Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999)

Author: Neal Stephenson

Title: Cryptonomicon

Format: e-book

Pages: 1152

Series: Baroque Cycle #0

Cryptonomicon is one of those bricks that can kill you, if thrown with adequate velocity. It can damage your metacarpals and wrists, and it may even make your head hurt. It’s a proof of the ultimate self-indulgence as much as that of sheer writing talent. So what can a poor reviewer do with such a conundrum?

Let’s be blunt: this is no Anathem. Cryptonomicon can claim more kinship with Seveneves, in that infuriating unevenness, disjointedness and political context that characterises both books; as Seveneves, it makes the readers follow two separate timelines, merging together, to an extent, through the generational and thematic links. Unlike Seveneves, it wears its juvenile, masculine self-obsessions on its sleeve, gladly offering pages upon pages to vapid ruminations on the necessity – or lack of it – of masturbation, virginity, and large wisdom teeth, and regaling the readers with facts about workings of the prostate. I would’ve gladly been spared all of it; and I’m also pretty certain the book would’ve been much better if a good editor went through it with the requisite ruthlessness and sharp eye. I’m also quite sure Stephenson thought back in 1999 that he was fearlessly pushing boundaries of custom and habit, introducing new hot cultural topics into the sanitized reality we purportedly live in; alas, there is a good reason for not having prolonged pooping scenes, or brushing teeth/ flossing/ pimple removal/ put whatever physiological activity you want here/etc. in mainstream novels. It’s not revelatory; just boring. It doesn’t bring value to the plot, doesn’t endear the protagonists nor does it make them more relatable – if anything, it makes them look more like self-obsessed, anally retentive jerks. Of course, there are hypothetical – and a few real – examples of when such literary devices might work, especially when making a self-obsessed, OCD asshole of the protagonist is the author’s intention; sadly, Cryptonomicon is not one of them.

Another peeve is Stephenson’s weird relationship with religion and political correctness; judging by the amount of unfortunate expressions and awkward nods to religion in the world described by the author as judgmental and fundamentalistic in its lip service to tolerance and equality while espousing the values of armed resistance to governmental unfairness and prosecution seamlessly joined with colonialism, Stephenson has somewhat conflicted views on liberalism and globalism. And that’s totally fine; Asher goes much further in his criticism, and that doesn’t detract from my reading pleasure. Alas, Cryptonomicon, so fascinating when dealing with mathematical problems, flounders miserably when faced with social issues. Stephenson’s views come to light as awkward pamphlets wedged here and there in the narrative. Where’s that editor?? 

As for masculine self-obsessions, you need look no further than female characters of Stephenson’s book: there are few and far between, and all neatly fit into predefined slots: an emasculating feminist bitch that secretly wants to be dominated; an ex-prostitute dominatrix beating up her affluent husband while simultaneously working for an exotic mafia; an attractive, seductive spy working for the enemy, who almost brings doom to one of the protagonists; an ethereal lady of particular beauty, for whom none of the earthly things make much sense and who spends all her moments in the novel proving her total uselessness in anything that isn’t being an inspiration to one that same protagonist; a long-suffering, coldly capable, Terminator-like mother to many, many children – and a variation on this theme, a coldly capable mother of one child who becomes the legend of the underground after she contracts an incurable disease; a promiscuous, somewhat unhinged and slightly bestial girl so unsure of the paternity of her child that she gives him three most probable names; and lastly, the final reward for our main protagonist, a half-exotic, half-American wild beauty, adept at all kinds of exciting activities, who’s explicitly described as a virgin waiting for the love of her life. That’s all folks; these are the only women known by name in this 1152 pages-long novel, and really, their names are only courtesy; they are as alive as cardboard cutouts.

Ah, now your eyes stray to the end of this review, to check (or double-check) the rating. If it’s so bad, why did I rate it so highly, I hear you ask. Because, dear readers, Cryptonomicon has also a few redeeming qualities. First and foremost, the timeline set during WWII is absolutely fantastic. I loved every moment of it; I immediately took to all of the protagonists of this period, their crazy adventures, their unique worldviews and voices. Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, the grandfather of geeks, was my favourite: totally socially inept and completely unaware of it – any, more than that; absolutely happy because of it. Bobby Shaftoe, the mad Marine a.k.a. tribute to Vonnegut; Goto Dengo, the ultimate cultural oxymoron, the Japanese more Western than Westerners. Their storyline was spectacular, emotional, and intellectually rewarding. If Cryptonomicon were cut in half,and only their part of the story remained, I’d have given it 10 stars. Because, frankly, the other half, dealing with the grandchildren of the WWII crew, was boring as heck. The one comparison that doesn’t want to leave my mind is Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. I couldn’t get enough of Corwin; but the less I saw of Merlin the happier I was. Randy Waterhouse and America Shaftoe and all their friends and enemies were just boring; I guess it comes with the turf – digging and diving for gold, or laying internet cables, will never be as exciting and high-stakes as defeating Nazis through grit and intellect. 

