Neal Stephenson’s writing process must be insane. This is my third book of his and I am continually astounded by the level of obsessive technical detail present for whichever field happens to be the critical science du jour in each book. Snow Crash took great liberties with neurolinguistics, but it was still clear that Stephenson had done his homework and there was a foundation of knowledge there. Jumping straight to his most recent novel, I found Seveneves stunning, not just because of, again, the amount of research that went into the realistic depictions of aerospace and genetic engineering, but also because — as a geneticist — it was really refreshing to read a speculative science fiction novel that explored the more heroic potential of biotechnology, rather than painting it as the culprit for some kind of dystopian doomsday scenario.
Cryptonomicon, as one might have guessed from the title, deals with cryptography, predictive statistical modeling, treasure hunting, and a little bit of technorebellion. If you’re not interested in math-heavy explanations of digital technology and cypher languages, it may be about the time you choose to nope out of reading this book. If you’re still in, you’ll be treated to two timelines: the first occurs during WWII and primarily follows Lawrence Waterhouse, genius mathematician and close friend of Alan Turing, and Bobby Shaftoe, US Marine and one of those guys who is so straightforward and adaptable that he doesn’t need a lot of high-falutin’ book smarts to solve problems and keep himself alive. There are also a few other secondary characters who have important roles in the story and as such get their own chapters from time to time.
The second timeline follows their descendants. Randy Waterhouse is a computer scientist/programmer/hacker type who has neither the head for business nor academia, so he is kind of treading water in his career until his good friend Avi ropes him into an enterprise in the Philippines that promises not only to have important implications for Randy’s personal wealth, but also for the future of free data and Internet regulation. While in Manila, he meets Amy Shaftoe, who leads a boat crew who do primarily salvage, but can also be contracted for other tasks. In this case, their business agreement is to lay underwater fiberoptic cable to connect Manila with other Southeast Asian cities and create a stable pipeline for Randy and Avi’s data transfer.
For most of the book, the WWII sections were vastly more interesting than the present-day sections. This is most likely due to the fear of present danger inherent in narratives taking place in the middle of a war, and because the measures and counter-measures apparently taking place at Bletchley Park in response to military intelligence were fascinating on a scientific level and on the level that failures in this area had massive repercussions. Meanwhile, the contemporary story felt like slow-building set up for the last 100 pages of the book, which, though rewarding, were entirely too rushed and only barely resolved.
I mesh very well with Stephenson’s style, but even I was reaching the upper limit of my technobabble threshold with this one. Do you know what Van Eck phreaking is? Well, after you read Cryptonomicon, you will know what it is, how it works, and possibly even be more paranoid than any average person has any right to be about if it could happen TO YOU! Nonetheless, what I continue to appreciate about Stephenson’s version of hard sci-fi is that his infodumps concern actual modern technology or plausible applications thereof. I’m all for thorough futuristic worldbuilding, but at some point, if I’m not learning about something real, a detailed schematic of a dark matter fuel cell engine rendered in words — for me — detracts from the plot more than it contributes to the atmosphere. When I read Stephenson, I feel like I’m getting a good story AND an education.