By Shamus Posted Wednesday Feb 27, 2008

Filed under: Nerd Culture 69 comments

Alex has a bit of blasphemy here, where he takes the 1999 best-seller Cryptonomicon to task for a number of various shortcomings. This book is among my very favorites, second only to Lord of the Rings when it comes to reading for enjoyment. It is a long-held tradition among geeks that we have to stand up and defend our treasured books / movies / videogames / TV shows / crossover fanfic when someone else makes disparaging comments about them.

When in school, the tough kids fistfight. The Jocks arm wrestle. The losers try to drink each other under the table. But when nerds compete the ritual usually takes the form of long debates on the merits of Kirk vs. Picard. It’s just the way we’re wired.

He is aware at the outset of just how dangerous his words are:

I realize that a good few of my few good readers are big fans of Neal Stephenson. I do realize that if I say anything against him I'll never be allowed to release any fiction of my own.

He makes many other pointed remarks against the book. He wraps up with this:

I didn't dislike Cryptonomicon; I despaired of its excesses. I don't think that I could force myself through a 900 page book out of sheer masochism. It's just that Cryptonomicon was a heavy trudge that offered many gifts but also many distractions along the way, and I couldn't help but feel a little empty after having consumed the whole.

But the truth is, I can’t really argue with any of his complaints. He runs down the list of shortcomings and some of them are indeed quite bad. The eight pages about the unrelated-to-the-rest-of-the-book couple, one of which had a fetish for stockings and the other had a fetish for antiques? Yeah. That passage was the literary equivalent of a long, awkward silence. Why was that in there again?

I have heard other gripes against the book as well, such as the way Bobby Shaftoe’s story keeps cutting back into flashbacks without warning, leaving you wondering if you accidently skipped a page. Or what about the fact that despite being one of the main characters of the book, we have no idea of what Shaftoe looks like until after the halfway point. Or the part where Lawrence Waterhouse goes riding alone in the Pine Barrens, and the book goes to great pains to describe the scene with such generous use of metaphor that it takes two and a half pages before you realize you have no flaming idea what in the hell is going on or what Waterhouse is seeing.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the book scorned, or at least given low marks. In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking. For me, realizing this is like realizing that the big brother you’ve always idolized is, among his peers, an incredible dork.

Mark makes a good point as well:

The interesting material isn’t buried amongst the mountains of digressions, the interesting material is the mountains of digressions. Without the digressions, the book isn’t nearly as interesting.

Which I think nails it. If you don’t get a thrill reading about Alan Turing riding his bicycle – which is used as an example to demonstrate the basic concepts behind the Enigma device – this this book is going to feel like an odd movie which some geek pauses every five minutes so he can describe the physics behind the stunt you just saw. Cryptonomicon is math porn. The story is serviceable, but mostly used as a vehicle to take us between the snippets of Perl source code, logic theory, and bar graphs. If XKCD is not your cup of tea, (nycot) then Cryptonomicon is probably nycot2.

So it’s perfectly understandable that Alex doesn’t like the book. It just means that, unlike Cryptonomicon, he’s probably sensible and well-adjusted.

(Humorous charts swiped from around various forums. I dunno who made them. Good job, whoever you are.)


From The Archives:

69 thoughts on “Cryptonomicon

  1. khorboth says:

    I also loved the book. I wouldn’t put it as close to LotR as you do, but it was very enjoyable. Having said that, I’ve been very careful who I’ve recommended it to. You’re right, people have to have the right combo of math/history love. Programming is not necessary, I think, but the rest is.

    I found the jumping around and random digressions to be very entertaining, contrary to what the reviewer said. I think one of the big problems would be that he was expecting Snow Crash or something similar. I’m glad I read Crypto first so that I didn’t have that expectation.

  2. Uninverted says:

    Does recognizing your misspelling of Perl make me a complete geek?

  3. Shamus says:

    Nah. It just means I don’t know anything about Perl. (Never tried it myself.)


  4. “Does recognizing your misspelling of Perl make me a complete geek?”
    Nah. I’m basically an artsie, and I noticed it.

