No hubris

Having loved Snow Crash a long time ago, and having decided after reading Anathem in 2012 that Neal Stephenson is among my favourite writers, I’m finally getting around to reading more of his books. Cryptonomicon was published in 1999, when Stephenson already had a reputation as a very smart science-fiction writer, but I surmise that it is touted as his archetypal novel. It combines a formally straightforward (if extremely complex) thriller plot, with a wide range of characters, an insider’s perspective on nerd and hacker culture, a willingness to tackle technical detail head on, a geographically and historically epic scope, an engagement with complex ideas across a range of topics, and a febrile atmosphere of playfulness and daft humour reminiscent of Douglas Adams. It is in short an astonishingly ambitious and complex piece of writing—but at the same time a very accessible and engaging one.

In some ways the sheer enormity and complexity of this work leaves me with relatively little to say about it. It’s an enormous and complicated novel. It’s pretty much a conventional essay in the business of novel writing, although certainly an extraordinarily accomplished one: where Stephenson innovates is more in what he puts in than in how he writes it. One chapter I recall in particular, I was a considerable way into, and enjoying it far too much to notice until I paused for some reason, that it had consisted entirely of a discussion of the modular arithmetic required to calculate when the chain would come off Alan Turing’s bicycle. This is, I guess, a technique borrowed from hard science-fiction, and is probably what makes some examples of that genre unreadable for a more general, novel-fancying audience.

This is not an SF book, but a thriller which divides its narrative between historical fiction set largely during the Second World War, and the late 1990s. However, it takes as a central topic/plot element the subjects of cryptography and cryptanalysis, and Stephenson approaches them as a hard SF author would approach the science of a story. He treats them as the meat. Impressively, he goes into a great deal of technical detail while managing to bring this un-mathematical reader along with him—the ‘technical’ passages in the book are no less enjoyable to read than any of the other sections, and that is quite an impressive feat.

Cryptonomicon resembles REAMDE, the only other Stephenson book I’ve read recently, in its characterisation and its plotting. REAMDE was published around ten years later, and leans less heavily towards the overtly technical, but is largely cut from the same cloth. The plotting of Cryptonomicon reminded me of one of those extremely elaborate domino-toppling exercises that are popular on YouTube: so many disparate forces are marshalled and deployed that its hard to guess what they have to do with each other in the early stages of the book, but Stephenson doesn’t make any efforts to conceal what’s bringing them all together—rather ironically for a book about a bunch of cryptanalysts, he doesn’t leave the reader with anything that’s difficult to decode. Instead he says ‘look at this cool stuff that’s happening over here’, and ‘look at this cool stuff that’s happening over here’, a considerable number of times, and makes it perfectly clear that these various trajectories are fated to collide. In fact, he lays on the coincidence so thickly that there is hardly a character in the WWII narrative whose offspring don’t pop up in the contemporary plot-line.

One noticeable difference in approach between this book and REAMDE, is the absence here of any female point-of-view characters. The one major woman character is at least endowed with some clear particularities, but in a cast as broad as this (and as nerdy), it feels like something is missing. There are two or three other women who are important to the plot, but we don’t spend much time with them, and the major female character is represented largely through the perceptions of the principal present-day protagonist, to whom she is something of a puzzle, and who fancies her. Her presence in the book, then, feels instrumental, particularly as ‘puzzles’ constitute the broader topic of the novel. Stephenson builds an incredibly interesting world, but a world filtered exclusively through the perceptions of cis-gendered heterosexual men will always feel a bit two-dimensional.

Stephenson’s ambition and audaciousness could easily have proven hubristic. He bit off a great deal in this book, in terms of his intellectual materials, and of the sheer complexity of the story he chooses to tell, in which we are asked to keep track of a large number of carefully characterised agents whose narrative arcs are woven together in ways that are not always obvious. The reader has to pay attention, as many of the balls being juggled will not come to rest until the closing section of the novel, and I have to admit that one revelation near the end of the story concerned a minor character whose existence I had pretty much forgotten. But hubristic this is not. Stephenson’s ambitions are realised with great success, with polish, and with delightfully playful aplomb. For some readers the whole thing will be ‘too clever’, although there’s nothing formally ‘difficult’ about Cryptonomicon, but this book is objectively an incredible technical achievement, and subjectively, for me, it was an enormous pleasure to read.

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