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Hidden Treasures: Cryptonomicon

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Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is a marvelous roller-coaster ride through code-making and breaking, with a side order of treasure-hunting, twenty-first-century style. Stephenson has a powerful way of including the reader in some pretty abstruse stuff, making us feel, not just as if we might understand these topics, but as if we do.

This is not a weekend read for the beach, unless you’re willing to stay in a darkened hotel room, geek-wise, ignoring the volleyball competition in favor of the effort. The reward is a generation-spanning hunt for meaning in the signal, value in the data. Richly designed, with Innis-mode-like shifts in time, place and POV, the story itself is signal-laden.

Stephenson says Cryptonomicon is not prerequisite for his Baroque Cycle (beginning with Quicksilver), but I think you miss more than one flavorful nuance by jumping straight to the hefty code-and-signal involvement of Quicksilver. This is science fiction in the same way that the early James Bond novels were, speculation wrapped in current events, then tossed just over the line into next week. Look for investment in data havens.

An excellent review by Wes Unruh can be found at The Green Man Review site.

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About DrPat

  • this is one of those books that i just could not get into.

    at about the 250 page point, my mind was screaming “will you just get on with it?!!”

    your mileage may vary (heck, a good friend of mine recommended the book to me as one of the best things he’d ever read).

  • There is no doubt this is a -rich- novel – I think that may be due to Innis-mode, because the other intensely-Innis writer in my library, John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, shares that same feeling of wading into the data-pool.

    It can produce overload! The first time I began to read Cryptonomicon, I set it down twice, once for three months. But I had read and enjoyed Stephenson’s The Big U, so I persevered.

  • a long time ago i would have forced my way though the book. but the last time i did that was with Gravity’s Rainbow…which i sort of enjoyed, and sort of wished i hadn’t wasted three weeks on it.

  • I haven’t read any Pynchon, so I can’t reply to that book specifically. But after reading some of the reviews, I wonder if his work is also in the “Innis-mode” camp.

    Chacun á son gout. It’s hard to enjoy a book that makes you work too hard, unless puzzling out the interrelationships is part of the experience. I believe Cryptonomicon is designed to satisfy the very code-breaking and puzzle-solving bent that draws readers to this novel in the first place.

  • Nick Jones

    “Innis-mode”? Explain, please.

  • I actually realized I had been using this term without explanation in my critiques, so I posted an entire item about it: Innis Mode and the Internet. It’s in the Books column.

  • DrPat – Thanks for posting the hyperlink (ha ha) to the Innis post as I was wondering the same thing myself.

    Thanks for this pithy and concise review. Stephenson has been on the periphery of my authors “to check out” list for quite some time. Looks as though I’ll need to clear away a chunk of mind-space and energy to give him a shot, but it looks like it very well might be worth the effort. Thanks, too, for calling this book out as the one to read before diving into The Baroque Cycle.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • The secret to enjoying this book is to not worry too much about following the plot. Stephenson obviously doesn’t worry too much about it, or how could he leave it hanging wide open for a thousand pages?

    I enjoyed this book as a series of very clever vignettes, and the fact that they happened to knit together very neatly was just an added bonus.

    It’s not really as long as it seems: it’s divided up into very edible bite-size chunks.

    My favorite scene is where he discovers the principal of digital computing while playing the pipe organ.

  • I really liked the book, but it seemed to me the world war 2 stuff was far stronger than the modern day (or I suppose near future) stuff.

    I think you could make a great adventure movie out of the world war 2 stuff, the modern stuff didn’t really catch on for me until they get to the part where they physically try to lay their hands on the treasure.

  • Yah, for the modern day stuff you kinda have to keep in mind that the book is already ancient by computing standards.

  • Like the alchemist, one of his other books, the old is mixed with the new.

    This book is a page turner, and although some of the modern day stuff, might be old by computing standards but still intresting. It would be a good movie, but to tell the story it might have to be 3 hours long.