    Personally, I enjoyed all the digressions and stuff, but . . .
    I dunno. It’s not that the story wasn’t too amazing. And it’s not that there were lotsa digressions. The thing is that the way the digressions were presented, it gave the impression that you needed to know all this for the story and that the story would somehow give some huge crypto-related payoff. The digressions weren’t just digressions, they were a big buildup. They went with the pretentious massive encryption the main characters used in their communications, which the non-viewpoint main character wanted to stay secret “as long as there is evil in the world” and stuff.
    And after all that, what did it come down to? A big stash of buried treasure. Which was doubly disappointing for me. First, because Cryptonomicon is not exactly the first book about buried treasure; if I want to read about buried treasure, I’ll retrieve my old copy of Treasure Island. Second, because the whole thrust of the book, the whole way the main characters were thinking and what was supposed to make them interesting, was their emphasis on the important stuff being mental, virtual, informational rather than the more obvious physical stuff. So the climax being about GOLD kinda suggests that Stephenson couldn’t come up with anything to back up the whole theme. It’s like he said to himself “Man! I wanted to do a really cool wrapup about neat hypermodern virtual stuff with even neater historical tie-ins to the informational stuff of the past, but I got nothin’. Guess I’ll have them dig up some gold instead.”

    So it’s not that it wasn’t such an amazing story that bothered me per se. It’s that the story in the end basically betrays the whole approach of the book. Frankly, I personally think that one key reason for that is that the whole thesis of information and virtuality ruling is a bit suspect; it’s hard to come up with a convincing and exciting plotline showing how primal they are simply because they aren’t actually. Baseline reality still rules. Enigma was cool, but which would you rather have in a war–armed forces without Enigma, or Enigma without armed forces to make use of its information?
    Cryptonomicon was very clever, and I would have been fine with it as clever. But it tried to give the impression of also being deep and substantial, which it wasn’t. I found that kind of annoying.

  5. Lord_Lothar says:

    Ah, the joys of Cryptonomicon. How I love that book. One thing I’ve noticed is that Neal Stephenson is what you might call a writer of obsessions. If you are not prepared to allow him to indulge in those obsessions, you will find yourself sorely disappointed. However, if you share even one of those obsessions, the whole book is worth it. If you like math and/or history and/or programming and/or philosophy, my god, you have died and gone to heaven with this book. If none of those things are particularly interesting to you, well, this is definitely not the book for you, and you probably should not examine the Baroque Cycle (which is like Cryptonomicon that goes up to 11!)

  6. I might have enjoyed the book more if I had happened upon it in high school, but I first tried to read the Cryptonomicon in the last semester of my master’s program in computer science. Which for me, turned the “digressions” into the tedious part, and I’ll definitely confirm that what’s left is mostly a mishmash of stuff of little interest.

    Obviously, not everybody feels that way, and I’m totally cool with that.

    Similarly, Godel, Escher, Bach wasn’t a mind-blower for me, as I read it around the same time. However, it remains an interesting work of art even so, surviving this issue. (Plus, you can actually get through to the end without much hassle; apparently that’s a problem for a lot of people.)

  7. Shamus says:

    I tried Baroque Cycle, but I couldn’t get through the first book. I hated most of the characters. Daniel Waterhouse was the most likeable fellow in the thing, but he couldn’t carry me through the book himself. Everyone inhabited a world that was brutal, ugly, and unjust. Realistic, yes. But it wasn’t any fun for me.

  8. Lord_Lothar says:

    I actually found myself gravitating towards Baroque Cycle in part because it also tapped into another of my obsessions, namely the historical feud between Newton and Leibniz. When Old Daniel Waterhouse refers to himself as a “monadologist,” I was completely sold on the whole thing. I have a difficult time being purely objective towards Neal Stephenson, in part because his books seem to have a tendency to tap into the very things that make me tick.

  9. refugee says:

    I must come to the defense of the infamous stocking-obsession digression, on two grounds:

    1. You idiots, it’s about stockings. Jeez. Half the pictures in my 4chan folder I rather enjoy stockings myself.

    2. More to the point, it’s another example of hacking: identifying what appears to be a flaw in the system, and exploiting it to meet goals beyond those popularly accepted as appropriate.

    As for Shaftoe’s flashbacks: I’ve always interpreted them as reflecting Shaftoe’s moment-to-moment experience. If they’re distracting and confusing to read, that’s because they were distracting and confusing to Shaftoe himself.

