Book Review: Cryptonomicon


I haven’t reviewed a book here for a while for two main reasons, or rather, two long books I’ve been reading. In May I started the Millennium Trilogy (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) and once I wrapped those up in July, I began Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which, since I got it as a Kindle book, I had’t noticed it was so long until I’d been reading it for two weeks and only hit the 50% mark! Nevertheless, I persevered, and I’m here to talk to you about Cryptonomicon today.

If you ever thought there really should be a book that was part WWII alternative history/historical fiction, part late-90s computer hacker story, and part treasure-hunting tale, this will be your ideal book. If you’re like me and never conceptualized those things going together, I’d wager you’d be surprised at how well they do.

Cryptonomicon is a sprawling narrative that spans 50-odd years and the complicated intersections of the lives of characters, past and present. Each chapter generally alternates between past and present action focused around several main characters. The present action is filtered almost entirely through the book’s protagonist, Randy, while past events have several main characters. Although Randy is intended to be the protagonist, I honestly found him to be one of the least interesting and least well written characters in the story. If he’s not a self-insert character, he definitely reads as one.

Given the number of topics addressed, Cryptonomicon is a very dense book, with passages that go off on long explanations of cryptoanalysis, mythology, technology and mathematics, not to mention detailed knowledge of both the Pacific and European fronts of WWII. Despite this, the story moves along at a great pace that sometimes falters, but sometimes crackles. The narrative format reminded me a bit of the later Lord of the Rings books, in that as soon as you get really involved in one set of characters’ actions, the next chapter takes you off somewhere else. Kind of maddening, but it keeps you going. Maybe it’s my fault for not expecting this in a technically-geared story, but the most unexpected pleasure of Cryptonomicon is its writing style. Although some information-heavy passages can be dry, the book also has many analogies that struck me with their aptness or descriptions that made me smile.

Here, I have to stop and admit that I started writing this review before I finished the book, although it only turned out to be a chapter prematurely. In the last chapter, the modern-day narrative totally falls flat, reminiscent my own attempts to write detailed short stories, only to end up realizing I only had a page and a half left before my word limit and still needed to write the climax. Several revelations I was really looking forward to are told in a second-hand perfunctory kind of way, and no real ramifications of the plot’s final revelations are discussed. It’s still a solid and enjoyable story, but you’ll be disappointed if you’re looking forward to a big ah-ha! moment at the end. I did think that the WWII-era narrative wrapped up well and somewhat wistfully, answering the majority of my questions.

Now, lest you be fooled by all the good things I’ve had to say so far, there’s one thing that I absolutely loathed about it – the author’s weird obsession with male sexual fulfillment. I mean, much of literature is filtered through male sexuality, but often times in an artistically-valid or meritorious way. But when both main characters often lapse into painful-to-read navel gazing centered on their own orgasms I’m hard put to not find them pathetic. I think if men in general were stymied by dry spells as much as Crypotomicon’s protagonists seem to be, civilization would have crumbled long before WWII.

So yeah, when Stephenson’s view of women* seems to alternate between them pretty much being nothing more than sperm receptacles and his “bitches be crazy, amirite?” treatment of Amy, it’s hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend the book. As an avid reader/writer I find it ridiculously pointless from a narrative standpoint, and, as a woman, I wish a lifetime of involuntary celibacy of anyone who’s as crappy a lover as these guys seem to be.

Although that soured me to several characters somewhat, overall I enjoyed the book immensely, between its engaging plot, good writing, and the breadth of subjects it covers. I had to share my disagreements for the sake of honesty (and well, frankly it was also cathartic), but if you have any interest in any of the subjects the book tackles, I’d recommend you at least give it a try.

*Granted, this book was written 15 years ago, so it’s possible that this views of women have become a bit less sophomoric.


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