As long-term readers of DCPLive know, I am a big fan of the science fiction genre. In past ShareReads posts, I’ve talked about the sub-genres of space opera and cyberpunk, and this year, I am going to discuss a different type of science fiction novel, one that seems to straddle the boundaries between science fiction, historical fiction and techno-thrillers: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
Unlike some of Stephenson’s other novels, in which the imaginative/speculative element of science fiction is more prominent (such as in the seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash or its loosely related “post-cyberpunk” sequel, The Diamond Age), Cryptonomicon features technology that while complex and technical to the layperson isn’t fictional at all. Information security is a major theme of the book, and in-depth asides and descriptions of cryptography and digital espionage techniques such as Van Eck phreaking pepper the narrative. The lengthy story (the paperback version owned by DCPL clocks in at 1152 pages!) is split between two time periods, one circa World War II and the other in the late 1990s, and as the plot evolves the connections between the two storylines become increasingly apparent (in fact, the main protagonists of the latter storyline are direct descendants of the protagonists in the WWII storyline). With the exception of a very few instances in the novel where phenomena seem to occur without any basis or explanation in modern science, Cryptonomicon can be considered to be very hard science fiction. The World War II storyline, while sparing no technical details of the complex struggle between Allied and Axis cryptographers and codebreakers, also features several notable historical figures including Alan Turing and General Douglas MacArthur, placing the book firmly into the category of historical fiction as well.
Fans of Stephenson’s digressive style will love Cryptonomicon, which features informative tangents in spades, from the mechanics and structure of pipe organs to the description of a manual cryptosystem calculated with an ordinary deck of playing cards. Indeed, such asides are a major factor in the book’s appeal. Upon finishing Cryptonomicon, readers looking for something similar should check out Quicksilver and its sequels, which form a sort of prequel to Cryptonomicon (featuring ancestors of the protagonists and shedding light on a few of the unexplained mysteries in Cryptonomicon) and are also written in a digression-heavy style. I also encourage interested readers to pick up a more recent work by Stephenson, Anathem, which although more speculative in nature than Cryptonomicon possesses similar qualities in terms of informative asides.
And if you’ve just finished Cryptonomicon and are feeling like you’ve missed some references, or that a plot point went unexplained, take a look at this site, which offers a good deal of insight into some of the more complex and esoteric references and plot points. But don’t click the link until you’ve completed the story, as there are spoilers aplenty to be wary of.
What are your favorite books that straddle genre boundaries? How do you feel about the digressive writing style that Stephenson so often employs? For the sci-fi enthusiasts out there, would you consider Cryptonomicon to be science fiction? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.