Neal Stephenson’s Great Geek Novel Reviewed

Title: Cryptonomicon

Author: Neal Stephenson

Original Publication Date: May 1999

ISBN: 0-380-97346-4

Cover Price:
$19.25 U.S. (hardcover)
$7.99 U.S. (paperback)
$10.99 Canadian (paperback)

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Having arrived late to the Bureau42 staff, I was unaware that we have never reviewed the great nerd novel of the last century’s end, Neal Stephenson’s 900+ page work, the title of which literally translates as “the Book of Hidden Names.”


Reality is code.

Codes change.

Lawrence Waterhouse, mathematical genius, becomes involved with code-breaking during World War II. Actually, he becomes involved with convincing the Axis that the Allies haven’t broken their codes, a job which pits him against an old colleague. Meanwhile, Bobby Shaftoe, idealized marine, and Goto Dengo, his Japanese counterpart, learn that the war is a far more complex hell than they expected, but that salvation of a kind is possible.

Years later, Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence’s nerd grandson, and Amy Shaftoe, Bobby’s Lara Croft-like granddaughter, become involved with a data haven, old enemies who may now be friends and old friends who may now be enemies, a Unabomber-esque wild card, and overlapping conspiracies.

Linking the two plots we have missing Nazi gold and an enigmatic figure who spans both plots. See, the Sultan of Kinakuta…

Oh, look. Just read the damn thing, okay?

High Points:

Much of the novel. Here are a few:

Lawrence’s various epiphanies, when he finally, definitively makes sense of the codes which govern the world, and human behaviour. He has these epiphanies often.

The tour of Qwghlm, a very tiny country with a very large chip on its shoulder.

The description of Lawrence’s widow (guerilla teams of mechanics doing secret maintenance on her car), and the games played by her family to obtain those items they wish to inherit.

Low Points:

I recognize that Stephenson is handling some heavy material, and he wants to make it readable. I also recognize that many of his explanations are, in effect, elaborate jokes.

That said, several chapters could have been trimmed just a little without hurting this book.

And then there’s America (Amy) Shaftoe.

I recognize that the entire Shaftoe family possess comic-book-like, and (at times) deliberately comical larger-than-life characteristics. I also know people who come pretty close to this, in real life.

That said, Amy reads too much like a geek wish-fulfillment. Even her idealized grandfather has his flaws.

A more believably-realized Amy might also have fallen believably for Randy Waterhouse.

The Scores

Originality: 6/6 This book blends cyberpunk, historical thriller (with many real-life people as characters), international adventure, hysterical satire, and code-obsessed conspiracy tome into something unlike any of those. It’s not Pynchon, but it makes amends by being far more readable.

Imagery: 6/6 Generally, Stephenson does exceptionally well. When Randy visits a friend who collects archaic technology and observes a role-playing game, I had a strong sense of both the world Randy was observing, and the one the players inhabited. Cryptonomicon manages such things a fair bit.

Story: 6/6 Stephenson handles his multiple plot strands effectively. His book bursts with information, and yet at more than 900 pages, it remains a page-turner.

Characterization: 5/6

Emotional Response: 5/6 Stephenson covers the range of emotion. He can move us intellectually, and he can horrify us, and he does these things. Too little gets said, however, about his hyperbolic sense of humour and satire; this novel contains passages that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Editing: 5/6: Stephenson writes extraordinarily well. Occasionally, passages become needlessly verbose, and some of the exposition grows tedious.

Overall Score: 6/6

In total, Cryptonomicon receives 39 out of 42

6 replies on “Neal Stephenson’s Great Geek Novel Reviewed”

  1. Good Book
    I rate this book above average. The only thing that really sets it apart is the unique mix of past, present, history and fiction. I’d call it a really good read but it doens’t rise to the “classic” category in my mind. Character development is weak. Overall you have this feeling of emotional detachment. The characters are likable though.

    On a side note, If you liked this book you would probably also enjoy a recent article in Wired about artificial diamonds. IMHO the story could make for a great novel if it were written like Crypto.:

  2. “… increasing shareholder value …”

    I really, really dug Cryptonomicon, but I’ve pretty much always gotten the impression that I was reading a comic book from Neal Stephenson’s writing. This was particularly apparent in Snow Crash and Diamond Age, where the settings were fantastic from the get-go, but even in Zodiac and in Cryptonomicon, he tends to melodrama and and to paint characters in pretty broad strokes.

    Also, I couldn’t make sense of the ending to Cryptonomicon. A good book, but the last however-many pages didn’t seem to follow in any reasonable way from the rest of the book.

    • Re: “… increasing shareholder value …”

      Also, I couldn’t make sense of the ending to Cryptonomicon. A
      good book, but the last however-many pages didn’t seem to follow in
      any reasonable way from the rest of the book.

      That is true of all Stepehenson’s book. They are great reads, but man
      does his editor need to start forcing him to write 15 more pages at the
      end of everyone of his novels! The ending never lives up to the rest of
      the book. I think I’ll write him a fan letter wich will consist of the
      definition of “epilogue”…

  3. Neal Stephenson’s Great Geek Novel

    Neal Stephenson’s Great Geek Novel Reviewed

    Ok, so where’s the Snow Crash review!? ;-)

    Seriously, though, I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that I didn’t even finish Crypto. Neither of the two main storylines held quite enough interest to keep me slogging through the thing. Then again, I’ve never really been a fan of historical fiction, at least in books.

  4. I absolutely fell in love with this book
    amd it quickly became my all-time favorite novel. But I’m having a hell of a time getting through Quicksilver.

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