by Kieran Healy on June 29, 2005

My usual few years behind the curve, I picked up Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”: yesterday. Right now I’m about a hundred pages in, and I’m wondering whether I should keep reading. The prose is flat. Stephenson keeps lathering-in in chunks of his background reading. Much of that material is interesting, but it’s applied with a trowel. Most of all, a strong whiff of “Mary-Sue”: wish-fulfillment pervades the whole thing. Here is the author/soldier in Shanghai on the eve of the second world war, earning the respect of Nipponese soldiers by composing haikus, eating sushi and learning judo. Here is the author/genius talking about computability and mathematics with Alan Turing, impressing the hell out of him with his raw, untutored brilliance. Here is the author/unix nerd putting down a bunch of cardboard-cutout cult-stud poseur academics about the _real_ meaning of the Internet. And so on. Does the book warm up at all, or are the next 800 pages more of the same? If the latter, I think I’d be better off finding some of the stuff Stephenson relies on for detail (like Andrew Hodges’ brilliant _Alan Turing: The Enigma_) and just reading that, instead.



Henry 06.29.05 at 5:29 pm

It doesn’t get that much better imo. “Snow Crash” and “The Diamond Age” are a lot better and much more fun, albeit with famously awful endings. “Quicksilver” and “The Confusion” are pretty well _all authorial digression_ – they don’t work as novels, but they do work as something else (Annaliste fiction???). “The System of the World” is a bit of a mess.


Steve Carr 06.29.05 at 5:37 pm

I read “Cryptonomicon” and remember enjoying it, but I have to say that I remember almost none of it, which is probably not a good sign. “Snow Crash” and “Diamond Age” are definitely great, sans the last thirty pages or so, as Henry said.


Matt Brubeck 06.29.05 at 5:42 pm

The WWII (Lawrence Waterhouse/Bobby Shaftoe) storyline in Cryptonomicon becomes a great adventure story. The present-day (Randy Waterhouse) storyline never really developed into anything, as far as I could tell.


Steve Laniel 06.29.05 at 5:46 pm

Thank Christ someone finally noted that Cryptonomicon is just about unreadable. I probably read 250 pages — all the while announcing to my roommate that I was losing precious hours of my life — before the same roommate informed me that I could always stop reading. Which I did. My life has improved drastically since that momentous decision.


Gustav Holmberg 06.29.05 at 5:54 pm

My thoughts precisely. I did not like it. Unfortunately, I kept reading. When I began reading Quicksilver I was wiser, and put it down after some 300 pages.

Stephenson needs a better editor (or, more likely, an editor).


Charles Dodgson 06.29.05 at 5:55 pm

There are large chunks of Cryptonomicon that are best seen as collections of loosely-strung-together vignettes, rather than as a novel. He’s a keen observer, and some of these are great without even having a plot (in the 1990s timeline, I’m thinking of the Captain Crunch bit — the cereal, not the phone phreaker — and the quick tours of tech startup business and politics). There are great sections of adventure-yarn in there, too, but the ending is notorious. (An early version of the book had a near-future timeline which may have resolved some of the stuff that’s left dangling at the end of the present-day stuff, but is so far unpublished).

The Baroque cycle is like cryptonomicon only more so; I remember commenting on my blog that it is a text which is perfect for hypertext presentation, so the reader could pick and choose the interesting digressions.


psh 06.29.05 at 5:56 pm

Ashamed to say I only got to page eight thousand. Too many fun-facts-to-know-and-tell shoehorned in.


Philoillogica 06.29.05 at 5:59 pm

Stop reading. Terrible book. My one-sentence review: “Preaching to the converted, a big sausage party for the D&D crowd with a more than a few pop culture witticisms tossed in to expose the author’s linguistic bravado (extended discussion on Cap’n Crunch cereal anyone?), Cryptonomicon engages like a Tom Clancy novel with a dash of code, like the stuff William Gibson would produce if forced to watch Patriot Games thirty times at gunpoint and paid by the word.”


PZ Myers 06.29.05 at 6:05 pm

When that present-day storyline devolved into an exposition on the optimum way to consume Cap’n Crunch cereal, I just about threw the book across the room.

There is a good book in there. Unfortunately, there are two or three books between the covers.


Doug 06.29.05 at 6:08 pm

I dunno, I enjoyed the heck out of it.


Molly Moloney 06.29.05 at 6:43 pm

The Cap’n Crunch bit is my favorite part of the book! Seriously.

I can understand the criticisms of the copious infodumps in the book (something that becomes even more extreme in the Baroque trilogy) and I can’t really refute the criticisms made of the book above (the Mary Sue issue, and yes, definitely the ending was a disappointment). But for some reason the book just really worked for me– it instantly became one of my very favorite novels and even on rereading kept that distinction.

When it first came out, it sat on my shelf unread for quite a while. Despite my enjoyment of Snow Crash and Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon looked daunting. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be a quick read! It’s just fun.


Walt Pohl 06.29.05 at 6:57 pm

If you don’t like it now, then you should definitely stop reading. I thought the beginning was the best part, and it was downhill from there.

Philoillogica is clearly of the school of thought that the only valid audience for a book is himself/herself.


M. Meilleur 06.29.05 at 6:59 pm

I recognize the truth in everything that’s been said about the flaws of the book above, except for the charge of Mary Sue-ism, because I don’t see Stephenson as using these books to glorify a proxy character at all (yes, the author pic on the back cover of the paper edition of Cryptonomicon is pretty goofy, but come on, people). But many of the comments above are too glib (come on–comparing NS to that chest-thumping nationalist Clancy?) and miss the strengths of the books.

