Cryptonomicon

By Shamus
on Feb 27, 2008
Filed under:
Nerd Culture

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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…).

  4. 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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