After writing what is, for better or worse, the landmark cyberpunk novel of the ‘90s in Snow Crash, Stephenson worked hard not to be pigeonholed in the sub-genre. He’s followed it up with a novel about nanotechnology that’s full of Victoriana, a series of novels about Early Modern Europe, a novel about mathematical monks, and this family saga that moves from World War II to Silicon Valley in the late ‘90s. Still, in all of these novels, he maintains some of the same cyberpunk sensibilities.
Cryptonomicon introduces us to two families with intertwined histories (whom we’ll see again in future Stephenson works): the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes. Before World War II, Daniel Waterhouse is a socially awkward mathematical genius and Bobby Shaftoe is a hardcore marine who’s already seen some of the horrors to come during a tour of duty in a China savaged by the Japanese (who Stephenson insists on calling Nipponese in all of his novels). Waterhouse eventually joins Alan Turing to do crucial cryptography work, and Shaftoe ends up as part of a series of harebrained schemes (which usually result in insane action set-pieces) to aid their efforts. In more contemporary times, Randy Waterhouse is working on a Silicon Valley start-up that hopes to create a “data haven” in the Pacific where information can be freely exchanged without government interference. He hires Douglas and Amy Shaftoe to lay cable for him near the Philippines, but soon becomes involved in a hunt for lost Nipponese gold leftover from the war. The novel jumps back and forth between the two plots with the usual amount of Stephenson’s long digressions about mathematics, philosophy, religion, etc.
It’s epic (I read this for the second time in paperback in an edition that ran to 1140 pages), and it’s incredibly fun. Considering the length, and Stephenson’s tendency to deliver lectures, it does inevitably slow down at many points. Like Robert Sawyer, Stephenson can go off on rants that’d be better suited to a blog than a novel. But, Stephenson can also deliver the action and excitement, and most of the novel is page-turning. Also, unlike Sawyer’s, his prose is a joy to read. There’s a three page description of one character’s preferred method consuming of Fruit Loops at one point. Is it necessary? Certainly not. Is it a funny read that gives some insight into the main character. Yes.
I’m sure Stephenson’s not for everyone. Even people who like the mini-(well, sometimes, maxi-)lectures, might not by as happy with the silliness of some of his action scenes, which can make John McClane’s hijinks look realistic. I wasn’t always on board with his arguments either. He spends a lot of time hammering "Godless," postmodernist straw-men academics (I kind of got the impression that Randy’s problems with his girlfriend had some basis in the author’s life). These scenes really jumped out at my this time, maybe because these things (religion, postmodernism) have become so much more politicized in the last ten years. Or maybe I was just being overly sensitive. Even more problematic for me was the fact that the data haven itself seems destined to become a haven for some really awful criminals. I think Stephenson is right to show that international criminals of various stripes would be the first on board, but he seems to think this a minor setback and well worth freedom from state interference. I think that proposition is worth a little more consideration.
Sure, it could’ve used a bit of trimming, but this is one of the funnest reads out there, and it does a great job of brining a sci-fi/tech geek sensibility to the history of World War II and the rest of the twentieth century.