  • The Theory

    Ah, what a fantastic read. It took me a while… but was also a book I could sit down and breeze though 100 pages at a sit. I loved how Stephenson educated while he entertained.

  • gonzo marx

    personally 8i loved the Book..but then again i really like the Author and have read everything he has put out so far…am in the middle of the Baroque cycle right now (halfway thru Confusion)ch a huge tome include..

    Snowcrash – cyber adventure that picks up where Gibson leaves off

    Zodiac – right now, eco-warrior in Boston harbor..much fun adventure here

    Diamond Age – true sci-fi that takes place some years after snowcrash in the same “world”

    read em…enjoy em..

    so sayeth yer gonzo!


  • I’ve reread this book three times now, and each time it gets better. Snowcrash, on the other hand, is a snoozer now that I’ve read it once.

    I also posted a second commentary on the book (about sexual codes) at my own blog, but did not include it here, because it might act as a spoiler. If you’ve already read the book, though, feel free to check it out.

  • While this is an excellent book, the Baroque Cycle is even better!! Neil Stephenson may be the best author of our time; comperable to Eco, Nabakov, Pynchon and other greats. He is certainly versitle ranging from science fiction to historical fiction and has even written nonfiction (In The Begining Was The Command Line). For those who have not read his work, the ecothriller, Zodiac and scifi Snow Crash are excellent. But Quicksilver, The Confusion and A System of the World are his best works.

  • I would agree that the Baroque Cycle is better, if for no other reason than that there is more of it. That delays the depressing moment when you have to come back to reality.

    HOWEVER – Cryptonomicon is more accessible, as a novel, and much more enticing in its subject than the (admit it!) truly abstruse Cycle. Some will enjoy both – but a lot more people will read and love Cryptonomicon than will ever open the aptly-named second volume of the Cycle, Confusion.

  • To enjoy Stephenson, focus on character, not plot. The plots are there, often dense and rewarding in their own way, but they are not always structured to satisfy the standard “rising action” / “climax” / “falling action” convention.

    His characters are where his talents really shine through. In his earliest works I’ve read, Zodiac and Snow Crash, the characters are richly detailed, but still slightly flat. In Cryptonomicon his characters emerge into the third dimension, becoming less easily admired in the heroic sense, but more fully human.

    In the Baroque Cycle (at least, in the first volume, which is still all I’ve read so far) the characters become so intricately fascinating one could almost call them four-dimensional.

    Of course there is a tradeoff for this change in focus. Snow Crash is heavy on action. Things happen. Events quickly carry the plot-driven reader through its thickets of dense exposition. In the later books, things still happen, but not as quickly. These books reward the character-driven reader with a rich portrayal of complex human beings, which may leave the plot-driven reader impatient for new twists and turns of circumstance.

    A reader who cannot master this impatience may not be able to enjoy these later books as deeply as one who has learned to savor development of fully realized characters.

  • Maybe that’s why – although I enjoyed it on first read – Snowcrash doesn’t tempt me to revisit.

  • Focusing on a guy named Hiro Protagonist makes Snow Crash a great sendup of the cyberpunk subgenre’s conventions, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the character depth needed to reward repeated readings.

    The Diamond Age is better in that regard, but Cryptonomicon is where Stephenson first displays mastery of substantially deeper character development.

    I’m about due for a reread of Cryptonomicon, come to think of it. It’s been several years. I probably would have reread it already by now, had I a copy in my tiny personal library.

  • The Theory

    I agree with Victor Plenty. It was characters that made Cryptonomicon a great read. Those are my favorite kinds of books… where there is a lot more focus on character than plot. Look at Martha Grimes, whos books I adore. They’re mysteries… but the mystery always takes second place to just having fun following the characters around. Some of her books don’t even really HAVE a plot to speak of. Good stuff.

  • I think Stephenson has pretty well established himself as the author of the information age.