The theme running through Cryptonomicon and the Quicksilver trilogy is the interconnectedness of science, economics, and warfare. Cryptonomicon has a central character to stand in for the reader for a good part of the 1990s timeline, and the QS books have an ancestor of that character in his place, but both there and in the QS books (where it’s all on the reader directly) people who excel in one of these broad areas of the human condition learn that what they do, they do not do in a vacuum; they have to address the concerns of people in the other areas, and they depend on them for their help. The characters in all the books develop and grow as they realize this. They all fail insofar as they ignore, resist, or deny these connections and dependencies–or, God help them, try to maintain that any one of them is somehow superior to the others. The central characters are not Stephenson, or rather, they are not just Stephenson; they are both the slightly dull and insular characters who, through a series of adventures and choices, come to grasp, if incompletely, this truth about the human condition. (If Stephenson were a Mary Sue author, Randy and Daniel would be teaching everyone these lessons; instead, they are both vessels for other people’s knowledge, the last of all the characters to realize the lessons to be drawn from the many of the episodes.) Indeed, one comes away from the books both amazed at and proud of what humans can know and do, and humbled by the limits of any one human can know and do.

Readers come away from the books realizing that the inventions and heroics they learned to think of in isolation–be they the invention of the computer, the winning of the war in the Pacific theater of WWII, the expansion of Pacific trade, the discovery of the calculus, the development of stock markets, the swashbuckling of pirates, and so on–are all mutually inextricable.

Are there other authors who do this more economically? Maybe, and I’d like to know about them. Is Stephenson the best fiction writer I’ve ever read? No, and neither was Tolkien–but I lost myself in LOTR more times than I can count. The prose does drag at times, but I couldn’t put these books down. Is Stephenson full of himself? Maybe, I don’t know–but I still read Lem and Borges and Rushdie and Vidal, and I know they were/are far from saints in that department.


AlanB. 06.29.05 at 7:01 pm

I found the book perfect for a long (really long) plane trip. Lots of interesting-ish stuff that you can read as you drift in and out of sleep, parts that you can skip if you want without losing the plot. And it has that rarest of literary qualities, a book that you won’t regret reading but also will feel no qualms about abandoning in a strange airport.

Reading Furst’s Dark Star right now. Much better.


Matt McGrattan 06.29.05 at 7:05 pm

All of the criticisms seem fairly valid but I still have to say that I enjoyed Cryptonomicon a lot. Stephenson’s observations, as already mentioned, can be pretty acute and the whole thing is carried off with a bit of panache. If the novel isn’t taken seriously but just treated as a piece of adventure fluff leavened with some interesting digressions I think it still works pretty well.

The Mary-Sue elements never really bothered me that much, even though they are definitely present. Mary-Sue-isms are prevalent in a huge amount of literary fiction — think of all those charismatic heavy-drinking middle aged roues that seem to infest so many novels of the ‘Great American Novel’ genre (and British ‘campus’-type fiction is no different).

On the other hand, the Baroque Cycle really is truly awful and huge sections are nothing more than badly regurgitated chunks of Stephenson’s research. The entire three volume cycle could easily have been compressed into a single novel shorter than any of the three individual volumes and been much better for it. I really wanted to like it, Stephenson having built up some credit with his earlier novels, but gave up after volume 2.


Doug Muir 06.29.05 at 7:07 pm

I liked it just fine. Flawed but ambitious, fun, and intermittently brilliant.

Kieran, I wonder if you’re not seeing Mary Sues where t’aren’t any? It’s true that Ms. Sue gets around, yes she does. But I have trouble seeing it in characters as disparate as Waterhouse gran-pere, Waterhouse fils, and Shaftoe. Turning a character into an Authorial Voice and having him/her win arguments is a related but distinct sin of authorship.

All three of the characters are a mixture of brilliance and cluelessness. You seem to be getting annoyed by the brilliant bits, and yes they do carry a rather heavy hand of authorial fiat, don’t they? But the clueless parts are as important, and will come into play. Here’s a minor one: not one of the three all-male POV characters understands women, and not one of them is ready for a mature, lasting relationship with someone of either sex. That’s going to come out and affect the plot in a variety of ways. And it’s not really a Mary Sue kind of problem.

Here’s what you get if you keep reading. The characters firm up at least a bit, and Bobby Shaftoe becomes downright engaging. The WWII section does indeed develop into a crackling good globetrotting romp of an adventure tale, with everything from Hermann Goering to melancholy Finns to desperate submarine escapes.

There will be a lot of authorial digressions, of varying degrees of erudition, accuracy and wittiness. At their best, these are excellent. Even the bad ones are IMO readable. Of course, if you hate authorial digressions in the first place, you won’t much like these regardless, but that’s something else again.

There will be various games played with structure, some obvious, some less so. These seem to have been almost entirely overlooked by reviewers. Go figure. People seem to either enjoy or not-enjoy the book; hardly anyone seems to analyse it very deeply, other than in a fanboy continuity sort of way. But Stephenson is a writer who takes his craft seriously, and he put a lot of effort into the structural stuff.

(One example: things crash constantly in that book. Zeppelins, jet planes, submarines, computers. “Crash” as metaphor gets worked over in a variety of ways, and then of course the crashes serve as markers for various plot turns. There’s a /bunch/ of stuff like that. I’m not even going to mention all the alchemical references. Man, don’t get me started on the alchemical references.)

There will be two or three absolutely priceless scenes. I’m thinking right now of the one where Douglas MacArthur’s eyes mist up, but there are at least two others.

There will be some pleasantly tangly plotting.

