Feb 23, 2010

Book review: Cryptonomicon

This piece by Neal Stephenson was unadulterated fun. It was basically what I thought Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace was going to be: big, goofy, nerdy, and hilarious. (See here for my review of IJ.)

It has two parallel stories about a related sets of people in WWII and present day. The WWII story is set around a marine (Bobby Shaftoe) who works with a pioneer of cryptography and computers (Lawrence Waterhouse) to hide the fact that the Allies have broken Japanese and German codes. The present day story is set around an entrepreneur (Randy Waterhouse, the grandson of Lawrence) who is building a data haven in a fictional pacific country near the Philippines.

The plot is quite intricate, and is developed nice and slow. For someone with a weak mathematical mind (for a scientist, anyway), it was pleasingly numerate, but not so much that I was often lost. (I confess, though, that I’m still a little unclear on the Riemann zeta function.) Even for someone who is terribly frightened of math, those sections weren’t too critical—but one will enjoy the book a lot more with some mathematical background.

Like any huge book, it does drag in spots. The ending was a little disappointing as well—it felt a little forced. But overall, it was a hell of a fun read. I managed to plow through it in two days, and it is often hilarious. I was reading it during school breaks and my teachers kept asking me what the devil I was laughing at.

I keep coming back to the Infinite Jest comparison. Cryptonomicon was just superior in every way. Funnier, less pretentious, better written, better plotted, smarter, and more meaningful. Mostly I’m still pissed about the lousy ending—Cryptonomicon didn’t have a spectacular ending but it was still miles better than stopping in mid-sentence.

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