Lastly, there’s Enoch Root; I’m sure Stephenson was happily giggling to himself when he was naming this mysterious figure; certainly by 1999, subtlety was not his forte. Enoch Root introduces the magical into the alternative history of Cryptonomicon; his presence is inexplicable, his meddling suspicious, and his seeming immortality somewhat on the nose. I am told he’s popping up throughout the Baroque Cycle, leaving hints and allusions regarding his true nature. I’m not sure I care enough about him to slog through the remaining jungle of pages that Stephenson wrote on this topic, however.

Well, it’s a rambling review; one of those that seesaw from scorn to enthusiasm and back. Cryptonomicon isn’t a masterpiece; not even a flawed one. But it’s highly enjoyable for the most part, and, in its technical aspects of cryptography, truly fascinating. Hats off to Stephenson for the technical knowledge and the skill to present a highly abstract topic in an engaging, even gripping, way. But it won’t hide the fact that Cryptonomicon as a whole has aged considerably and unkindly; I might have loved it had I read it the year it was published, but in 2023 I can only ever like it, and even that is a lukewarm feeling.

Score: 7/10

30 thoughts on “Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999)

  1. Seveneves really frustrated me because it started so well. I was skimming the final hundred or so pages just wanting it to be over. I agree with your comments about Stephenson NEEDING an editor, because he clearly doesn’t have one. Or if he does, it’s the equivalent of Rick McCallum to George Lucas on the Prequel Trilogy–basically just a “Yes man.”

    I must admit I was surprised by your high score considering the faults you point out. I’m glad you got enough enjoyment out of it, though. I will get to Anathem one day, although Seveneves has put me off a bit. Do we really need 1000-plus pages in a novel these days? I have the same problem with some of Stephen King’s novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Seveneves was a frustrating read. The sheer implausibility of the underwater/underground scenarios was just mind-boggling when confronted with the previous meticuluously researched scenario of Moon being blown to bits. As if the second part of this book was written by someone else! Plus, the female characters were really hard to stomach – not much more than walking stereotypes designed to pass on genes.
      As for my rating, the WWII bits are just really that good. Despite all the critique I heaped on Cryptonomicon (fully deserved!) the cryptography bits and the alternate history were really superb.
      Anathem is simply fabulous. I fell in love with that book. It’s Stephenson’s masterpiece, and a passionate love letter to philosophy and mathematics. Cannot recommend it enough!

      Thanks for reading, Wakizashi! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha aww. I understand your feelings about it. I do think it’s a masterpiece and I totally loved it. But i told you, it is boyish. I loved the Randy Waterhouse stuff too because I’ve lived in the Philippines for half a year and all his adventures there were so recognizable and vivid for me. Plus, I totally enjoyed all those ridiculous asides in the text. That cracked me up. But yes, I perfectly understand your reaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think if you read it today, without the nostalgia, you’d be more critical of it ;). It’s super fun, and the alternative history is just superb, but that lyrical waxing about prostate filled to bursting with semen is not something I needed – or wanted – to read… 😛

      I was wondering about the Philippines part, actually. I didn’t put it in my review, because it’s an entire huge topic, but I felt Stephenson fell into that Orientalism trap where anything exotic and un-Western is somehow dangerous, irrational, magical and less civilized. I felt that stereotype very strongly in this novel, but to be fair, the discourse about stereotypical Orientalism started to be known beyond academic circles probably in 2010s if not later.

      What are your thoughts about it, Jeroen?

      You know, I still liked it enough to give it 7/10, even despite its boyishness you warned me of! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t read it too long ago, I think towards the end of 2018. I was in need of a laugh and on a solo travel tour, so I flew through this novel while traveling and I was constantly laughing about Stephenson’s descriptions. I wrote at the time: “It has that sarcastic, slightly autistic, nerdy young male perspective, but in a very literary and hilarious way. I fear what that says about me enjoying this, but at least I recognize a slightly warped perspective when it is there.”

        The Philippines part was a feast of recognition for me, but if I were to read it now I would be more critical about elements of Orientalism. I didn’t pick up on these things in the past and I wasn’t that bothered with them as long as the writer made something enjoyable out of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stephenson had traveled through the Philippines for a while, based on his descriptions. The thing with staying in an Asian country for a longer time as a Westerner is that after months you get a dawning realisation that you will never ever become part of that Asian culture that is around you. You will always remain the alien. Some people do not take well to that and as a response they start to see the people around them as the “Other” more and more. Orientalism could be some psychological response by Stephenson if he had stayed there for a while.

