Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Book review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

What Cryptonomicon is:
  • Big - Cryptonomicon is 1100 pages long
  • Complicated - Cryptonomicon has 3 plot lines, set in two different time periods (late 20th century and World War II). It has a dozen major characters and scores of minor characters (including some historical people. There's a brief but hysterical cameo appearance by a very young Ronald Reagan; a not at all funny cameo by Herman Goering and several mentions of Winston Churchill and Admiral Yamamoto. But the main historical person in Cryptonomicon is Alan Turing
  • Funny - there are a lot of humorous bits in Cryptonomicon. Stephenson includes, for example, a long passage on the correct way to eat Captain Crunch cereal (including where the milk should be stored in the refrigerator and what size spoon should be used). Stephenson's portrayal of certain aspects of modernist academic thought is also hysterical.
  • Geeky - One of the main foci of Cryptonomicon is codes. Another is the early development of computers These are geeky subjects. Many of the main characters are brilliant mathematicians or computer programmers.
  • Deep - Stephenson has thoughts on some big subjects, and they are laced throughout Cryptonomicon. Subjects such as the Holocaust (and how to prevent genocide), the nature of love, war, peace, secrecy, how families work and the relationship of individual values to different cultures.

 What Cryptonomicon is not
  • Boring - Neal Stephenson manages to keep Cryptonomicon zipping right along. Reading it is like being on three express trains at once, all headed to the same station.
  • Easy - OK, you probably got that already. Cryptonomicon is not an easy novel. It requires some attention.
  • Science fiction - Although Cryptonomicon is usually shelved with science fiction novels, it really isn't one. Part of it is set in the present day and part in the past; none in the future. None of it involves aliens. And, although science and (especially) technology is certainly a big part of Cryptonomicon it doesn't dominate the book.
Why Cryptonomiconis my favorite novel (or one of them, anyway):
  • I like all the subjects that Cryptonomicon focuses on.
  • I like the way Neal Stephenson keeps things going with the three plotlines.
  • I like the asides and digressions - these may bother some readers of Cryptonomicon, but I think it's just Stephenson having fun. He's incredibly erudite, and it shows, but it never seems like showing off. I think he captures a lot of the nature of his geeky characters,
  • I really like how many of the characters are complex. There are a few truly irredeemable people in Cryptonomicon, and properly so. But most of the characters are complicated - with good points and bad. Like real people.

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