Cryptonomicon

First off the bat, this is a book. I mean, a Book… Maybe even a BOOK. Reading it reminded me of lugging The Lord of the Rings around with me when I was about 9, knowing that I wanted to finish it, and enjoying every minute of reading it, but being very aware of the number of minutes it would eventually take me to finish it. I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings again since (The Hobbit, conversely, has had about ten re-reads). What I mean by this, is that to properly capture every nuance of emotion felt, every intertwined thread of Stephenson’s absurdly twisting plot unravelled, and every technological theory applied throughout this mighty tome would take a far greater mind than mine, and would consist of considerably more than a brief review on a no-name blog such as this.

Waterhouse opens his mouth and says “Gxnn bhldh sqrd m!”

The real key to this book is the knowledge that it’s approximately two dozen books rolled into one. There are enough ideas here to provide motifs, key plot twists and marvellous reinventions to several distinct series of books / films / whatever. Two periods of time provide the setting for much of the 900+ pages; half of it occuring just prior to and then in the midst of World War II, and the other an unspecified ‘present day,’ which seems pretty close to late 90’s/early 00’s level of tech. The characters too are divided, with many historical figures such as Alan Turing (hero) appearing as fictionalised versions alongside Stephenson’s inventions – who occasioanlly stray so far outside the usual boundaries of how people are supposed to think and act, that the very notion of them being anything other than genuine pople with real life, screwed-up situations is shot clean out of the water. Take for example, Bobby Shaftoe, gung-ho marine extrordinaire, trying to find a way back to his Phillipino love and his newborn son, killing Nips and Nazis along the way (whilst hallucinating giant lizards, writing haiku in the midst of battle and dealing with a morphine addiction along the way). He is only one of a cast of fantastic characters, inclduing several descendants of those in the WWII storyline, and it is this link and the course of history repeating itself, or changing dramatically the fortunes of those families involved that ties everything together. Ostensibly, it is the story of those trying to break the Axis codes and prevent them from breaking the Allies’ in the past, and the methods that the company Epiphyte(2) use to make all of their systems impregnable as they attempt to establish a data haven in the present, and yet it captures so much more besides.

To actually attempt to convey the entire majesty of the plot would be a Herculean task that I simply will not attempt, out of respect for the book / fear of giving it much less than its due. Instead, here are some of the many reasons why you should read Cryptonomicon:

  • Humour that genuinely made me laugh aloud, including what must be the greatest business plan ever written, and the genius euphemism of ‘executing a manual override.’
  • Detailed descriptions of subjects as wide-ranging as Van Eyck Phreaking and modular mathematics, including practical examples that actually make sense to the mathematically/technologically stunted (i.e. yours truly).
  • A conspiracy spanning generations, incorporating characters in both timelines, a secret society of ‘influential’ members and hidden war gold.
  • Commentary on everything from roleplaying games to modern encryption techniques, and much more besides spanning the last 100 years.
  • Real history mixed with simultaenously believable and utterly absurd fiction, including an invented people with their own near indecipherable language called the Qwghlmians.
  • A plot of length that might tax, and of a complexity that might challenge (especially broken up into each character’s chapter as it often is, jumping between both timelines) but that will reward greatly.

This might make it sound a bit obtuse and overbearing, but the book is actually awesome – largely due to Stephenson’s desire to create a ‘good yarn’ first, before any of the digressions or anything else comes into play (this more or less straight from the horses mouth, as part of an excellent series that you can find on YouTube, with many famous authors – and the dude behind xkcd.com – giving talks and doing Q&A at Google). Indeed most of the reason it took me so long to read is that I was predominantly reading it in my breaks at work, and that’s been a nightmare recently. If you have the time (and I think you should make the time, to be frank) this book will take a lot from you, but will also give an awful lot back. I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book, it really is a must-read.

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