    (But then, when I first read Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest back in 7th grade, I thought it was SF, because I took the narrator’s hallucinations as accurate reporting. Later, when I learned better, I lost interest.)

    Cryptonomicon is absolutely one of my favorite repeat reads.

  10. Craig says:

    Damn, now I am going to have to pull that monster down from the shelf and have another read through. That sucker was a pain to lug around the first time.

    Wish I had Overlord minions to hold it up..or children.

  11. Mike Lundy says:

    I loved Cryptonomicon. It’s the literary form of “It’s the journey, not the destination”. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of the Baroque Cycle, but I haven’t finished it yet because every chapter or so I have to look up some bit of history. Great for my education, not so great for actually finishing the books. The density and required context make them really hard to read in small bursts.

  12. Taellosse says:

    How weird must I be that I am most emphatically not a math geek (though undoubtedly many other kinds of geek), but I like both XKCD (at least 2/3 of the time, anyway–when it makes actual math jokes, I most often miss the humor because I don’t get the math) and Cryptonomicon (not as much as some of Stephensen’s other books, but I rather enjoyed the parallel storylines in the past and present converging, and some of the characters were legitimately interesting)?

  13. zthumser says:

    I actually disliked it for the exact reasons I was supposed to love it.
    I’m supposed to love it for the math/history, right?
    Well, as for the history, the parts of it that I independently knew – I already knew. The parts of it I didn’t already know – I couldn’t be sure if it was actual history or creative license, as we’re talking about a fiction writer here.
    As for the math, every time he started in on the math discussions and I thought it was about to actually get interesting, he stopped the instant he finished introducing the subject. It was just a tease.
    Likewise with the cryptography.
    I suspect I would’ve enjoyed this book much, much more if I’d read it when I was 14. I think maybe I missed my chance to love this book. As it is, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never made it more than halfway through.
    Too high or too low, I can’t be sure, but I seem to have missed the just-geeky-enough mark for this book.

  14. Bogan the Mighty says:

    “For me, realizing this is like realizing that the big brother you've always idolized is, among his peers, an incredible dork.”

    So you are saying here that you feel like Dan?

  15. Katy says:

    Craig, have you considered getting an e-book edition of Cryptonomicon? It would be easier on the wrists.

    And now I’m tempted to haul out my copy again, too. Or maybe I’ll take another stab at the Baroque cycle an see if I can figure out why it just didn’t do it for me the first time I tried reading it.

  16. Will says:

    The largest collection of those charts I’ve run across is here. I’ve seen a few non-rap related ones around as well.

  17. Tim W. says:

    On the one hand, it’s highly enjoyable, the first Stephenson book I’ve read that’s good all the way through. On the other hand, he achieves this by basically ripping off Gravity’s Rainbow–both the style and subject matter are too close to be coincidence, although Stephenson’s version is more thrillerized and mass-market-friendly. So I had mixed feelings.

  18. Chip says:

    I enjoyed Cryptonomicon, although my favorite Stephenson is still Snow Crash.

    You might also like Tim Powers, if you haven’t read him. I’d particularly recommend “The Stress of Her Regard” and “The Drawing of the Dark,” although you might also try “Declare” for the WWII stuff.

  19. Rebecca says:

    I like that the charts appear to have nothing to do with the article.

  20. I am a MASSIVE fan of SnowCrash. I’ve got maybe four or five copies lying about in different states of beat-up-ed-ness in my apt. Because of this unholy love. I picked up Cryptonomicon and managed to get maybe a fifth of the way in, before I got mired down in those tangents, like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness. I’m not a big math geek, more of an art geek, so it became this impenetrable tome of the dooms. Diamond age tingles me too.

  21. Joe says:

    This is why I am very particular in who I introduce cryptonomicon to. Some co-workers read it independently, and enjoyed it. I suggested it to my wife, and she loved it (I love my wife…) I suggested it to my father, and he loved it. Beyond that, there’s no one I know that I’d suggest it to, because I’m absolutely certain they’d hate it. Although, interestingly, I’m pretty certain I enjoyed very different aspects of it than either my wife or my dad did.

