Book review: Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: four stars

I first read Cryptonomicon more than 20 years ago, when it first was released. A good friend of mine was visiting from the US – I lived in London at this point – and had a copy of the book in his satchel.

It sounded cool, and so I found a copy, read it, and while there was a lot I didn’t understand in it, I enjoyed the hell out of it, which was quite remarkable because at the time I wasn’t really into 1000-page epics.

I figured it had been long enough that I should revisit: to see a) if it was still as impressive and b) whether I understood it any better.

The intervening two decades, it turns out, had been kind. Not only had I actually been to some of the places mentioned in the book, but I recognised that my grasp on military history and geopolitics had improved somewhat in the interim.

Cryptonomicon is, essentially, an alternate history set in two time periods: the 1940s and the 1990s. (Or should that be two alternate histories? Anyway, soldiering on.) The reader is thrown between the Second World War – the Pacific part of that armour-plated stoush, particularly – and the dot-com boom. The narrative plays out through the adventures of characters separate to each timeline (though some cross generations), with plenty of real-life figures (Albert Einstein, Alan Türing and an excellent Douglas MacArthur, amongst others) to add some kind of feeling of factual truth.

We’re clued in pretty solidly, however, that this is an alternate timeline to our own, though it is broadly speaking the same. For starters, the modern part of the tale focuses on a small sultanate, Kinakuta. Both timelines refer to Japan as Nippon (which can be technically correct, depending on your take on nomenclature of the country), and the WW2 part expressly mentions the Scotand-but-more-grim islands of Qwghlm, where phlegm and austerity rule.

The alternate timeline allows Stephenson to indulge in some what-iffery about Axis gold, the history of secret communications, and about conspiracies that may or may not have decided the fate of nations.

The story is broadly described as a techno-thriller, but that’s only part of it, really: cryptography (and the titular publication about cryptography, borrowed from Lovecraft because it sounded cool) is really why this thing exists. Or, more specifically, Cryptonomicon exists because its author knows A Lot of Things and would like to share them with you, including (but not limited to): the historical appearance of Brisbane and Manila; Van Eck phreaking; the history of the NSA; how to transport gold ingots; submarines; mining; start-up lawsuits; caisson disease; the pipe organ; obscure mathematical functions; cryptocurrency; data havens; the old boys’ network and EMPs. Oh, and wanking.

(What he doesn’t know about, really, is women. There’s not that many women in this book – it is a sausage-fest, assuming those sausages were wrapped in one-time pads – and when they appear they are either Lara Croft analogues, objects of romantic (carnal) interest, or nags. (Or all of those at once.) While some are relatively well drawn, they feel like they’re just thrown in – if only there were a depth of development beyond naming a woman after a country.)

I guess I recognised the problems with the text a bit more readily than I did when I was in my 20s, which is undoubtedly a good thing. I didn’t feel as set adrift by the mathematical equations and discursions set into the text as I did back then, either – I’ve taken to attempting not to beat myself up about my maths knowledge, and am actively trying to get more of a handle on whatever the fuck is going on there – and ultimately the book flew by, just as it did the first time. I’d forgotten some of the set-pieces in the text, and they hit as hard the second time around.

What I had forgotten, however, was that Stephenson is pretty funny. The book – mostly through the mouth of Bobby Shaftoe, Marine and hard-/dumb-ass – is often very amusing. It’s kind of nice to remember that even when the fate of nations is at stake, a bit of silliness can drive the point home more effectively than more gore.

This remains the only Stephenson I’ve read. I really need to rectify that, and suspect I’ll do so with a bit more speed than I took to get around to rereading this one.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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