Review: Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what an enjoyable read!

Neal Stephenson is one of those authors that until a couple of years ago had been notable because I had several of his books on my “to read” list (and on my shelves) who always seemed to get high praise, but for one reason or another, other books always kept leaping ahead of those. Now having read 4 of his books in the last 3 years (Snowcrash, The Diamond Age, Seveneves, and now Cryptonomicon), I think I’m going to have to read through everything he puts out. I think the main reason for my previous hesitation is the length of some of his works – he likes to publish thick books. Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, sometimes not. Also, he jumps genres and themes like no other author I’ve previously read.

Anyway, as for Cryptonomicon, here are a few things you should know:
1. This is not in any way, shape, or form a science fiction novel.
2. It isn’t related to anything in the horror genre, either (in case you’re thinking it is due to the Necronomicon, which is totally unrelated).
3. It IS historical speculative fiction with action and adventure
4. If you don’t know anything about code-breaking, you will learn a lot. If you do, you’ll have great fun with this one.

If you have a geeky background (like me), this book will likely hit your groove early and keep you happy for the entirety.

The construction of the book is interesting. There are essentially 2 timelines, one set in the WW2 era (late 30’s to mid 40’s) and one set in the “modern” era (2000-ish). The characters are wildly different, but through their efforts in the war, they intermingle around Bobby Shaftoe (early era) who seems to be the glue that ultimately binds them together. Lawrence Waterhouse is the “other” main character in the early era and you might also consider him the center of the whole story. He is the lead American cryptographer helping break codes to turn the tide of the war.

In the “modern era” story, the primary character is Randy Waterhouse, grandson of Lawrence mentioned above. Both eras have intriguing stories that ultimately come together in the modern era and weave it all together.

Along the way, you meet Historical figures such as Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur. Travel around the world several times (with particular attention to the Philippines and Bletchley Park in Britain). Both eras have an interesting connection with cryptography, with Lawrence being a key contributor to the Cryptonomicon (a tome of Allied knowledge of code systems and code-breaking) and Randy working with a company focused on using cryptography to protect data and ultimately trying to establish an international data crypt storage facility/bank.

Other characters in the book flesh it out very well and really make the story about the people behind the events that they all seem to be caught up in and yet are out of their control. Bobby Shaftoe is an almost Forrest Gump type character who always seems to find himself in the middle of things, yet his single-minded determination and positive attitude take him extremely far. Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer who Shaftoe befriends early, before America is brought into the war with Pearl Harbor. Enoch Root is a somewhat mysterious figure who is a former member of the clergy who saves Shaftoe’s life and ends up traveling with him on most of his adventures and yet also works with Lawrence Waterhouse and even makes it into the modern era storyline intact.

If the topic of cryptography seems intimidating to you, or boring, don’t let that sway you from picking this up for a read. While there is some technical jargon, the whole book has much more of an adventure feel to it. The pace is pretty fast-paced and moves you right along from beginning to end. That said, if you have some interest in computers or crypto, then I suspect that will just add to your enjoyment.

Did I find any negatives to the book? There was some language, which I tend to find unnecessary, but others seem to think adds to the “grittiness” or authenticity of a book that is often about conversations between soldiers. There is some sex and sexual references that might be off-putting to some, but at the end of the day don’t add up to any kind of deal-breaker. It might make it more appropriate for college-age readers, but some of the technical discussions would probably attract adult readers more than teenagers anyway.

I listened to the audiobook version and it weighed in at a hefty 42 hours and 53 minutes, but I enjoyed it immensely. As things wrapped up in the end, I really didn’t want it to end at all. To me, that’s a sign of a truly good book. Great world-building. Personable characters who change and grow. And a fantastic plot. All told, this is simply a fantastic book.

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