  22. Uninverted says:

    if (name != famous mathematician) {
    name = acronym;

  23. Cadamar says:

    I loved the Crypt! Being the big math/computer science/history/Stephenson geek that I am…

    Stephenson’s metaphor digressions are part of his style. Snow Crash was nothing more then one metaphor after another all wrapped in ever increasing cycles of metaphors like great turning gears in a giant clock.
    Metaphorically speaking, metaphors are literary cudgels. When used appropriately they can be used to beat your meaning into the reader, but if you aren’t careful you’ll just knock them out.
    Snow Crash is an example of the cudgel being wielded well to set the sarcastic mood of the story. But unless your skull is as thick as mine or Shamus' then Crypt is an example of the author sneaking up behind you and splitting your head open. It's definitely not for everyone, but some of us kinda enjoy it.

  24. Ed says:

    Quicksilver was an unimaginable beast of a book, but it sts up The Confusion and The System of the World so well. The next 2 books are 2000 pages of rip roaring nerd gushing action. It is worth the trudgery to get into the next two books. It is also an interesting experience to go back through Cryptonomicon after reading the Baroque Cycle.

  25. Jeff says:

    The thing about LotR… see, the thing about LotR, is I enjoy skimming through it, not so much reading it word by word, as I would do with Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. With Adams and Pratchett the subtle turns of phrases are excellent. LotR, I tend to skip through, say, written lyrics. Although I do love the Scouring of the Shire.

  26. Zukhramm says:

    Cryptonomicon? Never read. I guess I’ll have a look at the library tomorrow.

  27. Mari says:

    Math porn. That’s exactly what it is. I’ve always been at a loss for words to describe “Cryptonomicon” but you just slide them comfortably into the middle of a blog.

    The sad thing is, as much as I love the book, a fair percentage of the math is lost on me. Programming? Check. History? Triple Check. Math? Errrrr….I made it through calculus and trig in high school by the skin of my teeth. I can’t even factor trinomials anymore. I’m so ashamed. It makes me feel like a failure as a geek.

  28. refugee says:

    By the way, I’m almost finished with my copy of the new trade-paperback edition of Interface, the short techno/political thriller Stephenson wrote with his uncle, J. Frederick George. Lots of fun, lacks Stephenson’s normal digressions, and comes to a satisfying conclusion. (The lack of good endings is another common criticism of Stephenson’s work.)

    I read my first mass-market edition, the one attributed to the pseudonym Stephen Bury, to tatters. I hope this one lasts longer.

    I dearly love the passage describing Cozzano’s announcement party.

  29. Martin says:

    Raven. He drank my milkshake.

    (apologies to everyone)

  30. Cadamar says:

    Mari – As long as you can still do matrix translations or calculate computational complexity then we’ll forgive you.
    Ah… who am I kidding… I love you just because you used trinomials in a sentence. ;)

  31. Ryan says:

    At #18 (Chip):

    I totally agree with you on the Tim Powers recommendation. I consider The Drawing of the Dark to be a must read for any historical fantasy/steampunk fan. Also, Three Days to Never is an amazing “secret history” where real events (in our timeline) have supernatural causes (as is Declare).

    A quotation from Powers:

    “I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar – and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all.”

  32. Yeah, put me down in the ‘doesn’t care for Neil Stephenson’ camp.

    It’s not that I didn’t like the science–in fact most of the little digressions about mathematics and physics and what-not were very entertaining. It’s just that Stephenson is a much better writer of science than he is a writer of fiction. The pace of the story was plodding; the characters were all unlikeable. Several times I had to FORCE myself to keep reading, assuming there was some grand conclusion awaiting, only to be disappointed–in the end I didn’t really care if the characters lived or died.

    If he’d just written a book of non-fiction I’d probably have loved it.

  33. Odd.
    I have never looked at it that way before.
    I have always thought this was the greatest book ever, suggest it to all my friends, and am confused if they do not enjoy it.
    Looking at it from this alternate (to me) angle sheds a bit of unrealised light.
    Thank you for that.
    I still have it at the top of my book list of favourites.

  34. Zerotime says:

    I need to leave for work in about ten minutes, so I won’t go into any detail – but if he wasn’t prepared to read a Neal Stephenson novel, why did he read a Neal Stephenson novel?

  35. Peema says:

    Yeah, Cryptonomnicon definitely pegs it on the “My! That’s a weighty tome!” front. The constant switching back and forth is a bit of a pain, and it just seems to take forever to do anything.


    It does fare a lot better on the repeat read. It seems like a lot less of a slog the second time around.

