Dumb luck is the best kind. The only reason that I pulled Neal Stephenson’s book Cryptonomicon off the shelf was that I had kneeled to look at something on the next shelf over and didn’t want to stand back up without a book in my hand. Besides having a long and imposing title the paperback is as thick as a brick, which is a great thing when I can plow through a normal paperback in a week’s worth of lunch hours. This book looked to be an Everlasting Gobstopper of modern literature.
I quickly learned that this book was the Super Deluxe Golden Bozo of Everlasting Gobstoppers, taking me weeks to read, enjoying the book more as I went, eventually telling people that it was the best book I’d read in a decade (which it is).
If I had to pick just one word to describe Stephenson’s writing style I would, besides feeling slightly gypped, select ‘dense’ because he packs so much information into a small amount of space, rather like the cryptologists of his novel. I would find myself re-reading paragraphs over and over just to squeeze understanding from the words. I had to think, something I haven’t had to do in a long time… not because I am so incredibly smart, but because I am so incredibly lazy that I prefer to read nice pulpy science fiction stories over books that make me question my reality. Partly because my reality is already fairly unreal.
Like a lot of you, I go through a standard novel like a hot knife through butter; great swaths of paragraphs ingested in blinks. I think it’s safe to say that we do this because, fundamentally, we read books for their ideas and not for their art. It’s a double pleasure when the author turns out to have both ideas and art.
I think that Stephenson is one of these rare double threats, but not because of his poetry… people like Ray Bradbury can (and always will) kick his ass all day long, coming and going. It’s not the way that he phrases his words, it’s the way that he phrases his ideas. The way that Cryptonomicon unfolds is compelling and the ideas that he teaches along the way are every bit as exciting (and perhaps more believable) than anything that John Crichton has turned out in years.
The book’s characters range from the believable to the unbelievable, mundane to mythic.
I know that I’m late to this game, ‘Cryptonomicon’ was published in the pre-9/11 world of 1999 and has the “long boom” of the dot-com age stitched into its essence. Still, I can’t wait to find people with whom I can discuss Marine Private Shaftoe, a credit to his branch of the service. And cryptography! I’d love to learn to start using crypto email, though the only thing I can think to send would be long ass book reviews like this one.