“This code business is some tricky shit.” ~Bobby Shaftoe
Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is a lengthy historical fiction set during both World War II and the late 1990s with much of the action taking place in the Philippines. In the 1940s, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, colleague of Alan Turing, is hired by the U.S. Navy to help break Axis codes. Meanwhile, Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, who’s too enthusiastic and courageous for his own good, doesn’t realize that his troop’s job is to make it look like the U.S. hasn’t broken the codes, but just happens to always be in the right place at the right time.
Waterhouse and Shaftoe know each other only superficially, but their descendants, who’ve noticeably inherited some of their traits, meet in the 1990s storyline. Randy Lawrence Waterhouse is a systems administrator who’s trying to set up an electronic banking system in the Philippines. There he meets Doug and Amy Shaftoe, a father and daughter team who are doing the underwater surveying for Randy’s Internet cables. Randy and the Shaftoes eventually realize that they share a secret heritage and together they set out on a massive code-breaking treasure hunt.
The plot of Cryptonomicon is clever and elaborate, sometimes exciting (e.g., most scenes with Bobby Shaftoe), frequently funny (such as when Ronald Reagan interviews Bobby Shaftoe, and when the Waterhouse family uses a complicated mathematical algorithm to divide up the family heirlooms), and always informative.
Neal Stephenson’s fans know (and love) that you can’t read one of his books without learning a lot. Predictably, Cryptonomicon is chock full of information. If a character walks past a bank in China, you can bet you’re in for a lecture on Chinese banking. If he sees a spider web dripping with dew, you’ll be taught how spiders catch their prey. Character backstories are used to teach us about the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe or the familial habits of the Filipinos. In Cryptonomicon there are many pages that think they should be in a textbook on computer circuitry (and some that actually admit they belong in Letters to Penthouse). There are three pages devoted to a doctoral dissertation on facial hair and shaving fetishes, and another three pages of instruction on the proper way to eat Cap’n Crunch.
These divergences interrupt the plot and make the book much longer than it needs to be, but you just can’t help but forgive Stephenson (or to at least smile and shake your head knowingly as if he has some sort of uncontrollable yet endearing pathology), when you see him poking fun at himself for this very thing. In one scene, Bobby Shaftoe thinks he’s in “HELL’S DEMO” when he’s forced to listen to someone “explain the organization of the German intelligence hierarchy.” Though the lecture causes Shaftoe to hallucinate, the reader still manages to learn something about the Wehrmacht Nachrichten Verbindungen while being thankful to realize that Stephenson knows he has this “issue.”
It’s easy to tell that Neal Stephenson loves to do research and loves to impart the knowledge he’s gleaned, or ideas he’s thought up, and it’s hard to criticize him for this, especially since it’s all done in his clever, colorful, and entertaining style, even if it’s not always relevant to the plot. And sometimes these infodumps can really set a scene. Here’s a very short example:
The Bletchley girls surround him. They have celebrated the end of their shift by applying lipstick. Wartime lipstick is necessarily cobbled together from whatever tailings and gristle were left over once all of the good stuff was used to coat propeller shafts. A florid and cloying scent is needed to conceal its unspeakable mineral and animal origins. It is the smell of War.
Stephenson also delights in creating quirky similes:
Like the client of one of your less reputable pufferfish sushi chefs, Randy Waterhouse does not move from his assigned seat for a full ninety minutes…
Though I skimmed a few of Stephenson’s longer tangents, I was nevertheless entertained by the clever plot of Cryptonomicon. I read the novel in two formats. One was Subterranean Press’s signed limited edition which was printed on thick glossy paper and embellished with new artwork by Patrick Arrasmith, several graphs, and even some perl script. My Advanced Review Copy of this book weighs 4 pounds (and it was only paperback — the published version is hardback). I also listened to MacMillan’s audiobook read by William Dufris. I’m sure Cryptonomicon was not an easy book to read out loud, but Dufris did an amazing job, even actually sounding like Ronald Reagan during the Reagan interview.
Cryptonomicon won the Locus Award in 2000 and was nominated for both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards that year. Pretty big accomplishment for a book that’s not even science fiction. For readers who haven’t tried one of Neal Stephenson’s books yet, Cryptonomicon is a good place to start.