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Reviews of Cryptonomicon (1999)

Review by Beaver (2010-10-31)
Cryptonomicon is an interesting blend of historical fiction, computer geekiness, math and cryptography. It's very interesting and readable especially considering the subject matter. I like the portrayal of geeks and it's pretty humorous at times. The story is pretty densley plotted, but not overly so. The end is kind of abrupt. 8/10

Review by polarisdib (2009-01-25)
To say that this book was entirely too enjoyable would be to merely scratch the surface of the enjoyment I derived from it. I found myself, upon having to put the book down for sleep or work or school or food or other, you know, life things that living people have to do, deeply regretting that I had only read as much as I had read, and wanting to read more. And now that I'm finished I'm a little upset, because even 900+ pages of this excellentness just didn't satiate me for the cyber-punk cryptographic-cum-hacker thriller spanning decades of American history and following some of the most distinct and entertaining characters in the history of modern storytelling. I guess it's straight on to the Baroque cycle after this, because I'm already getting antsy.

That's all I really want to say about this, but I think I could do well to explain a bit of what this book is about. Essentially, it's a gold-hunt, though less Indiana Jones and more semiotic. Two men, Avi and Randy, who grew up playing table RPGs and hacking, go out on their Third Business Venture attempting to build a data-haven in a fictional island in the Pacific, but like their first two businessness ventures, have to stave off the corporate wolves and fraudulent thieves that want to take their investments away from them, not to mention various world governments, who don't like the idea of communication and trade running independent of their interests. In the process, Randy stumbles across a sunken submarine with three curious properties: 1) It's German, which doesn't make sense so close to the Philippines; 2) It has gold in it, which brings curiosity to its destination; 3) It has Randy's grandfather's name written inside of it on a scrap of paper.

What is the submarine doing there? Well that's actually what about 75% of the book is about. Randy is only the subject of about a quarter of the narration: the other three quarters are set in WWII and follow Randy's grandfather, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, expert cryptographer and near-savant; Randy's gold-diving business associate Doug Shaftoe's father, Bobby Shaftoe, extreme marine and action-movie badass; Goto Dengo, hole-digger and disenchanted Nipponese engineer; and the various associates they mix and meet throughout the conflicts of World War II including the true-life Alan Turing and General MacArthur, fictional submarine captains and cryptographers, assorted women along for the ride, and mysterious government and business powers throwing in their two bits here and there. The purpose of all of it? Two-fold: to build a Primary, a hidden cache of trillions worth in gold, and to develop the code called Arethusa which will in some way or another engage every character, WWII or 1999, into the Cryptonomicon. Mad hijinks ensue.

It is a book that can be called "meandering", but to good humor and effect. Many of the characters that the book gets into, especially Randy and Lawrence, are deeply introverted and obsessive people who sometimes simply get distracted by their own heads in the middle of important worldly stuff. It's difficult, for much of the book, to see where a lot of the WWII stuff is going, until of course all the threads suddenly and epicly bundle up at the end and you're looking at a tightly crafted picture you never knew was there--in a way, like breaking a code, what seems like a lot of random noise in a fiction featuring long discussions of beards and Captain Crunch and fictional places called Qwlghm (I had to look this one up on Wikipedia, apparently it's pronounced "Taggum"), the ultimate meaning will be lost until the key is revealed, and then suddenly it all fits into place. I have, unfortunately, read a lot of reviews of this book, and many people cite "disappointment of the ending, or lack thereof." I have no explanation for what they feel they're missing, except that maybe that's just it--they just missed it, because not only is the ending there, but it's gloriously contained*. Perhaps a re-read might be due?

Anyway, I was pretty much taken by most of this book with its sense of humor (laughed about once a page, it felt) and the sort of pre-requisite libertarianism of hacker mentality was engaging and thoughtful. Stephenson especially shows a deep and vast researched knowledge of the topics he talks about, and I ended up learning a lot from this book, too.


*A lot of people also complain about the women characters in the book. I think they missed the fact that most of these women are interacting with men so self-involved in their heads that they tend to forget to look at the women in anything other than their own perspective--the same is true with their interactions with other, male, characters, and nobody complains about that. Know the difference between an author and a narrator, people.

Review by brunop (2008-07-24)
It's one of the few book I didn't finish. In fact, I didn't read pretty far. Just 2 or 3 chapters. This book is really not for me. There's a lot of conversation about science and mathematics, even with a few mathematical formulas written in there. I've done enough math in my school years, I don't need to read about that yet again. And don't think it's because I don't understand maths, I do, I have degrees in chemistry, computer science and electronics.

