Thursday, March 13, 2014


I never reviewed Cryptonomicon by Neal Stepehenson, the last book I read for 2013 Shelf-Sitter Reading Challenge, mainly because I just finished it yesterday. I know the challenge is over, but holy crap, I need to say a few words about this book.

I'll begin by making a bold declaration: Cryptonomicon is to Science Fiction as Infinite Jest is to Literary Fiction.

I've never read Infinite Jest, but I've read accounts of people reading it, and the impression I've taken away is that it is very long, very dense, brilliantly written, full of insight into the human condition, hilariously funny, heartbreakingly sad, and will almost definitely take you much longer to read than you think it should.

All of this is also true of Cryptonomicon. It's 910 pages but seems much, much longer because it is so dense. It took me seven months to read this book. I'd have that thing where you read for a long time, totally engrossed, and feel like you've made tremendous progress... and then you check and it's like ten pages. Nothing can be skimmed; if you skim a paragraph, you will be lost three paragraphs later and have to go back and really apply your entire mind to reading the paragraph you skimmed in order to understand what's going on.

It's about war, and money, and evil, and freedom, and why and how technology really can save the world. It made me cry, which is a rare but good thing for me. On almost every page is a line or five so clever and funny I longed to read it out loud to someone. It is packed with metaphors and similes; when Stephenson really gets going, he can have strings of metaphors one after another, or similes that go on for pages, like the one about how a character's experience having his wisdom teeth out is like the conversation he just had. And yet they are all so hilarious and apt, I was never like, Enough with the metaphors, Neal.

But what's it about, you ask? Naturally, the plot is insanely complicated, but if I was forced to sum it up I'd say it's about two guys serving in WWII-- one an Aspergers-y code breaker, the other a badass Marine-- whose paths cross briefly while they work on different aspects of the same project; and also about their grandchildren fifty years later-- one a geeky hacker, the other a (female) badass shipwreck diver-- who are working on different aspects of a business venture that at first seems to have nothing to do with their grandfathers' experiences during the war but which turns out to have everything to do with them. It's one of those books that takes place all over the world: China, the U.S., Hawaii, England, the Philippines, Sweden, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Japan. There are also three love stories, only one of which is tragic.

This book is not for everyone-- and I don't mean that in a sneery superior way. There are many, many brilliant readers out there who would not enjoy it. It's Historical Science Fiction, a niche market if there ever was one. And it's a very male book; there are very few female characters, no female POV, and the overall viewpoint on women seems to be that for the most part women don't do anything meaningful (like math and killing people), and that their priorities are pointless, which is mostly okay as long as they don't try to make men give a shit about any silly thing they think is important. Also, the book is perhaps overly technical in places. I've heard Stephenson's work described as a "cool kids' club"; homeboy has no interest whatsoever in being accessible. He assumes a certain set of knowledge about math, cryptology, computer hacking, and WWII, and if you don't have it, too fucking bad for you. Go look it up or something, or muddle through with an incomplete understanding of those parts of the book.

But if all that doesn't put you off, I recommend this crazy genius masterpiece highly. The lack of female perspective almost never bothered me, because I accepted at the outset that this was to be a Manly book about Men doing Important, Manly Things. Likewise, the technical bits didn't throw me; I am in no way cool enough to be in Stephenson's cool kids' club, but as a HS Math-and-Science dropout who loves hard Science Fiction, I'm accustomed to muddling through. You know how in the Star Trek scripts the writers just put [tech] for any dialogue that needs to be crafted by the science consultants? Well, there are parts of this book that are just [tech] to me. Neal strikes me as the kind of guy who would probably hunt me down and stab me in the face if he knew that.

If you like stories about WWII, stories about code breakers, stories about hackers, stories about searching for lost treasure, and stories about the labyrinthine world of international business-- and you like a reading challenge-- then give this a whirl. It's really goddamn good.

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