Volume 17, Number 2, Summer, 1999


By Neal Stephenson

(Avon, $27.50)
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
May 1999

Cryptonomicon is Neal Stephenson's fourth novel, and I'm pleased to be able to say that it shows a steady progression in his skill as a writer. His previous books offered thought-provoking science-fictional ideas, often with libertarian subtexts. Cryptonomicon has both, and in addition a new mastery of the craft of writing.

Like most current novels, this is a long book with a complex plot and multiple viewpoints. In fact, it approaches its plot from two angles, with narratives set half a century apart. This kind of storytelling is just asking for trouble, but Stephenson pulls it off and even makes it look natural. In part, this comes about through his having a limited number of viewpoint characters, three in the earlier narrative and only one in the later, and staying tightly in control of the information revealed through their eyes—a fitting skill in a novel that is essentially about information. In addition, the earlier story is carefully paced so that the reader still confronts unsolved mysteries in the final pages of the book, where they are plausibly resolved.

Is it science fiction? That depends on your definition. It isn't set in the future; its earlier thread spans World War II, its later thread could perfectly well be now. But it has the science fictional property of being about scientific concepts without which the action could not make sense. In this particular case, most of those ideas are real science, centering on the coevolution of computers and cryptography and the social impact of both; but Stephenson still asks the reader to grasp solid scientific content in exactly the style of Robert Heinlein writing about interplanetary trajectories.

Is it libertarian? Not in explicit statement; Stephenson has never included explicit ideological content in his fiction. But he writes sympathetically of the value of gold-backed currency as a basis for a more stable market economy than governmental central banks can achieve; of the value of privacy and of cryptography as a means of achieving it; and of various other things libertarians will greet with a nod of recognition, including a scene that points out the illogic of current firearms control laws. Above all else, his central characters one and all are able to greet new experiences, new ideas, and other cultures with friendly interest and to maintain a deep sense of personal integrity in their actions.

On all these grounds, I think this book will be enjoyable reading for most readers of Prometheus. And in reading it, they will have such incidental pleasures as a pointed satire of postmodernist literary culture and brief visits to two imaginary countries, Kinakuta and Qwghlm. For me particularly, the passage where a character learns of an academic study modelling food energy consumption in hunting/gathering cultures and instantly setting out to turn it into a roleplaying game produced an unnerving but delightful sense of self-recognition. Even better, these little delights are smoothly integrated into the fabric of the book, never running away with it, as a less steady hand might allow them to. Stephenson always knows exactly what he's doing in this book.

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