Characters and cryptography: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson started out writing Snow Crash and other post-cyberpunk idea-heavy techno-SF. Cryptonomicon was his breakout book, and though it was nominated for a Hugo some people said it wasn’t SF at all. It’s set partly in the near future (of 1999) and partly in the Second World War, and all of the technology in the modern section pretty much existed at the time the book was written. It is in fact definitely a genre work and arguably fantasy, but to really know that you have to also have read the Baroque Cycle, which is set much earlier in the same universe.

The stories and characters dovetail and interlock cleverly, it has the kind of wonderful exposition that’s Stevenson’s trademark, and unlike his earlier work it actually has an end. The characters in the WWII sections are the fathers and grandfathers (yeah, not so many women) of the characters in the modern sections, and so you sometimes know what will happen to the characters without knowing how it will happen.

I mean it is a nerdy book full of infodumps about anything and everything, but the joy of Cryptonomicon is its wonderfully satisfying complexity, and also the surprisingly well-drawn characters. They’re very different from each other and I like all of them.

The four main POV characters are two computer nerds (grandfather and grandson), one marine who can terrify his superiors by saying “Sir, yes sir!” and a Japanese mining engineer. The incidental beauty of the convolutions of detail and plot is what mesmerised me the first couple of times I read this book, but I keep coming back to it to hang out with the characters. I’m especially fond of the marine, Bobby Shaftoe, who is addicted to morphine and spends large chunks of the book trying to figure out what he’s doing while touring the hot spots of WWII. He’s so unlike what you’d think of as a Stephenson character, but he’s so great, and so essential to the whole pattern of the book.

There’s only one continuing character in both time periods, and that character, Enoh Root, was also around in the Baroque Cycle, which is set during the Enlightenment. Re-reading Cryptonomicon after the Baroque Cycle, it’s easy to see the huge number of links backwards it has. (Eliza Peak, the Leibniz gold, and the ancestors of minor as well as major characters.) Yet none of that feels unnecessary to Cryptonomicon, and if what Enoch Root was doing with the cigar box is clearer in Cryptonomicon once you know what he was doing with it there, I never had a problem with it in the first place. I still have far more questions than answers about Enoch. (One of the most burning ones is: if that is alchemy, the philosopher’s stone gold, then is it fantasy or science fiction?)

Stephenson has said that his intention was to have the Enligtenment stuff balanced by a far-future volume, and this time through, I can see things he may have been doing to set that up. It would certainly have descendants of Randy and Amy, but it could have (and clarify the mystery of) Enoch Root. It could also have as characters the Eutropians—John Cantrell and Tom Howard and Pekka, the Finn Who Was Blown Up, who all have bracelets explaining how they are to be frozen. John and Tom “expect to be having conversations a hundred thousand years from now” and I wonder if we’ll see those in a future volume? It seems to be exactly the kind of thing Stevenson would do.

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