History with a twist: Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson writes hard-to-classify books, all having to do with economics, history, and technology in some kind of combination. I’ve heard seen Stephenson’s writing called “Baroque“, and I find the description helpful; do with that what you will. In terms of genre, I don’t think most people would call Cryptonomicon historical fiction, though it does have historical elements. I’ve found Cryptonomicon in the regular fiction and science fiction sections of bookshops. I’d say it is a thriller, but it doesn’t quite move as quickly as most thrillers do. Let’s just agree that the book is History With A Twist.

I first heard of Stephenson from a student back when I tutored mathematics for income while at Seminary. This student said to me: “You like reading and computers, right?” I agreed that I did. “And you are into religion, right?” Yes, also true. “You’ve gotta read this book, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is awesome.” The kid was right. It IS an awesome book. It took me a while to find it as I was looking for a book by someone called Neil Stevenson, but eventually I got the picture. Then I started reading Stephenson as he (slowly) produced new material. Cryptonomicon (1999) starts in WW2 but it also jumps forward to the present/near future. It is a very long book, and while you can easily see that the characters in the WW2 segment are related to the characters in the present/near future (the last names are a giveaway), it isn’t clear exactly how the whole thing is going to come together. I had no idea at all where this was going the first time I read it. It becomes clearer with each re-reading, and so it has the hallmarks of good literature (according to Lewis). Cryptonomicon is connected to Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, more clearly historical fiction, which includes Isaac Newton of physics fame as a key character. Stephenson’s brand of history is history with a twist. I’m not sure how else to describe it. There is a thread of the fantastic that runs through both the trilogy and Cryptonomicon which is hard to describe. That fantastic thread is not really ever resolved or clarified. It remains a mystery to both the characters in the book and to the reader. It makes the whole thing much more interesting.

I’ve read Cryptonomicon 6 times, far more than I’ve re-read any other Stephenson book. This one appeals because it is full of grace, has really interesting things to say about theology and redemption, and takes me to the places described. And I like the characters and want to spend time with them again. The tech element in the book is mostly about codes and code-breaking and computation power. The key characters are mostly geeks, though there are also USMC-type soldier and ex-soldier characters. One of the Marines also writes haiku. And is named Bobby Shaftoe. This is appealing to me. The history element is set in an alternative WW2 (no atom bombs in the story), and the economics has to do with gold and backing currency. Read it — but remember, it takes a certain amount of patience. You’ll find out where it goes eventually, trust me.

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3 Comments

Filed under favourites, fiction

3 responses to “History with a twist: Cryptonomicon

  1. Andrea SB

    I like Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, but I stopped reading his books after the first in the Baroque series.

    I realized that all his characters are just incredibly flat, especially the women, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. The issue came to a head when one character sexually assaults another, fade to black, and then nothing. No emotional blowback, no consequences, nothing. I just stopped believing the story completely. I’m not saying that there had to be massive emotions involved, but something? Anything?

    I’ve frequently thought that I would read any textbook Stephenson wrote, but his fiction, while so interesting, feels like paper dolls dancing across a cleverly designed stage.

    • Hmm, this has made me think. I’ve not gone back to the Baroque trilogy, though I thought I would. I think (now that you’ve raised the characterization issue) that I haven’t returned to them because I’m not so fond of Jack and Eliza. I’m good with Daniel Waterhouse and all his ilk, but not Jack and Eliza. I go back to Cryptonomicon because I like all the characters, even the really geeky-tending-toward-autistic ones.
      (I wonder if Stephenson’s characters tend to have Aspergers or autism. Maybe that would explain the low emotional register?)
      Do reconsider and give Anathem a shot. I think that the characterization there is better done. You can disagree with me, but only after you check it out.

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