Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 19, 2000

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

The discussion of Neal Stephenson’s recent Hugo-nominated novel drew a crowd of sixteen, including two first-time attendees. Cryptonomicon is a complex and long novel (over 900 pages) with several plot threads taking place during World War II and in our present day. Topics explored in this book include code breaking, haiku, pipe organs, early computers, ballroom dancing, Internet startups, dental care, conspiracies, and the proper way to eat breakfast cereal. The WWII segments primarily follow two Americans: Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematician involving in breaking Japanese and German codes; and Bobby Shaftoe, a tough and competent Marine who travels all over the world pulling off near-impossible missions for the Allies. The present-day sections of the book largely follow the adventures of Lawrence’s grandson, Randy, a gifted computer programmer involved in a high-tech startup company in the Philippines.

We found this book to be a fascinating and engaging reading experience. We were initially intimidated by the book’s size, but soon grew deeply involved in the story. All of the characters were interesting and fun to read about, from the fictional creations to the several historical figures (including Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, and a cameo by a future president). We appreciated the author’s willingness to go into great technical detail in the segments involving code breaking and computer programming, and we were impressed that Stephenson’s writing was so passionate that the technical content was enjoyable. The prose in the WWII sections seemed to be patterned after the styles of popular writers of the era (particularly Hemingway), which we found to be a nice touch. The book is full of wonderful asides (tuning a pipe organ, a bizarre algorithm for a family to divide up inheritances, a letter to Penthouse, etc.) that may not have been strictly necessary to the plot, but we enjoyed them immensely. The densely woven plot is impossible to describe, but we enjoyed putting the pieces together and many people had already read the book twice.

We only had minor criticisms. One person felt the detail in the code-breaking sequences was excessive and repetitious. A couple of people found the ending was a little abrupt.

Overall we liked Cryptonomicon immensely. The plot, writing style, and setting are all wonderful, and the book has much to reward the careful reader. Most of us plan to reread this book soon.

— A. T. Campbell, III