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Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Ten Years Later

“Hey, I finally saw Heat!”
“Heat? I saw that six years ago…”
“Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now!”
~Jim Gaffigan

Ten years ago, we were all agog over The Matrix. Cyberpunk, electronica, and people in fetishistic vinyl clothing were suddenly everywhere. Me? I was still in my final years of high school. I admit, I never saw The Matrix in the theater. I, like many others who didn’t, kicked myself later for not doing so.

But this isn’t about The Matrix. Nope. It’s about a book. You know, those papery things they used to make before we all got addicted to our screens, phones, and Xboxen?

That book is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Had I read this book when it came out, like some of my friends did, I might have a different view of it, but now, ten years later, we can look back on its trademark cutting-edge technology and see how well it has weathered the times.

First, some basic plot and character points. The book is one story, told over two time periods, with concentric story layers. Some characters occupy both timelines, some occupy just one, but they are all interconnected in some way. If you’ve stumbled this far into the internet to find my little corner, you’ve probably seen or heard of the book, but I’m going to try not to divulge too many secrets (well, no more than are in the book’s own synopsis…)

The Waterhouse clan is our main protagonist group in the story, given here in the forms of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse and his grandson, Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, or Randy for short. Randy is a professional hacker; he builds networking code. Really good networking code. His grandfather was likewise gifted with numbers; the elder Waterhouse was a cryptographer in World War II. So what we end up with is a single story, told in bits and pieces, in two different time periods, but involving the same family. Oh, sorry: families.

See, Randy ends up contracting Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy to do some underwater cable work. Turns out Doug Shaftoe’s dad, Bobby Shaftoe, did some work with old man Waterhouse back in the day, in the super-secret Detachment 2702. They also worked with the mysterious Enoch Root, and together did all sorts of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Germans (and Japanese, I suppose) during the war.

But why would this mean anything? Well, there’s a lot of talk involving Randy’s new business venture, Epiphyte(2)– the 2 denoting that this is the second company called “Epiphyte” that he and his friends have concocted. Basically, Ephiphyte is building a data haven–a place where people can deposit their secret information without the prying eyes of governments or other entities seeing it. Eventually this whole operation gets turned upside down, thanks to operations and pacts made in the past… things that the elder Waterhouse, Shaftoe, and Root know about. The key to all of this is a mysterious set of computer punch cards that show up in the possession of Randy’s family.

Add to this some smatterings of Dr. Alan Turing (the computer guy), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the Army guy), and some German conspirators that may or may not have lived, plus some Japanese engineers, and it all adds up to a century’s worth of awesome sauce.

Of course, the book is complex in ways other than its structure. There is some pretty complicated math in the book, plus there’s the added bonus of a lot of networking, business, and hacker lingo. What dates the book is precisely these things. The networking technology at this point was so far behind where we are today, when wireless networking is something you can get on just about any phone, GPS navigation is standard issue in many cars, and encryption is as easy as flipping a check box in a Windows dialog box. Back then, all these things must have seemed so bizarrely ahead of their time. The concept of servers and T1 lines and internet banking are all perfectly normal conversation in many circles now, no longer relegated to the annals of computer science buildings.

Now, I’m 27 years old. I have a pretty good grasp on network architecture, and I know a thing or two about Linux. But the math in some parts of the book is so far beyond my own abilities that I just let it pass. Whatever, I figure Stephenson probably had someone check it to make sure it worked. And that’s the thing about the details the book has: they don’t get in the way of the story. No matter how technical it wants to get, the book breaks down to Good vs. Evil, good ol’ treasure hunting, and the guy getting the girl.

The main thing that kept me coming back to the book (especially the second half, which I consumed in about three days–no small feat for being a 900+ page book) was the style. Think about it this way: if somehow Warren Ellis’ brain consumed all of Tom Clancy’s technical knowledge and then spit it out as both detailed and hilarious, that’s how this book would read. Like a technological Hunter S. Thompson. Which probably means I’ll have to add Stephenson to my list of People That Are Influencing My Fiction Writing.*

Since it is written in present-tense third-person, the book has an immediacy all the way through it that is hard to deny, and is probably what lent itself to such voracious consumption in the second half. And given that Stephenson wrote quick, simple chapters, with utterly fantastic cliffhangers, and structured the pacing in such a way that you didn’t know which plotline was going to be next, it was difficult to put the book down. It went from being a “chapter at a time” book to a “couple hundred pages at a time” book, and I was so consumed by it in the second half that I was emotionally invested in nearly every character in the book, from the lowest Chinese slave camp laborer to the highest German admiral to the nerds at Bletchly Park.

And so, ten years later, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon stands the test of time not because it was an ahead-of-its-time cyber-thriller, but because it tells a pretty good story in a relatively unique way with a ton of fantastic copy. Sure, there are only so many stories to be told, but this one tells a few of them, at breakneck pace, with a fantastic sense of humor. Its details may be a little sketchy now, but it’s heart is definitely still in the right place.

This book may be ten years old, but Cryptonomicon is well worth the wait.

*The list so far: Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Ellis, Neal Stephenson

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  1. Anonymous
    July 21, 2009 at 5:00 am

    Right on, Rick! (I live in Maui now, and people still say that here.) Anyway, I very much appreciate your enthusiasm and good thoughts about this fine book. It's a really good one. I also like the fact that you are commenting on something that's 1) in print and 2) published 10 years ago. Of course it seems like yesterday to me. Aloha, William

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