Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

29 June 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverI’ll make it simple: read this book. It’s worth the back pain from carrying the goddamned heavy 900-page brick around. It’s worth the lost hours of sleep when it becomes so gripping that it is difficult to put down despite its weight. It’s even worth the price, though I recommend buying it now, while is still selling at 30% off, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Neal Stephenson has created two parallel stories, one a World War II yarn of secret code-breakers and the extremes necessary to keep their secrets safe; the other a modern-day tale of high-tech corporate intrigue. The two stories are intricately entwined, as many of the modern players are children and grandchildren of the WW2 cast and find themselves unraveling the same mysteries that were buried 50 years ago. Sunken Nazi submarines in the Philippines filled with gold; a secret society pulling hidden strings; red herrings sprinkled throughout (my favourite has something to do with Unix superusers, a ruse even non-hackers will get if they’re paying attention); a gung-ho U.S. Marine getting it on with his beloved and then running off to blow shit up; there’s a little bit of just about everything in this book.

A metaphor that comes to mind is that of a large, well-used, and valuable computer hard drive. The files are fragmented to beat the band, there are a handful of bad sectors, and the whole thing is stuffed to capacity. With each new chapter (some quite small), the book jumps around from past to present (always in the present tense, unless it’s a flashback), and often it’s left to our imagination or a later exposition (up to hundreds of pages later) to explain how some characters got to where they are from where they were the last time we saw them. Yet the content is so entertaining, and frequently highly informative, that the reader is pulled further along without worrying much about those details. Not that the book lacks for details. In fact, it is almost nothing but. Some might say that taking three pages to describe Randy’s elaborate Cap’n Crunch ritual is excessive, but I feel I know that character and his motivations much better now that I fully understand one of his idiosyncrasies.

I fear this book is popular enough that a movie deal will soon be inked. This would be a mistake, since while most movies are purely plot-driven, in the book the plot is frequently an afterthought. Much of the “action” takes place in characters’ heads, and a lot of pertinent information comes in the form of long-winded, tangent-surfing dialogues. A movie could easily fit all the physical action into a couple hours, but the essence and intelligence of Cryptonomicon would be lost.

A fine example, and one of my favourite chapters, is when Lawrence Waterhouse visits the Qwghlmian church and has a dramatic pipe organ epiphany. The action is itself funny, but the best part is the running monologue in Lawrence’s head as he hypothesizes on a world-wide conspiracy of women to control the male ejaculation—while simultaneously inventing the digital computer. A film could not possibly depict this adequately.

In other words, you’ll just have to read the book. But get it at a discount, or pick it up at the library, and here’s why: the publisher, Avon Books, could not be bothered to hire a competent copy editor. Unfortunately, the text seems to have been fed directly from Neal’s laptop (or his BeBox) into the presses without even the benefit of a spellcheck. Missing punctuation, transposed letters, and outright misspellings occur an average of once every 10 pages throughout. (Note to Neal: we know you like the word abbatoir [sic] since you use it in both this book and your thought-provoking essay on the computer industry, but repeat after me: A-B-A-T-T-O-I-R. One b, two t’s. One b, two t’s.)

Worse, both the standard-issue code example (“Attack Pearl Harbor…”) and the appendix describing the Pontifex Transform contained errata that affected the outcome of those systems. Ultimately I took to carrying a pencil around with my copy and performed my own editing, which was at once malicious fun and an annoyance. This book, and Avon in general, are not the only ones guilty of this. In fact, shitty copy editing is rampant throughout the industry, and it’s time book buyers took a stand. I can live with the unevenly cut page edges opposite the spine, since that seems to be a common “feature” these days, and doesn’t affect the readability. However, if I’m going to kill a few trees, dump dioxins in a river somewhere, and pay 25 bucks of my hard-earned cash, damn it, I think it’s only fair that I get my money’s worth. It doesn’t cost much to print a book, publishers, so hire someone to do a little quality control!

Please excuse the tangential rant. Cryptonomicon is an excellent read. I’m still debating whether I want to start up one of Stephenson’s other books… or start this one over again.

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