Another one from the top five list: Cryptonomicon is a massive, funny read, and even if the end creaks, the ride makes the destination a tertiary concern. The language is there, the story is there, and the characters are there, even if they brush the cartoon line.
The mathematically-inclined Waterhouse clan makes a strong showing, including Lawrence Waterhouse, a World War II-era mathematician with a mind too logical for social graces. His grandson, Randy Waterhouse, using his Lord of the Rings classification system, sees Lawrence as an Elf, while he (Randy) is a Dwarf, and his longtime girlfriend and her nitwit academic friends are squabbling hobbits. A subplot with Randy’s ex-girlfriend takes potshots at academia, a target Neal Stephenson regards with bemused detachment in this Slashdot interview. It’s worth reading the whole interview to see a chaotic (in the sense of Chaos Theory) mind at work.
Lawrence probably has an equally chaotic mind, even if Randy probably most resembles the author. Randy is a contemporary hacker who is bright but not brilliant and knows it, and as such is just trying to make his way in an insane world—populated with some minor characters who keep reappearing like unwanted infections. They can be handled, though, with good friends and steely resolve, even if those good friends sometimes pontificate.
Okay, so they do pontificate a lot, but their conversations are so fascinating that the book’s length seems if anything too short, but too long on a few ideas. At the end there’s a mini-dissertation about the importance of myth, which is fantastic, but a few scenes degenerate into cartoonish and mindless subplots. The latter is embodied by the comments on Qwghlm, a made-up place and language designed to comment on linguistic and cultural quirks that seem more silly than anything else. Still, such very minor flaws are obscured by enormous strengths, as Cryptonomicon is as hilarious as Straight Man and as deep as Proust. One scene takes multiple pages to describe eating Captain Crunch. I’ll never look at breakfast cereal quite the same way.
There are also plenty of bits about the nature of life and reality—properly placed in a story so bound up in abstract math and seeing the patterns in existence where some see none. It’s also meditative at times, such as when Enoch Root, who plays the sagacious guide, says:
Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior?… Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.
So what is real, anyway, Root? Nothing, I suppose, since an inappropriate application of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to consciousness tells us that we can’t step outside the system of consciousness to evaluate that systems. So we’re inside looking out, but we can’t really hold up a mirror to ourselves—which is itself just a metaphor for the abstract concept I’m trying to convey. Or, as Randy’s ex-girlfriend might say, reality is a cultural construction.
Philosophy done right is hard. So is math, full stop, without even saying “done right”. No wonder they both used to be the same thing: natural philosophy, or what we now think of as science. Stephenson’s telling us in Cryptonomicon that there’s no real separation between the two, despite the school system’s artificial segmentation of naturally overlapping disciplines into neat subjects.
Cryptonomicon is more fun than deep, particularly regarding the odd mating habits of nerds, who are the unusual heroes of this book—even more so than a gung-ho World War II-era China Marine, Bobby Shaftoe, the third protagonist. Granted, he’s an unusually perceptive gung-ho China Marina, but he’s still an action hero with more lives than Cat Woman and a knack for being in the right place at the time right historical time. Stephenson likes that sort of thing: The Baroque Trilogy is filled with such handy coincidences, although those three novels aren’t anywhere near the level of Cryptonomicon. Well, at least the first one, Quicksilver, isn’t, since it’s the only one I read, but I assume the others don’t improve.
If the book has a major weakness—I don’t count the end as major—it’s how difficult understanding the storylines can be, but by a quarter way through you start to see how they intertwine, and although the end that brings them together may not pull them as tightly as it could due chiefly to strain of trying to keep three zany plots together, it does work—and the first thing you want to do is go back and read the first half again, so you can perceive all that was previously uncertain and confused. In that way you get two books in one, but it’s more like two times three: Cryptonomicon’s length comes from the three storylines, any one of which would be sufficient to fill a book of normal girth. The same strategy applies to The Baroque Trilogy, but in that case the sausage components burst through the casing.
Cryptonomicon is amazing. It’s the book that’s easy to read and yet offers astonishing intellectual rewards. Any criticism above is minor in comparison with the magnitude of the work. Losing sight of that is easy in the dissection of minor flaws, so I will reiterate the point here.