Saturday, 17 March 2001

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)

Cryptonomicon coverEdition: Arrow, 2000
Review number: 784

This novel is usually found in the science fiction section of bookshops, but it is entirely set in the present (more or less) or the past. Its subject matter is the reason for it to be placed in the genre; it is about computing. There is an assumption that books about computing, especially those that, like Cryptonomicon, show a reasonable technical knowledge, are at least going to appeal to the readers of science fiction. This is a bit of a stereotyped assumption, but it probably does make good marketing sense (or else it would soon stop being made).

The story is effectively in two parts. Randall Waterhouse is a computer engineer, engaged on a new project (and in a new company) with an old friend. The initial aim of Epiphyte Corp. is to lay a new data cable into the Philippines, but there is a more unusual and interesting hidden agenda.

The other story, which takes up most of the space in the novel, is about the work of Randy's grandfather Lawrence during the Second World War. Like Alan Turing (a friend), he was one of the cryptanalysts whose work paved the way for the development of the modern computer, as well as heading a unit which had the task of making it look to the Germans as though the Allies were very lucky indeed instead of their codes being broken.

These two strands are brought together skilfully at the end, but in this extremely long novel it is the detail which holds the interest, and the clarity with which quite complex mathematics is described. The characterisation is good, and the background is vivid, though the Second World War chapters sometimes feel as though they are descriptions at a remove from actual events, as if Stephen is describing a gritty war film rather than the war itself.

The review quoted on the cover of Cryptonomicon compare it to William Gilbson and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. There is in fact little in common with Gibson, beyond an interest in computers and a similarity in writing style (and that is mainly the common currency of late twentieth century American fiction). The comparison with Gravity's Rainbow is more apt, though Cryptonomicon is less philosophical, far more prosaic. They share similar touches of humour and of course the Second World War engineering background.

While not attempting to touch on the larger questions of Gravity's Rainbow, Cryptonomicon is an excellent novel, one of the first I have read which seriously looks at contemporary cyberculture.

No comments: