Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

May 9, 2020

51XM13WNJGL._AC_UY218_     I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while, because I remember really enjoying it first time around, but also to see if Neal Stephenson stands up to a second reading, which I had my doubts about: Seveneves was a good yarn but I can’t see I’ll ever want to read it again, and I think I feel the same about Anathem. But, I really enjoyed his Baroque cycle and hope I will enjoy getting back to that eventually…

This one’s about code-breaking and the science of cryptography in general, with strands woven around the real-life Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, and the code-breaking efforts in the Second World War and a plot that involves finding an enormous gold cache supposedly hidden by the Nazis and the Japanese somewhere in the Philippines as they were losing the war. That strand takes place in the 1990s and involves the descendants of the participants in the wartime strand of the story; it’s also the plot-line which has dated rather, given the enormous progresses in computing and related technology since then.

The disquisitions on computing and cryptography are interesting and well-written, as those aspects of a Stephenson novel invariably are: he’s not afraid to attempt to educate his readers in passing, and those not in want of such education can skim-read for a few pages. He becomes even more interesting when he explores the notion that if you have broken an enemy’s codes and can therefore take evasive actions, that enemy will eventually be able to deduce that you have broken his codes and so do something about that… unless you can lay false trails so that he cannot be sure. Then it all gets a great deal more complicated.

It’s a pretty gripping yarn, and the key characters are very well created, fleshed out and developed; we grow to like them and become attached to them in a way that doesn’t always happen in this kind of (almost) science-fiction. There’s also a really good sense of place developed, particularly in the sections set during the war. And yet, in the end, I couldn’t get away from a feeling that it was just a little bit too wordy and long-winded this time around: a good story and entertaining characters, but that was it… a bit self-indulgent at times. I’m being churlish, I know: there’s nothing wrong with a novel being a good one-time read. That’s what it was first time around, and perhaps I should have left it at that.

2 Responses to “Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon”


  1. I think you’re right about Cryptonomicon. I’ve read all his stuff – I was excited by the daring ideas in Snow Crash and was hooked thereafter. He’s an incredibly prolific writer, and I think that on occasions he has lapsed into a simple chase narrative. I too loved the Baroque Cycle – he really showed the scope of his imagination, as well as his research skills, there. I also remember enjoying Interface – his collaboration with J Frederick George back in the 90s. I bought his latest – Fall; or Dodge in Hell – a few months back. It’s vast, as most of his stuff tends to be, and I’m afraid I lost interest after about thirty pages. To be honest, I sometimes think he could do with a more brutal editor.

    I’m enjoying William Gibson’s current stuff very much, though…

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      Now you’ve got me thinking about long novels in general, why they are long & do they need to be, and the market for them… I feel a post coming on in a few days’ time… thanks!

      Like


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