DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jun 7 2013

ShareReads: Cryptonomicon

by Jesse M


ShareReads - Cryptonomicon coverAs 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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimmy L June 7, 2013 at 9:03 AM

Great post! I love the digressive style. I think the prime example of this style is Moby Dick. As far as cryptography is concerned, I recently read The Information by James Gleick, and there’s a long section where he talks about cryptography (and thus Alan Turing) and how it was crucial to winning WWII.

Sarah Trowbridge June 14, 2013 at 1:42 PM

I listened to Anathem as an audiobook and was completely blown away by it — really a masterpiece! (Here’s a review I wrote: http://www.sfsite.com/03a/an291.htm) I admit that I had to turn to the printed book several times during the time I was listening to the story, to make sure I was catching all the subtleties of what was going on. I loved the digressive style, though that seems to be exactly what some people objected to in the more negative reviews I have read. Go figure — guess that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.

Since reading Anathem, I have wanted to read more Neal Stephenson, but have been unsure where to start. You make Cryptonomicon sound like the way to go. I actually have an audio copy of Quicksilver that I was thinking of listening to soon, but maybe it would be better to start with Cryptonomicon, since they’re connected.

I also love books that straddle genre boundaries. Did you read Cloud Atlas? Wow – another mind-blower. I have not yet seen the movie version, though I’m quite curious as to how it compares.

Jesse M July 2, 2013 at 5:58 PM

I also first listened to Anathem as an audiobook, and while it was a very rewarding experience I think having the print glossary to refer to would have aided my comprehension immensely!

Also, great write-up! I think it is difficult to summarize the novel and still make it sound interesting without spoiling anything, but you’ve done an excellent job in your review.

Anathem remains my favorite book by Stephenson, but Cryptonomicon is a close second, and if you enjoyed Anathem and Stephenson’s digressive style you aren’t likely to be disappointed if you choose it as your next read by him.

I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, but your categorization of it as a “mind-blower” has intrigued me. I’ll add it to my “To Be Read” list.

John S. July 13, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Anathem is my favorite Stephenson book, too, but I haven’t read all of his works. I always assumed the title was a play on the word anthem because of all the singing and chanting that goes on in the book. I was just playing with the Oxford English Dictionary and learned anathem means “One accursed” or “A sentence of damnation, a curse”.
I found out about Stephenson when a stranger in a bar found out I was a librarian. He recommended Snow Crash because of the librarian in that book. I went on to The Diamond Age,
Anathem, and the last one I read was Cryptonomicon. I don’t think of Cryptonomicon as science fiction; it seems pretty straightforward, but it does have some far-fetched elements it it.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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