    You get a definite sense that a lot less was trimmed or more stuff was crammed in as the progression moved from Snow Crash to Diamond Age to Crypt to Quicksilver and I must confess I just ran out of interest halfway through Q.

  36. Alex says:

    Why can’t I ever be recognised for my services towards humanity, rather than those against!? It was just a little genocide!

    I’ve attracted less trouble than expected, and I realise that what I wrote was far from balanced; it was like 2000 words produced in about an hour of fevered writing. I’ve got Cryptonomicon sitting here on the desk next to me, just chilling. I’m glad that I’ve been accused of literary martyrdom, though; who hasn’t slogged through a book they’ve got misgivings about because they want to see where it goes?
    Cryptonomicon had diamonds in its rough, but despite the literal gold of the ending, it just seemed to be obscured by rough – yes, it’s an anti-climax.

    I play by the rare internet rules of “let’s all get along, even if we disagree” (this applies more to pop culture than certain other things, obviously). I’m proud to be a member of a club that manages to do such things civilly and all good like. Thank you, Shamus.

  37. ngthagg says:

    My brother got me Cryptonomicon for Christmas one year, but I only made it about halfway through. My problem was that I enjoyed the WWII era characters, the modern one bored me to death, and it seemed like his parts got longer and longer, while the other two got shorter and shorter as the book went on. (That may have just been my perspective.)

    Call me crazy, but there’s something about setting up a business in the Philippines that just doesn’t thrill me.

  38. Namfoodle says:

    I liked both Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. Crypto is mighty though: a chunk of pages just fell right out of my paperback, the glue just couldn’t hang on.

    I’ve been thinking about reading the baroque cycle, but haven’t gotten around to it.

  39. GAZZA says:

    Well, I’m going to go there… LotR isn’t all that, and suffers from much the same problems. I realise that it’s hailed as an all time classic, but come on. Tolkien spends more time describing trees than he does advancing the story in many places, there’s this weird Tom Bombadil that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, and the whole story was delightfully parodied in Clerks 2. Certainly it’s an enjoyable enough read, but it’s not by any means perfect, and those who believe Tolkien can do no wrong have possibly never attempted to read the Silmarillion cover to cover (I eventually managed, but the effort was considerable and unrewarding).

    Having said that I don’t disagree with the complaints about Cryptonomicon, despite the fact that it’s one of my favourites. The Baroque Cycle is even more tedious at points. But Snow Crash is a much better example of Neal’s work, at least for non-computer programmers. And Diamond Age is (in my opinion) a much worse one, as that story is VERY hard to follow in places.

    I used to think Neal Stephenson was one of the best new sci-fi authors since the old guard are sadly leaving us (Asimov through Zelazny, sniff), but then I discovered Richard Morgan…

  40. Mari says:

    Cadamar: I just did something I hadn’t done since college thanks to you. You mentioned matrix translations so I scared up a few matrices with the help of Google and did it, just to see if I still could. My geeky self-esteem is restored. It was like riding a bike. I love you back.

  41. Eric says:

    See here, Cryptonomican is just a knock off the Necronomican. Nuff said.

  42. Yahzi says:

    I liked the digressions. But I agree with Mark: ending it by digging up gold just seems… tame.

  43. Ryan says:

    “Certainly it's an enjoyable enough read, but it's not by any means perfect, and those who believe Tolkien can do no wrong have possibly never attempted to read the Silmarillion cover to cover (I eventually managed, but the effort was considerable and unrewarding).”

    And then there are those of us who think that the Silmarillion (and Unfinished Tales, etc.) is an even greater work, and expresses much better what Tolkien was saying, than LoTR ever could by itself.

  44. ClearWater says:

    Great. Now I’m gonna have to read that book. As if I didn’t have enough to do yet.

  45. dishuiguanyin says:

    Put me down on the ‘I like Cryptonomicon but can appreciate that it contains many flaws as a work of literature’ side of the debate. Could say that about any and all of Neal Stephenson’s works, actually, including (or especially) The Baroque Trilogy.
    Even Snow Crash, while it has a wonderful racy plot, great ideas, and ancient near-Eastern mythology (I’m such a sucker for that stuff) also contains terrible dialogue and huge great infodumps from the librarian. So, yeah, tis a pity, but still hugely enjoyable.