It’s a book that’s best in the middle, less good at the beginning and end. That said, both the beginning and the end look less weak if the book is considered as a companion volume to the Baroque Cycle trilogy.

I’d say, give it another hundred pages. If it’s still not working for you, then it’s not. But there is some great stuff in there.

Doug M.


Kate 06.29.05 at 7:29 pm

People thought Snow Crash was great? It was entertaining, but the premise was too ridiculous to be believed and Stephenson clearly didn’t understand his own research.

I wasn’t able to get through the first pages of Cryptonomicon; it’s still sitting on my shelf. I loved The Diamond Age, though.


washerdreyer 06.29.05 at 7:42 pm

I frequently recommend it and think it’s quite good, don’t really have the time to write an argument/review for why you should keep reading. Though I was hooked on it from the start, so maybe its a de gustibus etc. case.


Ian Whitchurch 06.29.05 at 7:45 pm

It’s a book I flipped thru chunks of.

There’s fragments I remmeber enjoying (ie the observation plane), but when I want Stephenson I re-read The Diamond Age … Crypto doesnt have a character as memorable as Enzo in Snow Crash.


Max 06.29.05 at 8:05 pm

The last 800 pp is much like the first 100. I enjoyed reading it, didn’t find it tedious at all, but I thought the ending was banal and lame. Parts were utterly predictable, one part was utterly unpredictable, and none of it seemed to amount to anything. A great yarn, not a great novel.


A-ro 06.29.05 at 8:18 pm

Once I got into it, I just found every page to be a pleasure. But, then, I enjoy that type of historical fiction, computer geekiness, etc., and find Stephenson witty. It’s probably my favorite novel, but I’d never claim it should be considered one of the greats. Why? Because the reason I loved it so much is that it seemed like it was written by one of my friends just for me…

That said, don’t read the Baroque Cycle unless someone pays you, or you win a lifetime supply of Ritalin or something.


Jon H 06.29.05 at 8:52 pm

I quite enjoyed the trilogy (Quicksilver, etc), but in 2002, when I started reading Cryptonomicon, I bounced off it. I didn’t actually read more than a few pages.

It just seemed like such a creature of the 90’s, Wired magazine fads wrought into a novel. I decided I had zero interest in reading about a “data haven”.

Being, at the time, a long-term unemployed veteran, I guess I was rather turned off by the romanticization of the internet.

So I left my copy on a bench outside my hotel in Great Falls, before leaving. Damn book took up a lot of room in a Volvo S40.

I may try again at some point.


Christopher M 06.29.05 at 9:00 pm

I’m not saying Stephenson is as much of a hack as Dan Brown is, but Angels and Demons struck me about the same way. In Brown’s case the wish-fulfilment seems to be of his own desire to –finally! — expose the Catholic Church for the corrupt and repressive institution that he considers it to be — though an institution still awe-inspiring and central to every tangled thread of human history. Brown also can’t write a paragraph without showing off his intellectual dilettantism, though if Stephenson’s use of scholarship turns out to be as shallow as a retaining pond, then Brown’s is a sidewalk puddle.

No amount of eye-rolling will do justice to a novel whose central conceit is that scholars have been trying for years to make an ambigram of the word “Illuminati” — and no one can figure out how to do it! The reader is apparently supposed to be shocked and impressed when, at the novel’s thrilling conclusion, such a symbol appears right there in the book itself — just as if Brown had suddenly placed in the mouth of some character an explanation of a true method for squaring the circle!


cbisquit 06.29.05 at 10:02 pm

I’m pretty shocked that anyone could dislike Cryptonomicon that much. Stephenson strikes me as one of the few speculative fiction authors who has ever had a job doing something related to what they write about, and he manages to not take himself overly seriously.
Compared to Gibson he seems much more grounded in the reality of technological constraints, and much less obsessed with expounding some self important notion of “art” for what is essentially a pulp genre.
Plus who could read the aside about the dentist and not fall in love with it?
I will say that there are certain issues involving the female lead which read like they were written by a heavy breathing 17 year old but otherwise the book was great. I’ve bought every Stephenson book since Crypto on the day it was released, and read them more voraciously than anything else in memory.


cw 06.29.05 at 10:04 pm

You have commited a blasphemy of the internet. There are bloggeres on libertarian websites that argue that Stephenson will be in the canon in 100 years (better he were shot out of a canon in 10).

The three most recommended authors on the internet are Stephenson, alan durst and the guy who wrote Norell and Mr. Strange (or whatever, I still have to read it). They are all kind of guilty pleasure books (not serious lit) but there is nothing wrong with that.

Does anyone see a populizer of pynchon in Stephenson?

I read dark star by alan durst and that was great.

Here are two other authors I see alot of or used to see a lot of on the internet. Ken McCloud and Vernor Vinge. THis is science fiction and both are great (in my opinion.) A deepness in the sky, especially, by Vernor Vinge. This is a book that plays all kinds of modern literary games and can be read very lgitamatly as literature. The author is a math professor, I think, in california.


roger 06.29.05 at 10:14 pm

Kieran, it sounds like you are not reading the book so much as trying to compete with it. You are as smart as Stephenson — and that might well be true. But you will never enjoy a novel in that mood. Coleridge was right about having to bring certain moods to literature. Although, given the aggressive IQ mannerisms of certain writers — DFW is one — there are provocations that could turn the novel into Jeopardy. It does destroy the necessary empathy.
It doesn’t sound like you are going to like the novel much.


