Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Wertzone Classics: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Sometimes a book comes along that leaves the reader dazed with the author's vision, scope and ambition. Neal Stephenson has done this a few times with his work, but arguably never better than in Cryptonomicon.

The novel follows two stories in parallel. In WWII, a group of cryptologists based at Bletchley Park are struggling to crack the German codes so the British and Americans can more effectively combat the German U-boat threat. In the present, a group of businessmen are attempting to build a data haven in the (fictious) Pacific state of Kinakuta. Both plotlines draw on codes, cryptology, cryptoanalysis and the blurring of the genres of science fiction and historical fiction (a line which is even further muddied by the subsequent Baroque Cycle, which serves as a quasi-prequel series to this novel).

It is difficult to describe the book. It's scope is huge, sprawling across Europe, America, the Phillippines and other parts of the world in two different time periods, incorporating dozens of major characters of note and very effectively educating the reader about the science of codes and puzzles (far more effectively than the amateurish Da Vinci Code) before the two storylines very effectively come together at the end of the book. Stephenson's style is very readable, occasionally dense, but often very funny. There are longeurs and apparently unrelated episodes in the book which are masterfully re-incorporated into the greater narrative to form a cohesive whole. It's a book about secrets, what it costs to hold those secrets, and the consequences when those secrets are revealed. It's a war story and a techno-thriller at the same time. It's an adventure story about the hunt for lost treasure and also a book about the value of information. It is a unique work.

Cryptonomicon won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2000 and unquestionably deserved it. If The Separation was the first truly great SF novel of the 21st Century, than Cryptonomicon is almost certainly the last great SF novel of the 20th, and one of the few works that I would apply the label 'genius' to.

Cryptonomicon (*****) is available from Arrow Books in the UK (with a gorgeous cover painting) and from Avon in the USA.


Paddy said...

A fantastic book. I enjoyed it immensely.

I absolutely loved the scene where Randy is deciphering the documents in the Prison Cell using his laptop.

He first learns deciphering techniques right there in the cell using some electronic textbooks and he can't show the encrypted documents or his results on screen because he knows that it's a honeypot from the people who imprisoned him and they are using Van Eck phreaking to montior what's on the screen, so he learns Morse Code and writes a small program to blip out the results using the numpad, scroll-lock and caps-lock lights.

Geeky and awesome.

The comparison to the DaVinci code is apt, though there is no comparison in the level of realism and intelligence involved in the two books.

Adam Whitehead said...

There's also the bit where he hacks the network of a building being raided by the police by sitting on the rooftop opposite and pretending to be a reporter (or just a nosey neighbour with a laptop).

The comparison is quite good. I like to think of the Da Vinci Code as the LOL version of Cryptonomicon. "U haz Jezus blud, kayz?"

ThRiNiDiR said...

Cryptonomicon is on my to-read list now...but I don't know why Dan Brown gets so much negative attention. I enjoyed Da Vinci Code and Angels&Demons even more so...it's light, but an enjoyable beach read.