Neil Stephenson created a rich vision of a dysfunctional future in Snow Crash, but he really proves his mettle in Cryptonomicon. A departure from his earlier science fiction writing, Cryptonomicon is a historic fiction with several parallel storylines that eventually weave together in the present day. So is it worth the 1000+ pages?
As you might expect, Cryptonomicon deals heavily with cryptography, as it was used in WWII and today in encryption. I consider myself a pragmatic mathematician; I use math only when it serves a useful purpose. Some of Cryptonomicon’s characters frame their entire world view in the context of mathematics. Think of happiness expressed as an equation, and you’ll have a sense for the inner workings of their mind. Even so, it was fascinating to see their minds at work, combining math, statistical analysis and psychology to win the war (or make a killing in the business world).
Before your eyes glaze over at the thought of algorhythmic analysis, let me be perfectly clear: Stephenson is a fantastic story teller. Using historic events as a backdrop provides context. You draw from your own knowledge of that era, and he adds a level of detail that reminds me of Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton. The varied characters provide a multi-faceted view of the same events — the Nipponese soldier that can’t be killed; the renegade German U-boat commander; the organ-playing, code-breaking math wiz; the mysterious priest/chaplain; and cameos by everyone from Alan Turing to General Douglas MacArthur.
I loved it. A good book, and worth reading. I have only two reservations in giving it my unequivocal recommendation. First, it’s a guy’s book from a guy’s point of view. The women of Cryptonomicon are largely ornaments decorating the lives of the men whom the story revolves around. This didn’t bother me, but it’s a little disappointing that we didn’t get to know what makes the women in the story tick.
Secondly, the ending is abrupt. It felt as though Neil was faced with a publisher’s ultimatum: finish the book, or else. So he finished it. I was disappointed with how the final chapter wraps everything up so quickly and neatly. Once you’ve read it, you’ll know precisely what I mean.
In spite of the abrupt ending, I still strongly recommend the book. It made me want to read more of Stephenson’s work.