Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

After what seems like about four years, I have finally finished Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon.

To be fair to Mr Stephenson, the fact that the book dragged wasn't because it wasn't an engaging read, but simply because it was over 900 pages long. By anyone's standards, that's a long old read. The fact that I was even prepared to invest so many hours in reading the book at all is, in itself, quite a compliment, particularly given that I usually value precise and concise writing above all else.

Cryptonomicon is not, as many people seem to think it is, a sci-fi novel. It's actually a partly historical adventure story involving several plot threads, some set in the Second World War and some in the late 1990s, which are intertwined by various family connections - the grandparents of the present day characters are the principal characters in the WWII storylines - and by the single unifying theme of cryptology. In the 1940s, socially-awkward American mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse works for the Allies as a code-breaker, and in the 1990s, his hacker-geek grandson Randy is one of the founders of a company that seeks to create a 'data haven' for encrypted information in a fictional sultanate near the Phillipines. In the other 40s thread, gung-ho young Marine Bobby Shaftoe, fuelled by morphine and benzedrine, strives to be reunited with Glory, the Filipina mother of his son, while the war against the Japanese rages around him. In the present day, Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his daughter Amy become involved with Randy Waterhouse through -

Nope, sorry. It's all just too complicated to explain. But rest assured that this is one of those novels where everyone and everything are interlinked, and the connections just keep suddenly revealing themselves, with more and more parts of the puzzle clicking into place as the novel progresses - rather like the Axis codes being gradually cracked piece by piece by the Bletchley Park code-breakers. This is a novel in which many, many things happen, some of them small, some of them monumentally huge, and only some of them prove to have any significance. Such is Stephenson's writing style that often, the things of no significance are allotted several pages of description. Is this frustrating? Well, yes, sometimes. But I think that the many people who have reviewed this novel on Amazon and complained about the fact that Stephenson devotes pages and pages of this novel to events which prove to have no relevance to the plot are entirely missing the point. This is a book all about information, about cyphers, about the long and painstaking fight to pick out what matters and what doesn't to decipher codes and decrypt data and to crack randomly-generated algorithms. This theme is expressed not just through the story itself, but in the way that Stephenson has chosen to relate it.

Moreover, there is probably no point whatsoever in reading this book if you have no interest at all in maths. Oddly, I do have an interest in maths, despite having little aptitude for it. I got a B in my maths GCSE, which was my worst exam result, and I never studied another page of maths again. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't fascinate me. I like maths in the same way that I like music - I appreciate its brilliance, but am well aware that fundamentally, I lack any innate ability to create it or even to understand why it produces the results it does. Consequently, I was quite happy to read many, many pages of Stuff About Maths and Stuff About Codes. Plenty of readers wouldn't be, though, and it was a bold move to include that amount of detail in the novel.

Other flaws... well, for me, I spent a large part of the book not giving a damn about Randy and his colleagues and their business venture, even when their situation became life-threatening. I don't like techno-thrillers, and I didn't like Randy much, either. Moreover, Randy's romance with Amy Shaftoe, a marine technician whose family business is employed to lay submarine cables for Randy's employer, is possibly the least convincing love story I've ever read in my life, albeit a charitable piece of wish-fulfilment fantasy for every male reader who is a fat geek (and my guess is fat male geeks make up a large percentage of this novel's readership. By reading this book, I probably cranked up its female readership to, oh, about eight? And of those eight, I'd be willing to bet that I'm the only one who wears make-up, likes clothes and has a decent haircut).

However, both the WWII plot threads were extremely gripping and full of all the warmth and humanity that was lacking for much of the 1990s thread - particularly the Lawrence Waterhouse storyline, which was by far my favourite of the three.. Waterhouse, a gentle, kind but close-to-autistic genius, is a brilliant creation and his was the story that interested me the most (although possibly, I'm biased, because Waterhouse's story thread features the real-life character of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who cracked the Enigma code at Bletchley, without which we'd never have won the war, and was one of the fathers of modern computing. Turing is a huge hero of mine. Huge. One day I will post an entry here expounding his brilliance and lamenting the tragedy of his death by suicide at great length, but not today).

Overall, Cryptonomicon was packed with adventure, humour (I laughed out loud in several places - there's a Catch-22 feel to a lot of the war-time aspects of the story), tension, dizzying mathematical theory, fascinating insights, rambling digressions, oddball characters and occasionally, harrowing horrors. There was still a lot wrong with it, and yes, even taking into account my defence of the red herrings, it's undoubtedly too long and the modern-day plot dragged considerably at the start. But I don't feel that I wasted my time, and, while the chances of me reading Stephenson's sci-fi novels are slim, I will definitely be starting Quicksilver, the first novel in his historical Baroque trilogy*, which is apparently a prequel in some ways to Cryptonomicon.

*According to Wikipedia, the Baroque trilogy has now been published in the US as eight separate books instead of three. Here in the UK, though, it still appears to be three. I don't see why British readers would be any more willing to read three 900 page novels than American ones, but never mind.


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