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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Neal Stephenson

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To purchase Cryptonomicon

Title: Cryptonomicon
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 918 pages
Availability: Cryptonomicon - US
Cryptonomicon - UK
Cryptonomicon - Canada
Cryptonomicon - India
Cryptonomicon: I, II, et III - France
Cryptonomicon - Deutschland
Cryptonomicon: I, II, y III - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : a big, broad, ambitious, well-told entertainment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A 21/5/1999 Lev Grossman
Newsweek A 10/5/1999 Steven Levy
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 23/5/1999 Dwight Garner
TLS A- 5/11/1999 Paul Quinn
The Village Voice A- 28/4/1999 Julian Dibbell
The Washington Post A- 9/5/1999 John Schwartz
Wired A 6/1999 Craig Engler

  Review Consensus:

  Minor quibbles about it being an uneven (and unwieldy) book, some disappointment regarding the ending, but otherwise fairly enthusiastic in their praise.

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's an engrossing look at the way the flow of information shapes history--as well as a rare glimpse into the soul of the hardcore geek." - Lev Grossman, Entertainment Weekly

  • "A yea-saying comic book for the next millennium, Cryptonomicon is as fascinating, and as frustrating, as a string of partly decrypted code. Behind the pixilated swagger of Stephenson's prose, you catch frequent glimpses of the genuinely first-rate novel this might have been." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Where Cryptonomicon works resoundingly well is in providing us with a revealing and highly entertaining hacker anthropology. (...) (I)ts control of set-pieces is assured -- Stephenson is capable of making a U-boat firefight and a scrolling screen appear equally visceral. He is less adept at the political and philosophical links between the idea of the data haven and the realities of the conspiracies it spawns" - Paul Quinn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "What cyberculture needs right now is not another science-fiction novel but its first great historical novel, and Cryptonomicon is it: an intimate genealogical portrait of the 20th century's computer geeks, great and small, and of the technosocial landscape they have more and less knowingly shaped." - Julian Dibbell, Village Voice

  • "Like his previous novels, Stephenson's new book is uneven, with some passages that feel talky and pedantic, and require heavy slogging, others that are written with real elegance, and still others that are laugh-out-loud, people-edging-away-from-you- cautiously-on-the-Metro funny." - John Schwartz, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Cryptonomicon tells a number of stories, each a novel in its own right. These stories converge, or at least fit together, to create the beast that is Cryptonomicon. It is one big book. Over 900 pages, near 350,000 words.
       The book is fairly evenly divided, half set in the present day and half in World War II. The present day story centers around computer savvy Randy Waterhouse and his friends and colleagues. Randy is a co-founder of a new high-tech company, Epiphyte. They see a business opportunity to make some cash in the Philippines, and then see an even better opportunity involving data transfer in that area of the world. A super-rich mini-state (think Brunei) is building the so-called Crypt, a data-haven that will be out of reach of any government interference. Lots of people (mainly of dubious character) are interested in such a data-haven -- truly secret data storage, money-laundering possibilities ... it would be an immensely popular place once built. Randy and his buddies have the technical know-how to provide key aspects for the Crypt. And a large part of that has to do with cryptographic capabilities -- being able to encode data so third parties can't get at it.
       The World War II part of the book also centers, to some extent, around cryptography. Randy's grandfather, Lawrence Waterhouse, gets involved in World War II cryptography (studying at Princeton before the war with Alan Turing -- and a German maths whiz). There is also the Marine Bobby Shaftoe, who plays a vital part in the Allied governments' efforts to hide the fact that they have broken German and Japanese codes. And, fifty years later, Randy Waterhouse just happens to hire Bobby's son, Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, and his grand-daughter, Amy, to help with some cable-laying work in the Philippines
       The novel also involves German and Japanese efforts to hide huge amounts of gold at the close of World War II, and then the modern-day efforts to recover that gold. Stephenson weaves an incredibly intricate story around this. He shows an admirable restraint in presenting his tale. He allows it to unfold fairly slowly, taking his time as he lays down his cards, one by one. He paces the book well, in short chapters, alternating present and past. Even though it only slowly becomes clear where this is all headed, there is a great deal of action along the way.
       Danger lurks around every corner -- understandable in wartime, but Stephenson shows many of the modern threats as well (amusingly often they are of a dryly legal nature -- but no less effective or scary for that). Bobby Shaftoe is assigned to a select group of men who go around to various places (usually in enemy hands) creating noise -- statistical events to throw the Nazis and the Japanese off the track and lead them to believe that the Allied success at destroying them is based on factors other than the possibility that their codes have been broken and all their orders intercepted. The global tour makes for many interesting and exciting little adventures. The modern day adventures are similarly varied -- from domestic disputes, computer espionage of varied sorts, earthquakes, planted drugs, to the final convergence in the jungle.
       Much of the book has a mathematical and computer emphasis, but Stephenson presents all this very well. Parts may not be comprehensible to the layman, but the broad outlines are and that suffices. (Though admittedly much of the really good stuff is in Stephenson's detail.)
       The book is, however, also about the high tech business -- presented exceptionally well, and often very amusingly. And it is about relationships in our day and age, personal as well as cultural. And pretty much everything else under the sun. (Among the aspects we were less won over by: the religious aspects slipped in, the Holocaust moralizing (half on target, but only half), the overromanticizing of war-heroes, the Isle of Qwghlm and its language.)
       From the Japanese digging expert, Goto Dengo, to the various computer nerds, Stephenson has created a large number of engaging and interesting characters, well and fully realized. More importantly, what he really does well is fill his stories with convincing detail, subtle and not so subtle observations that are thoughtful, and cleverly put. While the story meanders a great deal the tangents are almost always interesting, and there is no noticeable lull in the text.
       What did we like less ? A minor point, but for a book that emphasizes mathematical precision so we were really annoyed by exaggerations such as: "Waterhouse estimates that the Rolls-Royces must have driven up from London at an average speed of about nine thousand miles per hour" or: "It has been about two hundred years, now, since Bobby Shaftoe had a trace of morphine in his system."
       A greater annoyance was the book's weakest character, Randy's nemesis Andrew Loeb, a shadowy figure who is too cartoonish to fully convince. And, lastly, we did not really like how the book petered out. One of its strengths is in showing life realistically, with its absurd and unexpected ups and downs. Stephenson manages this almost perfectly throughout the book (with only a few scenes that are too far-fetched), but then, forced to a dramatic finale, the book falls somewhat short. The ending is just too flat.

       Nevertheless, this is a fine read. Stephenson writes very, very well. His tone is spot-on almost all the time, his sense of humor sharp, his powers of observation keen. This is definitely a literary thriller, written by a man who is literate (and -- hallelujah ! -- numerate). And it is a really good yarn. The mathematics may put some off, as will the sheer heft of the book. Well-paced, as we said, this is, however, not a fast read. There's a lot to this book -- and we believe it is worth the effort.
       Certainly recommended.

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Cryptonomicon: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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