Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicom is a big, lumbering shaggy dog of a novel. It will definitely appeal to some readers, but not all.

The novel follows two main storylines. During World War II, Lawrence Waterhouse is a mathematician engaged in deciphering German and Japanese codes for the military. In the 1990s, his grandson Randy Waterhouse is working to establish a high-tech business in the Phillippines. Both these stories are explored in great length–after all, the novel is 910 pages–seemingly in isolation for the first half of the book, although in the second half they increasingly come together.

Along the way we encounter a large cast of mostly fascinating characters. Two of Lawrence’s Princeton classmates are also engaged in cryptography, Alan Turing with the British and Rudy von Hacklheber working for the Nazis. Three World War II soldiers are important: U.S. marine Bobby Shaftoe, Japanese soldier Goto Dengba, and U-2 commander Bischoff. In the 1990s, Randy’s partner Avi is the business end of the partnership while Randy is the mathematician. Doug Shaftoe–son of Bobby–and his daughter Amy are salvage experts working for Randy and Avi.

The plot is incredibly complicated, and for the first half of the book the two storylines are parallel, but unconnected. On page 280 I encountered one character’s quote “The only hard part, as usual, is understanding what the fuck is going on.” I suspect that was an inside joke on Stephenson’s part, since at that point I pretty much felt the same way.

What keeps the book’s first half interesting is Stephenson’s writing. It is rich and evocative, filled with local color so you really feel you are reading it in Manila or Brisbane or England. It is also filled with long, winding tangents involving everything from historical facts to personal histories. In fact, the entire first half seemed little more than an excuse for the individual scenes and tangents.

It also had one of the great opening scenes of any novel I have read in recent years.

All of which gradually changes in the second half as the reader discovers a connection between Randy’s fledgling business and Lawrence’s cryptography. A sunken U-2 boat off the coast of the Phillippines becomes an important factor in the plot, as does Lawrence’s hidden papers. Enoch Root, a fallen-away priest during World War II, shows up in the 1990s, as does Goto Dengba. And in the last few hundred pages, all the fascinating tangents slowly fade away as the plotlines themselves shove front and center.

But in order to get that far, you have to be patient, and it helps if you enjoy long-winded writing–which I do–where the author has no interest in linear development, but rather spiraling around the plot, visiting every possible nook and cranny that might or might not have any relevance to what is actually happening while slowly weaving in on the crux of the entire matter.

Because the book is so big and sprawling, it has some obvious flaws. Lawrence Waterhouse totally disappears from the book for several hundred pages near the end, while Goto Dengba becomes the main focus of the World War II sections. While his activities are very important to the 1990s segment, his portion with General MacArthur was much less interesting than Waterhouse’s had been.

The novel has a lot of mathematics in its World War II portions, and a lot of tech talk in its 1990s portions. Personally, I enjoyed the former but was bored by the latter, although other readers might feel precisely the opposite, or even dislike both portions. Fortunately, all that talk might as well have been part of Stephenson’s tangents, since none of it was vital to understanding the novel, although they did contribute to the enjoyment of it.

Not all of the tangents were equally-enjoyable. One portion about Captain Crunch cereal bored me, and another about Randy’s wisdom teeth struck me as ludicrous. But there were so many tangents, most of them interesting, that a few weak ones scattered through 900 pages was not fatal.

Nor is Stephenson a master of characterization. Most of the characters are drawn broadly without subtleties, but that is almost expected in what is not so much a book about people as it is about the activities those people are engaged in. So when two Nazis defect to the Allied side, their motivations do not bear much analysis, because there is not much emotional foundation to their defection.

Almost obvious without saying, any novel this long and shaggy, with a plot so winding and complex, does not bear close scrutiny. At times it stretched disbelief considerably, and in places there were blatant incongruities (the planted drugs and the leprosy both come to mind, for those of you who have already read the book).

This is not a great or classic novel in any sense. As I said earlier, it’s a big shaggy dog, fun to read for Stephenson’s writing and tangents most of the way through, and satisfying in how he manages to tie it all together mostly successfully. Reading it did not make me wish it had won a Hugo Award, but it did make me want to buy Stephenson’s 2700 page Baroque Cycle, because I anticipate it will be as much fun as this novel was.



    Trust me, it's worth every second you spend reading it. :P Enjoy!

    By Blogger Kat, At 6:52 PM  

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