by Neal Stephenson



918pp/$27.50/May 1999

Cover by Liz Kenyon

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon will, most likely, receive a nomination for the Hugo Award.  This will be rather strange because, while Stephenson has definitely written science fiction in the past, this book is emphatically not science fiction, nor did the publisher release it under their science fiction imprimatur.   Do, if Cryptonomicon isn't science fiction, what is it, and why will it receive a nomination for the Hugo?  Cryptonomicon is equal parts historical novel, set during World War II, and modern-day high tech thriller.  Both historical and contemporary sequences focus on encryption, code-breaking in WWII and data encryption in the modern period.  The mathematical detail Stephenson evokes is more than enough to give Cryptonomicon the feel of a science fiction novel.

As with any novel which deals with multiple story lines, any individual reader will find some of the plots more interesting than others.  In Cryptonomicon, the most interesting story is the one which revolves around Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematical idiot savant who can recognize codes and understands the mathematical precepts on which they are based, but doesn't quite understand how to fit into the real world, and Bobby Shaftoe, a marine raider assigned to the top secret Detachment 2702, a joint US-British group organized to ensure that the Nazis do not realize that the Allies have broken the Enigma Code.

The other major storyline deals with Waterhouse and Shaftoe's descendents as the attempt to establish a data haven at the end of the twentieth century in the Phillipines, a region in which Bobby Shaftoe had seen action during the War.  Although this section of the book probably will sppeal to those who have a greater interest in hacking and modern computers, it didn't seem to have the texture of the World War II sequences.

Stephenson takes his time getting the plots moving, prefering to spend the first third of the novel establishing his characters and letting the reader get to know them well before he puts them into situations.  In a 900 page novel, this works well, since it still leaves plenty of room for Stephenson to introduce his plots.  Where the book does tend to bog down a little is when Stephenson begins explaining, in almost excruciating detail, the mathematical concepts behind the codes.  While this information is interesting, it belongs, perhaps, in the appendix written by cryptographer Bruce Schneier rather than in the main text.  However, Stephenson has clearly done his research into a topic he finds interesting and wants to share that knowledge with his reader.

Cryptonomicon is not a small book and Stephenson is able to introduce several plot threads which he can tie together in the space which he has allotted himself.   However, Cryptonomicon is also only the first book in a series (according to the text on the fly-leaf).  While this novel can be understood on its own as the two main plotlines twist and turn, shedding light on each other, Stephenson leaves the reader with the feeling that the subsequent books in the trilogy will continue to shed light on what has happened in Cryptonomicon, or at least what the reader thinks has happened.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

Return to

Thanks to
SF Site
for webspace.