Jun 26 2009 5:50pm

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.

1. Leviathan
Oopsy! Got Stephenson with a V in it at the end there.

Good comments, anyway! I've yet to read the Cryptonomicon and I keep telling myself I will, and then end up reading something else.

After reading this I am even more motivated to get started. Thanks, Jo!
2. ctopherrun
This is one of favorite books, just because it's so incredibly rich. The first time I read it, I had almost no clue what was going on half the time, b/c Stephenson makes you work for it. I was right there with Shaftoe, trying to make sense of what and why of everything he did. Each time I read it, I manage to pick a few more details, and plus the various sections are written so damn well. Even with a grain of salt, I learned more about greek mythology and platonic philosophy from Randy and Enoch's conversation in prison than anywhere else.

Also: I've applied Enoch's term "morphine-seeky" to my cigarette smoking. Is that a bad thing?
3. GoblinRevolution
Fantastic book by a fantastic writer. Crytonomicon is a prime specimen of that rarest of all beasts: the science fiction/mainstream crossover. While initial sales of Cryptonomicon were indeed driven by fans of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon's popularity in the mainstream was remarkable. Any book store I walk into still has multiple copies of it for sale, and rarely are they shelved in the S/F section!
4. NickPheas
I enjoyed parts of Cryptonomicon an awful lot, but I found parts of it tedious in the extreme. The Shaftoe stuff was my favourite: The idea of a commando unit proving plausible deniability for the Bletchly Park code crackers is brilliant, but all that stuff about people getting hard ons for the public key - private key algorithms... meh.
David Siegel
5. bigscary
Not just the Liebniz gold, Der Liebnizarchiv -- the gold is not just gold, not even just solomonic gold, but it has what Daniel and Liebniz believed was the seed of a thinking machine imprinted upon it. It's credible as an AI seed.
6. Tim w.
's so unlike what you’d think of as a Stephenson character

And so like what you'd think of as a Pynchon character.

I enjoyed Cryptonomicon a lot, but its debt to Gravity's Rainbow is a bit too much for comfort.
Stefan Raets
7. Stefan
You just got me so excited with those hints of a far-future sequel!
8. Quercus
One of my favourite books. My copy of the Arrow 2000 paperback is battered and curled and the spine is starting to go. I'm even prepared to forgive the crappy reproductions of the diagrams of the Bundok tunnels.

That said, the first time I read Cryptonomicon I got to the end and thought "oh...all that and it was just a treasure hunt". Now it's possible to view the end as just another stepping point in the narratives that have led there, and hinted-at consequences will follow.

I think the discursiveness is wonderful - the detours into apparently tangential subjects, the changes of voice and narrative structure, the playing with chronology.

I have a transatlantic flight coming up...I think my in-flight reading is settled.
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
Is Cryptonomicon really his breakout book? For me, it was Snow Crash. It has a killer first chapter, one that grabs and doesn't let go & makes you want to never stop reading. The Diamond Age was a more mature work that won a Hugo, and Cryptonomicon has AFAIK sold the most copies. I heartily love all three.

I'm a bit surprised by how well Cryptonomicon did as I consider it a geeky book about WWII, cryptography & information technology.
Church Tucker
10. Church
Aw frak. My paragraphs of critique just got ate.
Avram Grumer
11. avram
And Andrew Loeb's weird philosophy, where everything in the world is assigned a number, is both an attempt at a John Wilkins-like philosophical language, and a parallel to the golden punchcards in the Leibniz Archive.
rick gregory
13. rickg
Hmm, I'll need to try this one again. It seemed to indulge his passion for crypto and crypto related things too much for me.
14. EmmetAOBrien
I have heard it argued that Anathem might be indirectly that far-future-sort of sequel, and that the explanation for the Solomonic gold's unusual physical properties is that it originates in a different universe.
Sumana Harihareswara
15. brainwane
I love this book. It's constitutive in my identity -- themes, lines, characters, scenes. In retrospect it shaped my career.

Looks like I've mentioned Cryptonomicon in my blog a bunch of times. One observation y'all might find amusing:

I read Midnight's Children. I read Cryptonomicon. And now I've read Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. And now I say to you that a modern author who dazzles you with his witty, ultra-literate prose in a novel of over 500 pages will, without fail, cop out with a wholly inadequate ending. Argh! Such promising introductions and such jaw-droppingly disappointing conclusions, or absences thereof. It's like they're all Kevin Smith.
seth johnson
16. seth
Can someone behind the scenes of this website make a view where I can see a list containing all of Jo Walton's blog posts? I have tried and failed to find a way of seeing all her book reviews on this site. I keep wanting to create a list of her suggested readings to take with me to the library.


Tzut Tzut
17. WillieMcBride
Fantastic book. I read it three years ago and I was completely fascinated. Cryptography, history, mathematics, the division of the Waterhouse inheritance through a parking lot and the cleaver application of a variant of the knapsack algorithm is one of my favorite book scenes.

Just yesterday I finally ordered the three Baroque Cycle books.
Patrick Garson
18. patrickg
I did enjoy this, but can't help but feel Stephenson is slowly succumbing to the megalomania that swallows up more than one male American writer; ever larger books for ever lower benefit.

I see the seeds of it in Cryptonomicon, in some of the didactic, almost hectoring digressions, and I always, always feel his female characters are woeful on the whole. It has retrospectively tainted my enjoyment of this one a little.
Soon Lee
19. SoonLee
seth @16:
Great idea! I second that request, some sort of index page, but not just for Jo's posts, but for all the bloggers. Their user profile pages list all their comments a.k.a conversations but there's no way easy index to articles they have posted. The tags don't work for this purpose, the closest being the "re-reading" tag. It lists all the articles that are re-reads, which is what Jo has been doing with these entries. Kate Nepveu & Leigh Butler are also posting about re-reads but it's trivial to tell them apart from Jo; the authors of the articles are included in the tag view.

ETA: Actually, there is a way, it's just not that obvious. If you click on the link of Jo as blogger ( on the frontpage left sidebar " bloggers", it'll list all blog posts by the listed person.
Soon Lee
20. SoonLee
patrickg @18:
I kind of agree with you about bigger books not necessarily being better. There's a telling comment in this A.V. Club inverview:

AVC: Do you think about accessibility when you're writing? Do you worry about whether readers will be able to keep up?

NS: Anathem is about as far as I'm willing to go in the direction of asking the reader to bear with me.

Me, I reached that limit with the Baroque Cycle, which IMO is a mighty work exploring the origins of the world & society in which we live today, but a flawed masterpiece.

I love Stephenson's writing, even the infodumps & the awkward endings. But with "Anathem", the impact of the BIG IDEA of that story (and it is a [b]BIG IDEA) was lessened by having to slog my way to it.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
SoonLee: I'm the opposite. I was willing to put up with the idiocy of the BIG IDEA in Anathem because I enjoyed the journey so much.
Tony Zbaraschuk
22. tonyz
I love everything of Stephenson's I've ever read. I agree his endings are lousy, but reading him is more about the journey than the destination.
Soon Lee
23. SoonLee
bluejo @21:
For me, in "Cryptonomicon", the proportion of 'outrageous story:geeky infodumps:characterisation' was just right. It rocked.

There were parts in "Anathem" that I loved, but overall, it was too long with too much talking heads. Too much of it read like a text on philosophy. I wanted more fiction book, less text book.
Brendon Roberts
24. saunterasmas
From EmmetAOBrien:
"I have heard it argued that Anathem might be indirectly that far-future-sort of sequel, and that the explanation for the Solomonic gold's unusual physical properties is that it originates in a different universe."

This is a great point.

Stephenson is my favourite author.

I have liked all of his endings except the the last epilogue of "System of the World". No spoilers, but it removed all of mystery of the situation.
Tim Nolan
25. Dr_Fidelius
I'm halfway through this book at the moment. After 50 pages I was hooked and delighted; after 150 I was grumbling about being jerked away from Lawrence Waterhouse; after 550 I'm wondering if this thing is ever going to end. There's a lot of great writing here, it's just...well, there is an awful lot of it. It's a terrific story, but does it really need 900 pages? I don't know that 'complex' describes it so well as 'overstuffed'. On the other hand there is the strong possibility that I'm just not smart enough to pick up on everything.