Also, the dialogue is juvenile, so it seems to me that this book will appeal more to teenagers who eats science for breakfast than me.

(This review refers to the 1999 version titled “Cryptonomicon”)

Review by kadambi (2006-02-06)
A fabulous epic. Stephenson combines his erudition with a delightful sense of (geek) humor to bring all the characters to life. Particularly fascinating is the infusion of real life characters (Alan Turing), interacting with ficticious characters. The convergence of parallel (3?) storylines toward the end was handled superbly.

Look out for Bobby Shaftoe, the marine raider, easily the most entertaining character.

Not your average sci-fi, but it still has pretty pretty interesting concepts (like "van eck phreaking").

A great read if you have the patience.

Review by sage (2005-09-12)
Absolutly a fantastic book. Maybe the best Ive read concidering all elements. Though best I think his dry nerdy humour is. Mixed with quite accurate tech- and factsstuff and a positively non-linear story it just comes down next to perfect. The ending though seemed a little hasted and "we ran out of budget"-ish. Otherwise perfect. I booked my trip to the Philippines two weeks after I finished it.

Review by clong (2004-12-02)
Cryptonomicon is an interesting combination of history, technology, detective story and thriller. It definitely made me want to learn more about cryptography and World War II (especially about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines).

The good guys are well defined, engagingly quirky, and genuinely interesting characters. The plot takes a while to develop much momentum, but things get exciting about a third the way through the book, and build from there to a very satisfying conclusion.

There were a few things I wasn't crazy about. The bad guys are a little sketchy (especially the psycho-attorney who plays a bit role at the very end). The extended Sweden sequence didn't really add much to what was already a very long book. The second lengthy discussion of masterbation was a bit much (although Lawrence's mathematical theories thereon were pretty amusing). But, these are minor quibbles.

Overall, I found it much more satisfying than Snow Crash.

Review by Corleone (2004-01-14)
One of my top three favorites. The plot my be split into multiple points of view and timeframes, and it may be simplistic overall, but the detail and the humor loaded into the story are almost overwhelming. I'm a computer professional, so I definitely appreciated Stephenson's mastergeek knowledge of technology and the intrigue it can produce, as well as his skill in making every situation full of sarcasm or irony.

Review by LJOL (2003-07-18)
Neal Stephenson is a really good author. That I've learned from reading cryptonomicon. I really like the paralell time-lines, it is a really good way of narrating a story. Neal Stephenson uses his prose to paint vivid pictures like allmost no other author I've read. The plot is great and the characters the same. You also get loads of information about ww2 and cryptography wich is really interesting (especially since we in europe doesn't tend to know anything about the war in the pacific). I didn't know a shit about cryptography before I read Cryptonomicon but now I find myself wanting to learn more!
I Can't compare him to any other author, he is in a class of his own. The book was very long, but I wouldn't want it to be a page less.

Review by sqbr (2003-06-30)
Just to add a voice of dissent to the otherwise glowing reviews- as someone who likes cryptography/ computer science but has done a degree on (and taught) it and doesn't like war stories, I found this a bit dull. The explanations were all of stuff I know really well, but would interest anyone who hasn't done Turing machines etc to a university level (and everyone else I've spoken to who has too, so maybe I'm just a freak), and the war stuff really didn't grab me.(Maybe its because I'm a girl) The little diatribes about freedom of information etc were a little didactic but not too frequent.
I liked everything else (though it just kept going on and on!) so still recomend it to most people. Unlike a lot of Neal Stephenson, it does have an ending! A real one!

Review by michael (2003-03-08)
It took me about four months to actually sit down and read Cryptonomicon from the moment that I purchased it. I'm not quite sure why. However, the instant that I actually started reading it in-depth, I was in love. Neal Stephenson has an amazing ability to paint pictures, impart understanding on even the most complex subjects, and, of course, weave a fabulous tale. Main-stream reviewers compare him to other authors, but I myself find him to be a force unto himself. He is a great read; once you start reading, you won't be able to put it down. You will also learn an absolute ton of information (unless, that is, you already know the stuff he's talking about - in which case, sit back and have a fun ride!). Stephenson opened up a whole new world to me with this book and I am now an avid fan of his. I strongly recommend, also, that you read the non-fiction essay (In The Beginning Was the Command Line) that can be found at Cryptonomicon's website. Truly informative and a must for those of the information age.

Review by flagman (2003-03-08)
Cryptonomicon is an excellent example of historical fiction and science fiction working together. It is a fantastically engaging work, and it is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in cryptography, provided one has the time for its 900+ pages.

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