Philoillogica 06.29.05 at 10:45 pm

Hey, don’t get me wrong – I love Stephenson as a nonfiction writer. He’s lucid and has a point, willing to educate and entertain without trying to make his audience feel stupid. But brevity is not his strong suit, and that’s murder in a novel, even for one in the notoriously prolix sf genre. If you want to write a doorstop, your plot and characters have to carry the weight of the form, and you’d better plan them well, which Stephenson does not (at least, not until quite late in the book). His handling of women throughout is not only immature, but damnright misogynistic – one wonders whether Stephenson’s copious research managed to miss the fact that women read computer books too.

Oh, and “that guy” who wrote Jonathan Strange was Susanna Clarke.


Jason Soon 06.29.05 at 11:01 pm

one of the best books i ever read. beats the crap out of many celebrated contemporary authors. i don’t get why some people don’t get it.


John Quiggin 06.29.05 at 11:11 pm

I had a fairly similar reaction to Quicksilver


'As you know' Bob 06.29.05 at 11:13 pm

Well, it’s one of my favorite books ever, but then, I seem to be his exact target audience.

I’m about his age, and, as a boy in the ’60s, I seem to have read all of the same books – – The Boy’s Big Book of WWII / The Boy’s Big Book of Secret Codes and so forth – – that Stephenson did. His retelling of these tales in a modern vernacular felt like hearing them from an old friend.

To top it off, I went to a geek college in the ’70s, just as the PC revolution was starting, and watched all my pals take their places in the IT world. Simultaneously, the Enigma secret became public knowledge, and all the interesting coincidences of WWII became comprehensible: it really was the pencil-necked geeks who gave the Allies the edge they needed to defeat the Axis

So most of my circle views the world in the same way that Stephenson does, and we were ready and waiting for Cryptonomicon. I found it to be annoying in spots, but the book closest to my world-view of anything I’ve ever read. YMMV.


Doctor Memory 06.29.05 at 11:14 pm

Yes, it really does go on like that for another 800 pages. No, it does not get any better. (It actually gets worse: the author-standin goes from griping about his ex-wife to meeting the woman of his dreams. You don’t even want to know.) Then it stops. Not “ends” — that implies an ending, implying in turn some level of narrative payoff/conclusion/denoument. Just stops.

I’ve been told by allegedly trustworthy friends that the Baroque Cycle is better, but I’m not touching it until Stephenson personally sends me a check for $25 and a handwritten apology.


mythago 06.29.05 at 11:25 pm

I generally like Stephenson, but I wish he could keep up that “wow!” brilliance–the fresh ideas, the cleverness, the interesting take–for an entire novel, instead of the first, oh, third or so. I like his nonfiction. I don’t like it so much when it’s plopped down in the middle of his fiction.

I put down Cryptonomicon early, too, when I realized that my ability to see if it got any better was losing out to the fact that I couldn’t have cared less about any of the main characters.


MollyMooly 06.30.05 at 12:36 am

Cryptonomicon is useful for weaning teenage nerdboys off science fantasy. Quicksilver is useful for weaning Cryptonomicon fans off Neal Stephenson.


dbn 06.30.05 at 1:12 am

Wait until you get to the sex scene in the latter portion of the book. Stephenson seems to recycle the same bizarre sex scene in almost all of his books.


dsquared 06.30.05 at 3:38 am

If it’s any help making up your mind, you’ve reached the point where I gave up and to be honest I’ve never really regretted it.


John Kozak 06.30.05 at 4:39 am

I thought Snow Crash was utter crap, for much the same reasons: shabby pseudo-erudition (the linguistics), petty and malicious score-settling (made me feel vaguely sympathetic to the US government, which is, I suppose, some kind of accomplishment), feeble character, plot and so on.

Anyway, there should be a “most shameless Mary Sue” competition. I open by nominating Marie Corelli for “The Sorrows of Satan”.


SusanC 06.30.05 at 5:15 am

Cryptonomicon works as comedy – many passages are very, very funny. But it doesn’t hold together as a novel, and the ending is terrible.

I couldn’t help thinking that Thomas Pynchon would have done much better with the same source material (something lke Gravity’s Rainbow, but about Engima rather than the V rockets).


Rick 06.30.05 at 7:06 am

I’ve read Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. The former struck me as an amusing rip-off of William Gibson. The best parts of Cryptonomicon are fairly entertaining – as others have said, the WWII stuff is the best, but other parts are also good. I did think the book went on way too long, and yes, the ending is disappointing.

Oh – I am reminded by John Kozak’s post about the linguistics of Snow Crash. Yes, that is utter crap. That book would be much better if the linguistic nonsense had been left out entirely. (To clarify my criticism, the linguistic hypothesis is that all languages are evolving towards a universal language that is so compelling that it overwhelms the brain. This is a truly nonsensical idea.)


Iron Lungfish 06.30.05 at 7:31 am

Anyway, there should be a “most shameless Mary Sue” competition. I open by nominating Marie Corelli for “The Sorrows of Satan”.

All of the Illuminatus Trilogy.


Mitch 06.30.05 at 7:37 am

“The prose is flat.”

“Stephenson keeps lathering-in in chunks of his background reading.”

“a strong whiff of Mary-Sue wish-fulfillment pervades the whole thing”

It’s science fiction. It’s not Jane Austen (er maybe a bit of Mary-Sue there though).

Science fiction writers are doing it for the ideas, not for the character development, leak-proof plot, or well crafted discourse.


Aeon J. Skoble 06.30.05 at 8:04 am

What #13 and #18 said. If you’re not enjoying it, I’d normally say to stop reading it, but maybe what #26 said is relevant also, and you’re not giving it a chance.