It's not even the nerdy digressions that bug me, it's the whole modern-day storyline. I just don't care about Randy, especially when I'm dragged away from an exciting U-boat chase to read about a presentation to his investors. Can I just have some more crypto stuff?

I really look forward to reading more of Stephenson's work, but not of this length.
April Vrugtman
26. dwndrgn
I've heard good about this book from everyone and truly enjoyed the Baroque Cycle. I suppose I will just have to get over my hesitation (I really dislike anything to do with WWI and WWII, couldn't really tell you why) and just read it already. And I suppose I'll have to add Anathem to my list too. Sigh.
Herb Schaltegger
27. LameLefty
I read Cryptonomicon when it was released (I have it in hardback somewhere in a box) and recently reread it on my Kindle just a few months ago after finishing the Baroque Cycle and Anathem. I love Love LOVE Stephenson - if you can't slog through the info dumps and the long dialogs and the semi-absurdisms ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo." ~ Enoch Root) then fine, but my goodness can the man play with really Big Ideas like no one else writing today. I personally don't think Anathem is the "far future" sequel to the Baroque Cycle, but perhaps it is. Maybe this summer I will re-read it again while I wait (endlessly) for "A Dance With Dragons" from GRRM, and Sanderson's first volume of "the last book" of WoT. In any event, Stephenson is certainly not a "mass market" kind of guy (well, to be fair, even Stephen King isn't always "mass market" material when he stretches his brain). Stephenson makes you THINK as a reader if you want to get fully appreciate what you're reading, and that's not something people who are addicted to "Plot-with-a-capital-P" are often interested in. I mean, sometimes you just want a good story and that's great, but Stephenson is rarely if ever just that.
28. Maviscruet
I'd still say that the ending of cryptonomicon is weak - I lend it to people warning them it's great but he just does not do endings that well.

I find my self reading and reading this and the boroque and anathem over and over again.
Soon Lee
29. SoonLee
Actually, I don't mind his endings. They aren't great in terms of traditional story closure, but I think that they work if you consider (as I do) that stories never end; the writer just picks a spot for us readers to leave the characters.

After all, fairytales end with "happily after ever", but what does that mean exactly? Because, it's not like they stop living, they still experience events, it's just that we (as readers) no longer get to know about them.
30. jlms
I should re-read it. I read it when it was fairly new and enjoyed it vey much, but my memory of it has grown a bit dim. I do remember being annoyed about some details that slightly spoiled the realism -- yes, I know, it's fantastic fiction so nobody expects perfect realism, but introducing tides in the Baltic Sea is the wrong kind of unrealistic in my opinion. As is using fictional place names that don't work in the language of the country. I don't think those things were deliberate deviations from reality -- I think they were oversights, and that annoyed me.

But I think those details have become too magnified in my memory, and I know I did like the book. So I should read it again.
Jo Walton
31. bluejo
JLMS: Qwghlm annoyed me until I read the Baroque Cycle, and then I figured if Kinakuta didn't annoy me I should just get over it.
David Dyer-Bennet
32. dd-b
I've read Snow Crash and this one, and am now quite thoroughly convinced that I do not have to read any more Stephenson. He's all secret history, conspiracy theory, and so forth -- the worst parts of where mainstream overlaps SF. He's totally lacking in sensawunda and likable characters. SO not for me!

Also I have STILL not forgiven him for the name of the main character of Snow Crash, which made reading that book a terrible slog (I never did stop wincing).
Soon Lee
33. SoonLee
Wow, given your feelings about Neal Stephenson & Iain Banks' writing, two of my favourite writers, I'm curious about the writers & books that you do like.

For more data points, what are your feelings about Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Kage Baker & Charles Stross, to name a few more of my favourite writers?
34. jsut
jack stole the gold.
daniel punched holes in it and shipped it to liebniz.
goring gathered it for rudy
then it sank in a sub.
doug amy and randy salvaged the sub.
then put it in a vault in kinakuta in toms basement.
do you think the story of the gold is finished?
Jo Walton
35. bluejo
JSUT: That looks like a very weird nursery rhyme. No, I don't think the story of the gold is finished, and I would very much like to know more of it.

Now would be good.

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