        As you are a programmer now, this was required reading, Ola! 😀 By the way did you pick up on that the name Goto Dengo is a programmer in-joke?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, I read that Think actually made it a required reading at his company 🤣 guess he didn’t have many female programmers there at the time! I was wondering about Goto’s name, but somehow I expected programming jokes on the Western side, like Root 😉 btw, do you want to see my project on GitHub?? 😁

          Philippines felt quite tangible in Cryptonomicon – the jungle, the humidity, the confusion… until they didn’t, what with the absurds piling one on top of the other: jail, corruption, treasure, extremely beautiful women and dangerous manly men, and that slightly sneering, superior appreciation of a place with less civilization and, by that virtue, closer to nature. But I do get what you’re saying; I think it’s always very hard to unroot oneself and find one’s place somewhere else – particularly when the culture is drastically different and one even looks different and is unable to fit in. That said, though, I just felt that the Philippines and Kinakuta served here as a stereotype of the Orient as opposed to the West.

          I loved Lawrence’s perspective; I feel your words describe his voice perfectly. But Randy, on the other hand, felt… spoilt, I guess, and not entirely authentic. “First World problems” would be how I’d describe his perspective 😜 and don’t let me start on HEAP! 🤣

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Root yeah that must also be a programmer joke. He also appears in Fall or Dodge in Hell. Sure I’d like to see your GitHub project. 😀 I have a profile there too but I haven’t updated it in a while. My current employer uses GitLab which is different. Send it to jeroenadmiraal at gmail dot com.

            I believe you that the Philippines and Kinakuta were portrayed as stereotype. It has been too long ago for me to really remember it. What was HEAP again?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yay! I’ll send you an email this week. There’s nothing much but I’m working on a bookish project 😀

              HEAP was this childish anti-Holocaust idea that it’s enough to give every member of a minority a gun and they’ll be safe 😛


    1. Yeah, I could see why! 😀 If the book consisted only of the modern part I’d have DNFed it too. Over 500 pages of waffling about an anally retentive, self-obsessed nerdy guy? No, thanks! Thankfully, the WWII part was superb 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reading through your review I was more than ready to place this book in the “don’t bother” category, then I reached the part where you mention the segments focused on WWII (always an intriguing historical period) and its characters, and here I was torn because they sounded worth learning about. I’m not sure I would be up to the task of forging through the prolonged description of bodily functions or the other elements that bored you thoroughly, but I might give this book some consideration. Maybe. 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think it’s not for everyone 🙂 And for the WWII period, there are better books, too. But if you’re interested in cryptography – well, then it’s a must read! 😀

      Thanks for reading, Maddalena!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Bletchley Park and Alan Turing play a very important role in the book, and the efforts to not betray to Nazis that the Enigma cypher had been broken are the main plot line in the WWII timeline 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, Ola. Though I loved Seveneves, I’m pretty sure you are right about this one: juvenile, macho. I’m still going to read it one day. I also think you should at least try the first of the Baroque books, as that didn’t feel juvenile at all to me, but it has been about 10 years since I’ve read it.

    I’ll be back later to read all the comments, I see there’s already some lengthy discussion here, nice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bart!
      I really loved the first part of Seveneves; it was tight, full of fascinating facts, and was truly a tour de force. But the far future part… Nah.

      I’ll give the Baroque #1 a chance, but I think I’ll have a break before I reach for another Stephenson ;). Right now I’m reading Too Like the Lightning 😀

      Looking forward to your thoughts on this discussion!


      1. For the most I agree on the far future part btw, but I see that part more as a coda, not influencing my opinion on the whole a lot.

        Baroque 1 was the heaviest Stephenson I read so far, so a break is a very good idea. I’m still on a break before I’ll read 2 🙂
        I hope you’re having fun with the Palmer!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, I’ll return to Stephenson at a later date, and it will be the Baroque cycle.

          I am enjoying Palmer – thanks! 😁 I definitely detect the manga/anime stylistics, particularly with regards to overblown emotions… 🤣

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😀

      Yeah, I still think it was worth reading. It was a good book for me in this moment, lots about programming and cryptography 🙂 But if I were to recommend one Stephenson book, it would be Anathem, always!

      Looking forward to your thoughts on Anathem once you get around to reading it, Lashaan! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I still haven’t read Snow Crash; but Anathem is among my all-time favorite novels. This one was a mixed bag to say the least, but the cryptography/programming stuff was spot on and super engaging for me. Stephenson is a bit like KSR – they are both writers of ideas more than of characters or plot 😉 – with the exception of Anathem, of course! 😁


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