Review of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
by Neal Stephenson
Look, this isn’t really a novel.
Huh. Is there an echo in here?
I was thinking it had been several years since I last read a Neal Stephenson novel, but it turns out to be just under a year. I borrowed Cryptonomicon from a friend’s mother, because it’s truly not on that I’m a mathematician by training yet haven’t read the most mathematical Stephenson work. I put off reading it for a few weeks, because I knew that it would take a while. This past week was probably not the best week to read it—then again, would there have been a best week? I got lots of programming done on my website while avoiding this book, though.
This book is ostensibly about codes and code-breaking. I’d liken it to The Imitation Game, except I also have managed to skip that one somehow—and anyway, Alan Turing and Bletchley Park feature much less prominently here. Rather, Cryptonomicon follows a fictional friend of Turing’s, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, who is a genius codebreaker. Waterhouse serves in the American armed forces during World War II, where he breaks codes (duh) and gets involved in other unlikely shenanigans. Stephenson develops this plot in parallel with one set in the present day (which is to say, 1999, which is, gosh, 18 years ago now). Lawrence’s grandson, Randy, ends up interacting with the descendants of many of the other characters from Lawrence’s story, as he and a friend try to set up a data haven off the coast of the Philippines.
That’s ostensibly the plot, but like I said, this isn’t really a novel and the story isn’t really a story. It’s more of a loose narrative framework around which Stephenson erects pages-long diatribes on coding, computer science, mathematics, and other very nerdy stuff. It is much like his later efforts of Anathem and Seveneves, which are more about the philosophy of mathematics and how humanity might adapt to life in space, respectively, although of the three novels this one might have something most recognizable as a plot.
I’m not afraid to admit to skimming large portions of this novel. It’s not necessary to … experience … every word of Cryptonomicon to follow it. The connections among the characters are fairly heavy-handed, with Stephenson giving the reader plenty of opportunities to notice a familiar name, symbol, or meme showing up in a different place and time. Additionally, I can tolerate the fairly frequent tangents Stephenson has his characters go off on to explain one mathematical or cryptological concept or other; I’m less tolerant of how this spills over into the descriptions of simplest actions. Randy can’t possibly open his car door, no—this occasions nothing less than three meaty paragraphs on the manufacture of his car and the way the angle of the car door makes Randy think about a line of Perl code he wrote back in his university days. Perl, by the way, is a script people often use on UNIX….
Seriously, this book is not a well-edited, well-paced, well-plotted adventure. It’s Neal Stephenson making shit up about guys named Lawrence and Randy so he can tell you all the cool computer things he knows.
And to his credit, he manages to often be entertaining while doing so. For the most part, I enjoyed the segments that follow Lawrence. The role of code-breaking in World War II, and its concurrent stimulation of the invention of electronic computing, is an interesting subject that is often overlooked in historical treatments of that time. In addition to explaining how certain code systems worked and how the Allies broke these codes, Stephenson also takes the time to show us, rather than merely tell us, how encrypted communications were essential to the war effort. Moreover, he also points out the difficulty of breaking codes in wartime: you don’t want the enemy to know their codes are broken, because then they will change to a different code. So you have to throw them off the scent, so to speak, and create fake reasons for why you knew what the enemy was going to do. I don’t know how accurate this is to actual activities during the war, but it’s a fun corollary thought experiment to the whole activity of intercepting and reading enemy messages.
There’s also a fair amount of humour in here. I liked the highly fictionalized, summarized communiques between Bischoff and Donitz. I liked the portrayal of Colonel Comstock’s preparations for a meeting with Lawrence, girding himself and his team as if they were about to go into an actual battle.
Similarly, although I was less enamoured of the present-day plot and characters, I still like the general ideas. Stephenson was ahead of the curve when it came to talking about cryptocurrencies and even data havens. These ideas seem almost saturated, old hat here in 2017—but I imagine that in 1999, when the Web was still kind of a space for hackers and academics and military types, it was all cutting edge. Stephenson makes a strong case that there are different types of heroism, and that having a strong technical background can be just as valuable as being able to fight or being educated in a scholarly field like law.
I just wish that I didn’t have to wade through so much dull or outright dumb stuff to get to the good bits of this book.
This is the third book in a row I’m dragging for having a rubbish depiction of women. Honestly, people, it isn’t hard, but let’s go over the basics again so we stop screwing this up.
Maybe you should have women as main characters? There are very few named women characters in this book. Most of them exist as sexual and romantic interests for the men, who are the main characters.
Maybe your women should exist for reasons other than sexytimes? Amy Shaftoe is the closest we get to a female main character in this book. She is not a viewpoint character. She does not have an appreciable arc. She has an illusion of agency, but this is largely undermined by her purpose to exist as a manic pixie dreamgirl for Randy. Stephenson seems to confuse “strong female character” with “does lots of physical stuff/wears a leather jacket/I must imply that she might be a lesbian at least five times”.
Maybe you should stop being creepy? Cryptonomicon is super male-gazey in about every sense of the term. The narrator constantly mentions how much Lawrence or Randy need to masturbate, have sex, or otherwise ejaculate before they can “focus”. The male characters from both time periods make sexist remarks, talk about women, look at and objectify women, etc., in ways that are boorish and chauvinistic and stereotypical. There are more examples of this than I can count or possibly mention here. At one point, Randy and Avi are discussing a lawsuit directed at their fledgling company. Avi compares the lawsuit with a mating ritual, saying that their company is a “desirable female” and the lawsuit bringer wants to mate with them, and this is his way of posturing. Later in the novel, Randy spends a few pages mulling over how some women are “just wired” to want to be submissive to men, and that’s why Charlene ended up leaving him, because of course as a computer god, his brain can’t possibly be wired to understand little things like social cues. (It’s actually amazing, in a way, how Stephenson can manage to perpetuate stereotypes against both women and male nerds at the same time.)
It’s gross, is what it is. In any other book it would be bad enough. What really bothers me about its presence in Cryptonomicon is how it compounds, and has perhaps even influenced, given its age and status in the genre now, the portrayal of technologically-adept/minded folks (call them nerds, geeks, hackers, whatever). Young women interested in cryptography deserve to read a story about cryptography without constantly seeing the few female characters in the book objectified or reduced down to “biologically, women want to submit and have sex!” Young men shouldn’t see this kind of behaviour rationalized or played for laughs; they shouldn’t receive the message that nerds are somehow “programmed” to be socially awkward and therefore it’s OK to be creepy and male gazey all the time.
So Cryptonomicon is a book with a bunch of good bits too few and scattered among less good or downright weird and gross bits that I didn’t much appreciate. The mathematical, code-breaking parts of this book are good—really good. But, I mean, I kind of wish I had access to an abridged version with just those parts? Because wading through the, say, 80% of the book that isn’t those parts is just not worth the effort.
Honestly, so far the best depiction of mathematics in fiction I’ve come across is The Housekeeper and the Professor, which doesn’t only depict math but also humanizes it intensely. (And before you ask, no, I haven’t read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime but I certainly plan to steal—uh, borrow—a copy lying around school one of these days.) Cryptonomicon tries to be a math nerd’s wet dream, but Stephenson’s insistence on mentioning his male characters’ wet dreams just doesn’t work for me.