon”, but Stephenson had not read Lovecraft when he picked that title, so it’s misleading. Cryptography is well described by Stephenson and his editors, but its use is tainted by an elite gnosticism and consequent narcissism absent in Lovecraft. Stephenson also displays other occasional gaps in knowledge. He puts major tides in Sweden and thinks C++ succeeded C, but for the most part, the book is well researched. I greatly appreciate that central technical concepts are not glossed over or omitted as they would be in a low-grade thriller. The humour is mostly good, too:

Clearly, Mr. Drkh has had a long career of being the weirdest person in any given room, but he’s about to go down in flames.

The plot would not have aged well if it were transposed to a time fifteen years later, after lidar came into use scanning features on the ground through forest cover. Beyond the plot and the humour, there’s not much going on. The language is sometimes crisp but the characters don’t develop much. It is fundamentally a technothriller of the moment, not science fiction and not a literary reflection on the horrors of the war or the Shoah or the state’s abuse of Alan Turing for his homosexuality. The more philosophical portions, like an old man named Root holding forth on Greek gods in Stephenson’s voice, are peripheral. It seems more central that Root’s name is a tedious Unix pun, just like the most important Japanese character is named after a statement of BASIC and other old programming languages. Stephenson’s science fiction is better, even if it is usually less coherent.

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