Kieran Healy 06.30.05 at 8:15 am

Science fiction writers are doing it for the ideas, not for the character development, leak-proof plot, or well crafted discourse.

Sorry mitch, but if the SF people keep telling me their stuff is literature (they do, and it is) then it gets applied the same standards as everything else I read.


Scholz 06.30.05 at 8:33 am

Stephenson is great when he is great and quagmirish when his is not.
I hated Snowcrash except for bits and pieces and the little ideas (like new Hong Kong)
I loved Diamond Age except for the wierd love story that just doesn’t seem to work.
I liked Cryptonomicon, but agree it plods in places.
I am struggling with Quicksilver. Loyalty is pushing me to finish it. There is a lot to like in it, and the Mary-Sueisms are less superheroey(assuming Waterhouse is our author proxy), but it is very slow and sometimes I feel like I can put the book away for weeks and go back to it without missing anything overly important. That plus the idea that everyone knows everyone else is a little annoying. I won’t pick up Confusion or System of the World.


James 06.30.05 at 8:35 am

If you go into Cryptonomicon (and even more, the Baroque Cycle) expecting it to work as a novel, you’re going to be disappointed. Structurally, the models for these works are books like Tristram Shandy, Byron’s Don Juan, or Swift (Gulliver’s Travels and Tale of a Tub in particular). (Frye called this form a “Menippean satire”, despite the fact that this actually refers to a mixture of prose and verse in telling the same story.) Digression isn’t extraneous to the form – it’s integral (culminating in Swift’s “A Digression in Praise of Digressions”).

One of the things I think that you may be missing is the element of mockery / mild satire in the book (which, again, ties it to its literary predecessors). Stephenson pushes virtually all the situations and characters just beyond the boundaries of realism to do some implicit criticism of what they represent. They certainly aren’t Mary Sues.

This seems to be a kind of work off which some people just bounce. I liked Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle as wholes, although I can see their weaknesses (although I note that weaknesses in endings seem to be endemic to the form). If you don’t like the first couple of hundred pages, you probably won’t like the rest.


Ray 06.30.05 at 9:22 am

I liked Crytonomicon, but was very disappointed by Quicksilver. There were lots of good things in there, but nothing that wouldn’t have worked better as non-fiction. I don’t see the comparison to Gulliver’s Travels – GT was a satire, Quicksilver was a kilo of partially digested history, dressed up as a novel.


Stacy 06.30.05 at 9:25 am

I really enjoyed Cryptonomicon and just ignored the irritating bits because the entertaining bits are REALLY entertaining. And I will NOT spend anymore time wondering how Julieta Kivistik could have raised such a useless asshat as G.E.B.

I read Cryptonomicon first, then the Baroque Cycle, then Snow Crash, and finally Diamond Age. As I read these, I assumed they were in their own separate-but-similar universes (except for Crypto/Baroque Cycle), but now I think they are all set in the same universe. Some historical fudging is required, since Crypto and Snow Crash are set in the late 90s, but I believe that widespread use of the spoiler, which will come about very quickly due to the discovery of the spoiler, could lead pretty quickly to the completely defanged US gov’t. We even see Stephenson playing with some of the same ideas, such as a hive mind, in different books.


shpx.ohfu 06.30.05 at 9:25 am

I like Cryptonomicon, and all of his prior work, including his more traditional stuff done pseudonymously. I enjoy how the three complex and separate Crypto storylines are eventually woven together. I’ve read it and reread it a couple of times.

With a pseudo idiot savant Pearl Harbor xylophonist/coder, the nerdy unix hacker->adventurer, the drug addict/hero marine, and the secret religious/academic society monk, if you can’t find a character you are interested in, then you are reading the wrong stuff.

That being said, Quicksilver and the other two subsequent doorstops are utter crap. I get the whole digression as novel concept alluded to above, and understand how they can be seen as the continuation of the method of his earlier work, but it is just soul-kiiling labor to slog through it. At least with the earlier stuff there was some feeling that you getting some insight into a novel or new area. With the Broke Trilogy, it’s about 500 pages to get to the great insight that the world is round or that 1700s euro royalty were inbred decadent brutes.


TedL 06.30.05 at 9:35 am

It’s escapist fiction – a summer blockbuster with geniuses, heroes and things blowing up, with bits of things he’s picked up about this place or that thrown. You do learn a few interesting facts, but those expecting deep thoughts or compelling characters are bound to be disappointed. Those who enjoy the occasional guilty pleasure will enjoy, as I did.


Timothy Burke 06.30.05 at 9:37 am

I liked what he was trying to do in Quicksilver, but I have to admit I slogged out in The Confusion–I got it, I got it, but enough’s enough. I felt the same way about Cryptonomicon, perhaps more so as the historicizing of the Baroque novels appeals to me more as a project if not as a delivered objective.


Cranky Observer 06.30.05 at 9:38 am

> One of the things I think that you may be missing
> is the element of mockery / mild satire in the
> book (which, again, ties it to its literary
> predecessors). Stephenson pushes virtually all the
> situations and characters just beyond the
> boundaries of realism to do some implicit
> criticism of what they represent. They certainly
> aren’t Mary Sues.

True hackers from the 1970s and early 1980s (disclaimer: I knew true hackers; I was never more than a wannabe myself) were well aware of their own shortcomings and quirks and loved to make fun of themselves (as opposed to allowing others to make fun of them). Those who assume that the various Waterhouse characters are Stephenson will miss the self-deprecation, bumbling, pratfalls, and stupid mistake inherent in those characters. They will also miss the accomodations that the Waterhouses realize they must make to those around them who are not like them – who are often the powerful and the extroverts. Nerds lost in superman fantasies generally do _not_ come to this realization.

