by Neal Stephenson
Cryptonomicon is a long book, so if my brief introduction seems lame, that's because it is. 900+ pages gives Stephenson ample time and space to flesh out the characters and the situations at a leisurely pace. When I started reading the book, I thought I would never finish. I got to page 200, and thought to myself 700 more pages! How the hell am I ever going to finish this damn thing?. At page 500 or so, I thought to myself, Jeez, only 400 pages to go. I better pick up another book in case I finish this one soon. Its probably not for everyone, though I find it hard to tell. Stephenson spends a fair amount of time explaining mathematical concepts and encryption, which, to the average person, may seem tedious or excessive. Again, I find it difficult to judge, as I have a reasonable understanding of mathematics and computers. Its most often characterized as a book about "hackers", and anyone who is immersed in the computer world would probably enjoy it.
The novel is driven by cryptography, but Stephenson goes beyond the literal confines of the subject and turns it into a full-fledged theme. More specifically, the act of decrypting seems to be a major focus, whether it be the literal decrypting of wartime messages, Bobby and Goto parsing their cultural differences, or Randy's attempts to decipher the mixed signals from Bobby's granddaughter Amy. This is essentially a novel about discovery, and the plot is driven as such.
My favourite thing about the book is the characters and their interactions with each other, sometimes across generations. As I mentioned before, Stephenson has given himself enough space so that he can flesh out the characters, but there is obviously no hurry. My favourite character is Lawrence Prichard Waterhouse. Perhaps the best description of him is given by Bobby Shaftoe:
"Shaftoe has had little direct contact with that Waterhouse fellow during their stay on Qwghlm, but he has noticed that men who have just finished talking to Waterhouse tend to walk away shaking their heads-and not in the slow way of a man saying "No," but in the sudden convulsive way of a dog who has a horsefly in his middle ear."Waterhouse is something of an absent minded Genius, and it is a delight to read about events from his perspective (such as a complex mathimatical discussion of Concentration as a function of Horniness) . The quote above also illustrates an important idea: though many of the characters are aware of the other characters, their actual contact is limited. Shaftoe and Waterhouse are rarely in the same company, but they are usually aware of each other... Other relationships happen in a similar manner. Waterhouse's grandson Randy barely remebers his grandfather or his grandfather's relationship with Bobby Shaftoe, but Randy does know Doug Shaftoe (Bobby's son) and his daughter Amy Shaftoe. The familial relationships carry across generations, and are interestingly done.
Also worth noting is Stephenson's fast paced, techno-thriller style. Its part of what makes the book easy to read, despite its depth. Its also quite surprising that the book is actually funny. Its not a comedy, natch, but I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. Sometimes its a situation, and sometimes its just the way Stephenson words something:
Trapped in a window seat during a short and choppy flight, he had never made it out to the lavatory, so he goes to one now and pees so hard that the urinal emits a sort of yodeling noise.That line had me laughing for weeks.
Like I said, the book is not for everyone, and I could probably go on and on rambling about things I really like about the book, and there are many things to like in this complex work. Its becoming one of my favourite books, I think, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with even a vague interest in the subjects of history or computers.
Copyright © 1999 - 2005 by Mark Ciocco.
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