Friday, November 14, 2008

Books: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

This is one of those books that's too good to write about. Or, perhaps I'm just wussing out because it's actually one of those books that's too hard to write about. With no intended insult to Stephenson, what Cryptonomicon is, at its core, is a Thomas Pynchon book that is actually readable—that is, fun to read. It is, of course, plenty challenging, with a cross-generational and international plot, tons of mathematical, cryptographical, and technical digressions and details, and words I had to write down and later look up in the dictionary. And, like a Pynchon novel, it's riddled with paranoia, war, and distrust of the government and its military. But somehow, Stephenson makes us want to read and read and read, so that 900 pages isn't some chore to be hopeless hacked at, ten pages at a time, but a few weeks of total immersion into a different world, so that, when you've finished the book, you're lonely, and miss your new friends.

Who are they? Too many to list, but the very basic story is as follows: in the early 90s, Randy Waterhouse, whose grandfather was a brilliant mathematician and possible inventor of the computer, who worked as a cryptanalyst for the US Military during WWII, is working on a venture with an assortment of hackers and RPG-fanatics to lay Internet cable off a small island near the Philippines and, in concert with the tiny government of that island, create a depository and electronic currency. The cable-laying is outsourced to a company run by an American expat family; the young woman (Amy Shaftoe, short for America) becomes Randy's object of affection, while back in the WWII plot, Amy's grandfather is a berserk Marine who knows not enough of the too much that he knows, which lands him working on a special team that brings him into occasional contact with the young Gramps Waterhouse. The big secret is that the Japanese government, knowing that its losing the war, is building an enormous vault in a cave engineered by also half-berserk (war will do that to you) Goto Dengo, where they store about a gazillion dollars worth of gold. By the book's end, the aged Goto, who is somehow still alive, meets Randy (and his Israeli business partner Avi, who has his own fascinating set of plot-relevant neuroses) for dinner, where Randy reveals that he knows the coordinates of the vault (which he knows by having decoded his grandfather's encrypted IBM (oh, in the book they're called the Electric Till Corporation) cards. Needless to say, the ending is happy—another one of the things that differentiates Stephenson from Pynchon.

The real differentiation is that Pynchon's characters are cartoons, drug-induced mock-ups of people's worst aspects, flattened onto the page and then reinflated by weird quirks and sexual desires. The resulting characters are impossible to get attached to, and when we don't care about the characters, and the reading gets hard, we don't care to read on, to do the work and find out what happens (particularly since we know, if we've read Pynchon before, that nothing is going to happen). Stephenson's characters, for all their nerdy quirks, have more blood. Which is why I'm now committed to reading the 3,000 pages of his Baroque Cycle before circling back to Against the Day.

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