JCL Blog

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

It has been a while since I have written a book review.  I have still been reading, but have been on a literary side road that I was not so sure how to think about.  I have never really thought of myself as a science fiction reader or as a geek.  Turns out, I identify well with both!

The reconciliation between my real and imagined selves has kept me from sharing my thoughts about these books.  Clearly my brain is a complicated place! 

Last night I just finished re-reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson.  This book was written in 1999, so I will not reference other book reviews this time because there is a well formed Wikipedia page about the book here.

This book could be taking over the number one spot on my favorite books of all time list.  If so it would be displacing Clavell's Noble House.

I suppose Stephenson has an advantage because Cryptonomicon is mostly set in the Philippines, Seattle, and Eastern Washington -- all places I have lived.  I am fascinated with Hong Kong, but never lived there, and really my fascination is with the pre 1997 version.

The main ideas in Cryptonomicon are really resonating with me right now for some reason.  I know I liked the book a great deal the first time around, but for some reason it didn't strike me at that time to be even in the top ten.

Most of all, Stephenson is a great writer.  There are scores of sentences in this book that are worth reading over and over and his sense of style, and sense of humor, are evident throughout.  Althought he calls himself a science fiction writer, I think of him as more of a historical novelist. Either way he is way ahead of the few other science fiction writers I have read in terms of pure literary ability.

He reveals highly complex ideas bit by bit and causes the reader to gain an understanding of a concept while deeply engrossed in a story.  This is something Clavell also does very well.  Both Stephenson and Clavell write books that are so long that by the time you get to the end you can't even remember what you did not know at the beginning.  Drawn into a thousand pages of good storytelling the time just goes by and boom, out the other end you exit with a deep and insightful new perspective on how people think in China, or how computational capacity changed the world.  Conveying the idea that fairly early into WWII the Allies had broken both the Japanese codes and the German codes but knowingly sent troops into harms way for fear of exposing what they had accomplished is not a trivial exercise.  How valuable is knowledge or capability if it cannot be put into use?  Similarly, digging into monetary systems at a macro economic scale and their relationship to confidence, security, and ultimately power is a formidable dissection.   This part ends up occupying a similarly furnished room adjacent to the code breaking dilemma in that money you cannot spend has questionable value. 

The complex relationship between Americans and the people of the Philippines is also a topic with as many stratifications as the Grand Canyon.  Overcooked expectations, assumptions, promises, and disappointment have been deposited layer upon layer from Teddy Roosevelt's administration to the present day.  Stephenson's two main characters in the Philippines are of Filipino Americans, Douglas McArthur Shaftoe, born from a Filipina and an American Marine during WWII, and his daughter, America Shaftoe.  These names only start to tell the story of how our two countries will always have a close and involved relationship.

Since the first time I read Cryptonomicon I have started several other of Stepehson's books.  Unfortunately, I have not gotten all of the way through a single one.  So now I am going to go back to Quicksilver and see what happens.