By the way, most of those hackers were male and did eventually find girlfriends / get married. And while those girlfriends were seldom quite as desirable as Amy Shaftoe, they were typically NOT introverted nerds; more often than not they were theatre or artist-types. Why people make the assumption that people seek out like mates, when in my experience opposites attract more often, is a mystery to me. In fact my own spouse made the “he would never get Amy” comment until I laughed so hard she finally realized she was more like the Amy character than not and I managed to get her!



Cranky Observer 06.30.05 at 9:40 am

By the way, having read _Diamond Age_ (which could have been one of the great books of this generation), when I got to the last 3 chapters of _Cryptonomican_ and realized what was going to happen I said to myself “he should have hired Jerry Pournelle to write the last 3 chapters if he wanted a story ending, or a real post-modernist if he wanted a post-modern ending, but they guy just CANNOT WRITE ENDINGS”. And all of the Baroque Cycle is just one long ending!



Bill Gardner 06.30.05 at 9:40 am

I think the best thing Stephenson has written was the profile of the FLAG (Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe) project in Wired. A John McPhee for cyberspace, who missed his calling.

One thing not to miss in Cryptonomicon: the corporate Mission Statement for the startup, where they commit themselves to burning down their competitors’ homes, salting the earth, and selling the wives and children into slavery.


anon 06.30.05 at 9:41 am

Get a friend who has read it to show you the good parts. Read only those. You want: 1. Cap’n Crunch, 2. the business plan, 3. wisdom teeth (although JWZ’s account is just as entertaining, and it’s on the web), 4. the Van Eck phreaking scene, and 5. some of the bits about Andrew Loeb. The rest of the book is nothing to write home about.


mythago 06.30.05 at 11:55 am

With a pseudo idiot savant Pearl Harbor xylophonist/coder, the nerdy unix hacker->adventurer, the drug addict/hero marine, and the secret religious/academic society monk, if you can’t find a character you are interested in, then you are reading the wrong stuff.

You can put all kinds of gee-whiz tags on a character or throw labels into a blender. That doesn’t make the character interesting or somebody about whose fate you give a hoot. (Which is not to say that *nobody* could possibly care about the characters, just that I didn’t find them compelling, and when I get the point in a book where I’m turning pages purely to see if it ever gets interesting, I put it down.)

I’m also not buying the argument that Stephenson has re-invented the genre, such that if you didn’t like the book, it’s probably that you’re just too stuck with the conventions of traditional lit. I mean, come-freakin-on, people. The Cryptonomicon is Swift? Don’t think so.

Science fiction, by the way, is still fiction. An author who merely wants to write about ideas can write non-fiction (which Stephenson does a bang-up job of, IMO). “It’s about ideas!” is not an excuse for things like bad plot, cardboard characters, leaden dialogue, etc.


Ciarand Denlane 06.30.05 at 11:59 am

I couldn’t make it through the Baroque cycle, but I thought Crptonomicon was quite good and, more to the point (since your mileage may vary on the overall evaluation of the book), that the experience as a whole was better than the first couple of hundred pages considered separately.


wetwebwork 06.30.05 at 1:02 pm

I loved it. Read it after Snow Crash which I loved. Hated Quicksilver.


James 06.30.05 at 1:03 pm

I didn’t claim that “the Cryptonomicon is Swift”. I claimed that it followed, structurally, the same generic model which much of Swift’s work followed (and which other major works have followed) and that bringing expectations to that model derived from the “normative” novel is to invite disappointment and severe misreading.

The two are somewhat different claims. I would certainly never put Stephenson on Swift’s level — but then, I wouldn’t put many writers on Swift’s level.


shpx.ohfu 06.30.05 at 1:36 pm


You dismiss my “gee whiz” tags, which was my shorthand way of suggesting that there were some worthwhile characters in the book. I think that a couple of ways to create interesting characters is to have them evolve or embody contradictions, i.e., a computer geek who ends up trekking through the Philippine jungle; a war hero who is also a morphine addict, etc.

To suggest that these characters were just “labels in a blender” or otherwise underdeveloped in the course of a book criticised for its length is hard to understand.

It’s all a matter of taste, I guess, but I liked ’em.


missgrundy 06.30.05 at 3:00 pm

I just spent six months of my life reading The Baroque Cycle (endangering my life, actually — falling asleep in bed reading a 1000-pg hardback can give you quite a conk on the noggin). I loved every minute of it — even the “boring” digressions — and was sorry to see it end.

I’m about 200 pages into Cryptonomicon now, and don’t find it quite as engaging, but I’m plodding on.

I just met a man who enjoyed the Baroque as much as I did. I think I’ll hang onto him.


Morat 06.30.05 at 3:17 pm

I had a hard time getting through Quicksilver, but found the other two in the Cycle to be an easier read.


stephen judd 06.30.05 at 4:51 pm

Appreciate these doorstops for what they are: rattling good reads with lots of local colour.

Stephenson hints as much in the Baroque cycle with the characters all alluding to picaresque novels. That’s what he’s trying to do too.


Keith M Ellis 06.30.05 at 7:11 pm

Nice to see that I’m not alone in being disapointed with Cryptonomicon. In fact, I never finished the book, which is very unusual for me. This is why I’ve not even attempted reading his Baroque trilogy.

I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of criticizing things on the appropriate level. But even in that context all of the Stephenson books I’ve read are very flawed.