  46. Thijs says:

    just bought it! If you like it, I might also give it a try :D

  47. Ian says:

    I’m a programmer. I’m into SF. I’m into maths, especially number theory. Snow Crash and Diamond Age are two of my favourite books, so I should have loved Cryptonomicon right? Wrong. Stephenson has, in my opinion, gone the way of David Brin and (to a lesser extent) Gibson.

    I like sci-fi that’s hard-edged, tight, preferably with Samurais delivering pizza for the Mafia. What I don’t like is the type of rambling, self-indulgent mess that, honestly I don’t believe would ever have seen publication if it had not been for his earlier work.

  48. Rich says:

    Stephenson is a god among writers and can do no wrong. Cryptonomicon has no flaws.
    That is all.

  49. ravells says:

    Sorry for the slight diversion but I have no idea what the ‘see me rolling’ pie chart is about – could someone enlighten me?

  50. Takkelmaggot says:

    I haven’t read Cryptonomicon– yet- but IMHO Stephenson showed his prowess in Snow Crash and it’s high on my to-read list, particularly if it’s comparable to LotR because, see, I’m okay with the journey over destination thing.

  51. anonymouse says:

    I consider myself geeky enough, but that other kind of geek – no math, no programming, no computer or techie affiliations. That said, Cryptonomicon is one of my favourite books ever (and the Baroque Cycle ranks even higher), although I’d be hard pressed to say why.
    One thing is for sure, though: Stephenson really can’t do endings very well. But the getting there is fantastic!

  52. Jeff says:

    I believe the “See me rolling” thing is in reference to undoubtably some rap ‘music’.

    Probably something like “I’ve got money (yo!), people be hating (yo!), see me rolling (yo!) trying ta catch me ridin’ dirty (hey yo!)”


  53. Miako says:

    Have you read the Illuminatus Trilogy yet?

    another classic mindfuck book.

    Have you looked at what David Brin has been writing lately?
    Try this:

    In my opinion, Dr. Brin writes the most pertinent conspiracy theories these days, regardless of whether you think he’s off the deep end.

  54. Kevin says:

    Oh man. I need to read this book again.

    I think you nailed it with the xkcd reference… something about the nature of the digressions and the way the story is told suggests to me that there’s probably a considerable overlap between people who (would) love xkcd and people who (would) love Cryptonomicon. I’ll have to find people who are into one and haven’t checked out the other and experiment.

    Oooh, and I just read the comment above mine. If you haven’t before, Illuminatus! is a must-read. Only the omnibus edition is still published, so if you search Illuminatus on Amazon you’ll find them all in one.

    (The ! is part of the title, but I don’t know if it does something special in Amazon’s search function)

  55. “Sorry for the slight diversion but I have no idea what the 'see me rolling' pie chart is about – could someone enlighten me?”

    It is a reference to the song Ridin’ Dirty by Chamillionaire, which was parodied by Weird Al Yankovic with the song “White and Nerdy”.
    I have listened to them both.
    I decided that Weird Al’s is better.
    Some would debate that opinion, but then I am not a rap fan, and they likely are.
    Links to the videos and songs, for your reference:
    Chamillionaire – Ridin’ Dirty _
    Weird Al – White and Nerdy –

  56. GAZZA says:

    And then there are those of us who think that the Silmarillion (and Unfinished Tales, etc.) is an even greater work, and expresses much better what Tolkien was saying, than LoTR ever could by itself.

    Well, that’s just another celebration of infinite diversity in infinite combinations (to [probably mis]quote the Vulcans). Definitely not my cup of tea; looking back on it, I think the Hobbit was my favourite of Tolkien’s works.

    But to each his/her/its own, of course.

  57. Ian says:

    Thanks for the David Brin link. I’m going to leave aside the actual subject matter, for which I have some sympathy but maybe is not relevant to this thread and instead, in time-honoured “internet warrior” fashion focus on the reference to his book EARTH. Hey – at least it’s sci-fi :).

    EARTH was what finally put me off David Brin’s books. Startide Rising is still one of those books I like to pick up again and again. Then the rot set in with UPLIFT WAR, and was confirmed in EARTH. Despite being probably my favourite author at the time, I simply couldn’t finish it. The problem is “soap opera”. Page after page of dull, pointless character “development” and I just got bored. I’ve had KILN PEOPLE on my shelf for years now – not sure if I’ll get round to it.

