27 October 2016

BOOK REPORT: Cryptonomicon

Tim Ferriss recommended Cryptonomicon.

I was expecting a thriller. Something like Dan Brown with more tech.

Turns out it was quite different.

Mainly it surprised me by its tone. I expected a business-like narrative, gray suits and red ties. Instead, it’s hilarious, filled with wryness (“dry, mocking humor”), much of which is from the narrator, but a lot is from the characters as well. It actually reminded me of Mark Twain, sort of an “I’m cleverer than all this and all of you.” I found myself laughing aloud as I went, quite often. Really, props to Stephenson for his wit. 

I was also duly impressed with how he weaves together his plots. One plot follows a U.S. Marine during WWII as he discovers Nazi treasure in a U-Boat. Another arc follows this Marine’s Japanese counterpart/enemy. Another storyline follows Alan Turing and a few other brilliant code-makers and breakers (have you seen The Imitation Game?). And a last takes place in the modern world, deals with internet cryptography, and collects the pieces lefts by the other (historically earlier) timelines. These plotlines all play out simultaneously. I felt ungrounded and lost in the first quarter of the book, not knowing who to empathize with and relate to. But once I gained a footing, I really liked the weaving.

But despite the impressive plotting and clever diction, I quit listening right around 50%, which was a little too far already. Why? It was too crass. Too many base and sexual topics. Oh, and it was sprinkled with strong language.

Tim Ferriss doesn’t like to apologize for the rough language on his podcast, so he probably won’t understand this critique. Sidenote: this isn’t the first time I’ve been underwhelmed by his fiction tips (Zorba the Greek!). I guess we’re not quite aligned on what we like. It’s not that I find it offensive, Tim, and I’m not making a moral judgement against you. I’m just saying I’d rather talk about something else. It’s the same with bathroom functions. Yes, humans use the restroom frequently, but that’s a detail I’m glad to skip over in a book. Thank you very much.

Aside from that, this was a great book. Hats off to Neal Stephenson.

If you’re a sensitive reader looking for a better option, read Catch-22.

By the way, I love titles, and that’s partly how Cryptonomicon caught my attention. But it’s one of those you have no idea what it means till you’ve read it, so I’ll explain. In this story, the Cryptonomicon is a book (or rather a collection of papers) on cryptography that the protagonists both use and compile as they go.

There you have it.

* * *

FYI to my readers, this is the 27th book I’ve read this year. (Yes, I’m still counting it, since I got through around 300 pages worth.)

Here’s what’s coming next, a group of sci-fi-ish titles to help me prepare for STARCHILD. I’d love to have you read along with me!

  • Star Wars: A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farmboy 
  • Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs
  • Issaac Asimov’s Foundation
  • Einstein’s Relativity
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God 

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