Having said that, the first thirty pages of Snow Crash was a virtuosity of science-fiction inventiveness combined with wit. The Diamond Age was also on the whole astonishingly inventive. I think Stephenson deserves a great deal of credit for the things at which he is truly good.


Kimmitt 06.30.05 at 7:42 pm

1) I don’t see the Mary Sue-ism; Stephenson’s characters are consistently flawed for good reasons. Heck, Waterhouse granpere and Waterhouse modern have pretty much the same set of character flaws, except that Waterhouse modern isn’t as smart and is slightly better adjusted.

2) If you decide that you like Cryptonomicon and would like to read The Baroque Cycle, remember this very important fact: The first two hundred pages of Quicksilver are terrible. This from a guy who loves the rest of Stephenson’s work.


Bruce Baugh 06.30.05 at 8:08 pm

I’m relieved to find I’m not the only who bogged down and just plain stopped. I liked Stephenson’s earlier books, but Cryptonomicon just didn’t work for me, and the comments on the Baroque Cycle suggest that it wouldn’t either.

Of course I’ve been reading less sf in general in recent years, and on the whole am tending toward tight, often )(but not necesarily) short books.


clew 06.30.05 at 8:19 pm

” the interconnectedness of science, economics, and warfare”

I can believe that this is what Stephenson thinks he’s showing in the Four Doorstops, but it’s not new, and if it’s going to be shown in novels instead of history there ought to be some novel-goodness.

What exasperates me is the constant implication that all three (science, economics, and warfare) have always beeen the work of men who were, in accidental and inherent characteristics, just like West Coast computer nerds are now. (This assumption requires similarity among West Coast geeks, which is, I suppose, why the women in the doorstops are as thin as paper – they’re aren’t Real characters because they aren’t like the Ur-Geek.)


andrew cooke 06.30.05 at 9:35 pm

it is indeed a rubbish book. as are all his others, really – it’s just pulp with nerd appeal.

however, having said that, i’ve been thinking about snowcrash recently – i picked up kripke’s little book on the private language argument, and it struck me that i was seeing almost exactly what was described in the book. reading the first chapter i had the disturbing impression that wittgenstein had infected kripke with something that had stopped him from thinking clearly, and that kripke was now doing his utmost to pass the confusion on.


Kenny Easwaran 07.01.05 at 3:21 am

I (and my whole family in fact) definitely enjoyed Cryptonomicon. I suppose in my case flashy digressions about various things are exactly what I’m looking for in a novel (and Stephenson is a bit of a faster read than David Foster Wallace). But I did definitely object to the type of geek sexism that predominated in all the descriptions of female characters. And of the literary critics.


Mitch 07.01.05 at 8:25 am

“if the SF people keep telling me their stuff is literature (they do, and it is) then it gets applied the same standards as everything else I read.”

“Science fiction, by the way, is still fiction. An author who merely wants to write about ideas can write non-fiction (which Stephenson does a bang-up job of, IMO). “It’s about ideas!” is not an excuse for things like bad plot, cardboard characters, leaden dialogue, etc.”

Yes yes yes, no excuses, it should attempt hold up to all the standards, yes. But the reality is is that it often doesn’t. SF is notorious for those faults, so now you know not to be surprised by them, be pleased when they are overcome, and enjoy its strengths.

You don’t go to a Jackie Chan movie for character development or plot, but for kick-ass acrobatics.


Cranky Observer 07.01.05 at 8:57 am

> it is indeed a rubbish book. as are all his
> others, really – it’s just pulp with nerd appeal.

Since you say “books”, plural, I assume you have read more than one of them in order to be able to make such a judgement. Why did you read any more after the 1st, if that was your opinion?



Bruce Baugh 07.01.05 at 9:27 am

Mitch: But within the realm of highly stylized conventions, it canb e done well or badly.

A Bullet in the Head says things about honor, revenge, and sacrifice that Naked Killer does not, even though the original subtitles of the latter had the line “I still have time for the gastric lavage” and no John Woo movie does.

Setting aside Raymond Chandler here as a special case, Dashiell Hammett did things with the conventions of hard-boiled PIs that Mickey Spillane never did, and is a better writer of the same kind of stuff.

Wil McCarthy and Linda Nagata write better sf than Stephen Baxter does, both for their prose skills and for their grasp of human nature and characterization. Both can portray no-good boring shitheads without makign them the examplars of the whole race.

Simon and Garfunkel made better folk pop than a lot of other folks doing the same kind of thing at the same time, by virtue of superior craftsmanship and talent in the performance.

Stephenson is working in a well-established style. The big book full of exegetical ramblings and world tour is…well, take a look at Moby Dick, as well as Foucault’s Pendulum or Illuminatus!. It’s a kind of thing a lot of writers like to tackle.


Carlos 07.01.05 at 11:15 am

The lead characters of Cryptonomicon as Mary Sues has to be one of the more interesting interpretations of that book I have encountered. And America Shaftoe as a dream woman is even weirder. “Obsessive undersexed Filipina with scary family relations”? Um. That’s a “flight” response in my book. (But my hat’s off to Stephenson for being an accurate social observer.)


Lisa SG 07.01.05 at 11:34 am

As a non-nerd, with no significant knowledge of science or math (indeed, I never took math after high school), I love Neal Stephenson. He made me interested in calculus in a way I have never been, and I just may just take up the subject. I think that says something for Neal Stephenson as a teacher.