    At least we still have Iain M. Banks. Just finished MATTER last night. How good is that?!

  58. ravells says:

    Thanks Jeff and Rev (re:’see me rolling’)

    Ok, this explains why I didn’t get it, rap isn’t on my radar at all, but Weird Al is, although I had no idea that was the song he was parodying.

    Onto Neal Stephenson (as I should post something more relvant over and above a ‘thank you’), I have read part of Quicksilver which I enjoyed but put down to read something else…never got back to it because I knew I’d probably have to start over. His are not the sorts of books you can read in a number of sittings separated by weeks. I’ve not read Cryptonomicon but it sounds like a modern ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ by Umberto Eco.

  59. On the xkcd thing:
    I love xkcd. I don’t like Cryptonomicon very much, as I mentioned above. I can think of two reasons.
    1. xkcd isn’t pretentious.
    2. xkcd is a comic. More than that, xkcd is a comic designed with no day to day continuity. Its whole format is designed to be nothing but digressions. When a comic is like xkcd, that’s fine–that’s how it’s built. When a novel is like xkcd, that’s a problem–or even if not a problem per se, it certainly loses ground when compared with novels that actually exploit the novel format to do things like build tension, make use of plot, create interesting characters, and if ambitious use the larger structures of the narrative to embody any points being made in the prose.

    When it comes to novels with lots of digressions, give me “The Phoenix Guards” by Stephen Brust. He manages to do all the digressions, many of which are hilarious and some of which are erudite, maintain the tone of the setting *in the digressions*, and simultaneously have an awesome plot, fun characters you can empathize with, witty dialogue, good worldbuilding, and out “Three Musketeers” Dumas, all at the same time. How can you resist a book with chapter titles like “In which the plot, much like a soup to which starch has been added, begins at last to thicken”?

  60. Erik Lund says:

    Wow, thanks, Mr. Stephenson. Four massive tomes of bad history for nerds to unlearn. You do know that nerds make policy on the basis of your “history,” right?
    In closing, thanks some more.

  61. DavidRM says:

    I love XKCD. I couldn’t finish “Cryptonomicon”.

    I like Purple Library Guy’s explanation for why that may be. Except I found “The Phoenix Guards” books *really* irritating.

    “I have something to tell you!”

    “Please, I would like nothing more than to hear you must tell me.”

    “What I will tell you will astound you!”

    “Astound me!”

    “You will surely be astounded!”

    “I await your leisure…”

    And on and on and on…

    The last thing the world needs is another Dumas.


  62. Gus says:

    I am neither a mathematician or a programmer (not even close), but I’ll take Cryptonomicon or Diamond Age over LoTR any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

  63. Jess says:

    I was told I should read Cryptonomicon so we bought a copy. I think I read about 10 pages or so, before I insisted we return it and get something readable. Maybe it’s a mistake not to have read it when younger? (Now 30+). OTOH I found LoTR tedious the first time around when I was much younger.

    I loved Quicksilver though, have the 2 following parts but not got around to reading them yet.

    Love XKCD tho, can’t see the correlation.

  64. Leo says:

    Cryptonomicon was pretty damn good. The Baroque Cycle was just point-blank awesome from start to finish.

    LotR, though… I tried *many* times to read it as a hard-core gaming teenager, couldn’t get past the first hundred or so pages. Ugh.

  65. mem0ri says:

    Cryptonomicon is one of the few Stephenson books I have yet to read, though it surprises me that any reviewer would blast Stephenson for his digressions–as that is how he writes.

    I am currently in the 3rd book of the Baroque Cycle (The Golden Age) and have loved every moment of it, but am hesitant to recommend such reading to any of my ‘normal’ friends.

    However, out of all of the books I’ve read, The Diamond Age (another Stephenson) has pulled me in more completely than anything else. Once I picked it up, I simply could not put it down for anything. If you haven’t read that one, I suggest it (though if you didn’t like how ‘brutal’ the Baroque Cycle was…maybe not…).

  66. Kizer says:

    I just finished it and enjoyed it. It’s not one of my all-time favorite books, but it’s up there. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I knew more programming, but the crypto/philosophy/history stuff kept me interested.

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