Book review: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

originally posted elsewhere: May 9, 2015

tl;dr: Brilliant - an absolute must-read for all technophiles...

Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is a true epic masterpiece that even in 2015, sixteen years after it was published, stands the test of time. Most of the action takes place during World War II and during the late 1990s tech boom, when the race was underway to wire the world with fiber to support the hypergrowth (or hyped growth) of the Internet. Across these two very different settings Stephenson has crafted an intricate thriller of a storyline that spans generations, many characters (including some well-known public figures), and multiple conspiracies. He does all this with a true insider’s understanding of technology and the libertarian ethos that is widely prevalent within the technology industry.

But the storyline, while highly readable and compelling, is merely a framework that allows Stephenson to convey his views and philosophies on a wide variety of topics, from interpersonal relationships to religion to academia to economics to government to foreign cultures to popular culture. While some will no doubt find certain views objectionable, Stephenson almost always presents his thoughts in an intelligent, compelling manner. And of course many of those views are aligned with those in the technology community, so readers from that community will find themselves cheering him on.

Stephenson’s intelligence shines through on every page, which is what I appreciated most about Cryptonomicon. Each new chapter jumps to a new setting and doesn’t quite pick up where the action in that setting last left off, which forces the reader to think and deduce what action has transpired in the interim. And Stephenson knows his technology. There aren’t too many books out there that intersperse a Perl script, Unix commands and multiple descriptions of cryptography algorithms in such a page-turner of a story.

If I had to put Cryptonomicon into a category I would call it “speculative fiction” rather than the “science fiction” category where it is often shelved in bookstores. I bought my copy years ago on the recommendation of a friend and for some reason left it on my “to read” pile for a decade. Now I wish I had read it when I bought it. At 900+ pages (at least in the edition that I read) Cryptonomicon is, if anything, too short. I tooled through the last 200 pages in a weekend to see how Stephenson would tie the many story threads together into a thrilling conclusion, and was sad when I had no more pages to read. Fortunately Stephenson has published several other well-reviewed books, which I will be devouring soon. I heartily recommend that you devour Cryptonomicon.