It’s simply wrong to say that he doesn’t plot. His plots are certainly not simple and straightforward, and do not always have an obvious payoff, but lots of stuff happens in his works. I love the scene in Quicksilver where Shaftoe escapes from shackles in a stable of a French nobleman and enters the house to find a costume party–with everyone assuming he is in costume, playing the character of himself, the famous Vagabond, which the nobleman intended to play. We had been set up for that scence for quite a long time, as we learned how Shaftoe was a vagabond of some repute whose actions always took on legendary proportion afterwards. But that scene was quite legendary without needing to be transformed by storytellers! How is that not plot? Do contemporary literary writers plot? Really? (I write this as someone with an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, but who loathes the artistic pretensions of those in that field).

Of course, I love Tristram Shandy and other novels that digress, so perhaps Stephenson plays to my preferences. My course in 18th century literature was by far my favorite literature course in college. And I love 1,000 page novels, too; why does everyone want books to be short? And works on a grand scale–why does everyone nowadays want to work in miniature? Sometimes it’s useful to get the sense of much of the whole, of the movement of many pieces across time. But it’s more than that. Stephenson does present a vision of history that I have never gotten anywhere else–perhaps you all have, but I don’t read engineering and economics that much, it’s not an area of expertise–and I feel that I learn from reading him. Especially about the importance of this sort of history. And as someone wrote above, he has a sense of the interconnectedness of all these strands of knowledge and history that is quite impressive–most people don’t have enough broad interdisciplinary knowledge to see the connections that he sees. Who has time to study all these different sorts of fields? What sorts of academics–at least the average ones–see these connections? It’s not the sheer amount of facts–it is the way they are put together. I’m sorry, I think the guy is brilliant.

And I think too he will be around for some time. Many people who might like him have not yet even heard of him–there are many non-science fiction readers, like me, who might cross over to read his books, but have no idea who he even is, yet. If you look on Amazon, the aubrey-matarin series readers (I’ve tried but never read them) are praising the Baroque Cycle. There are quite a few of them. And there are other categories of readers as well out there as well, I believe. who just might not know about his books.


Ryan M 07.01.05 at 4:00 pm

Clew says:

What exasperates me is the constant implication that all three (science, economics, and warfare) have always beeen the work of men who were, in accidental and inherent characteristics, just like West Coast computer nerds are now.

I could not agree more. Some other commenters have stated that his characters don’t seem like Mary Sues. What they don’t get is that Stephenson is obsessed, nay, consumed with the idea of the quirky brilliant man. In the Diamond age it was the guy who did the groundbreaking nano work who got straight Cs in high school but learned more than all his classmates in his own scientific experiments in the local creek. In Cryptonomicon (the part I managed to finish) it’s the guy who does the groundbreaking crypto work who everyone at first thought was dumb because he was so brilliant. The idea that someone might be brilliant and do great work and not be some out-there, Feynmann-like, Val-Kilmer-in-Real-Genius type guy is one Stephenson is not interested in.


Richard Zach 07.01.05 at 7:15 pm

I remember liking Zodiac… did noone else read that?


clew 07.02.05 at 10:47 pm

Stephenson has joked about Zodiac that all the eco-warriors read it, but it only sold three copies. I like it still.

I’d say the main character there isn’t a Mary Sue, although he is the usual underachieving hero-geek; insofar as he get new rewards it’s because he’s worked or even changed for them. I think _Zodiac_ also does a decent job of realistic but not internal female characters; Zode-dude may not understand them, but what he observes is based on the assumption that women have internal consciousness connected by reason to their goals, and not necessarily connected to his goals.

That’s where the ‘non-player-character’ women in the doorstops fail; I haven’t decided whether Eliza is a NPC, but the poor woman brought out for Waterhouse’s leveling-up sex video certainly is.


clew 07.02.05 at 10:58 pm

lisa sg – if you liked the doorstops for their ideas, read Braudel’s _Civilization and Capitalism_, a big triple-decker history book. It was reprinted recently, is available in used and remainder bookstores. Terrific narratives of history, many illustrations which are both memorable and informative; one of the main sources for the _Quicksilver_ books. Really quite fun. Attaches to all sorts of interests.

Better, Braudel didn’t add anachronisms to make his Silly Valley fan crowd feel as though the world had always revolved around them. When you find a prefigurement of this decade in Braudel, which you probably will, it’s a lot more trustworthy.


gwendolyn 07.03.05 at 8:04 am

I don’t think I’m in Stephenson’s target audience, having read The Diamond Age when I was 12 and Cryptonomicon at 14. And I’ve got neither interest nor ability in math/coding/programming. Nonetheless I enjoyed both books, I enjoyed them when I reread them later when I was old enough to understand more of the human interactions, and I enjoyed the Baroque Cycle. Some of this has to be a matter of taste; I simply didn’t and don’t experience the characters as wooden or boring. The digressive writing appeals to me too. If Kieran isn’t enjoying Cryptonomicn 200 pages in, I’d say give it another 100, and then put it down if you’re still not interested. The comments here make it pretty obvious that the books don’t work for everyone – but if they do, they’re really good reads.

I admit that getting through The System of the World, in my opinion the slowest of the Baroque Cycle, took me a few weeks and I spent most of that on the first 300 pages.

When I read Snow Crash, I was taking a linguistics course, and the “linguistic” ideas about language in the book jumped out at me immediately as a failure in research, but I thought it was a fun idea, anyway, and I liked the story built around it.

I find that I can suspend my disbelief fairly easily when reading Stephenson, but it seems like not everyone finds it so.

Zodiac was a great book, too.


andrew cooke 07.04.05 at 1:29 pm

Why did you read any more after the 1st, if that was your opinion?

stupid hope and a penchant for pulp?

and why do i have the funny feeling that if i’d only read one, you’d have said that was insufficient for me to form an opinion?

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