Cyptonomicon (Neal Stephenson, 1999)

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Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson (1999).

Score: Toooo daaaaamn looooong.

I know I implied on my review of Illium/Olympos that Stephenson didn’t digress as much as Simmons. I do apologise for that now. I have a tendency to like this kind of books, with pointlessly intricate plots, and all their flaws. As far as my taste is concerned, more is more. And I kind of liked he first half of Cryptonomicon, but finishing it was torture.

Stephenson suffers, with the likes of Connie Willis, Dan Simmons or GRRM, from the doorstopper syndrome. Writer produces doorstopper: it’s quite long and dense, but the descriptions are colourful and enjoyable. The plot takes its time to develop, but you’re rewarded with good character development. It might take longer to finish but it’s a great book nonetheless. People like the book, laugh at the joke. Then writer, encouraged with the results, decides that the original doorstopper was only an appetiser and now they must write their magnum opus. The second generation doorstopper is even longer and even slower to develop. Everything is described in annoying detail, with long passages of character development that make the reader forget they were actually reading a novel where there’s a main arc and not only side arcs. You keep reading because the style is actually good. You’re enjoying the filler. But it’s still filler, at least compared to the primordial doorstopper. Writer is at greater and greater risk of boring their readership.

This is what happens with Cryptonomicon when compared to Snow Crash and The diamond age, to the point that it’s almost unreadable. I was enjoying the adventures of Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe and Randy, but I was left wondering until quite far along the book what I was being told all of this for (spoiler alert: for nothing). I knew it had something to do with cryptography and conspiracies mostly because it says so on the dust jacket, not because the story implies it at all. In fact, the goal in Randy and Avi’s arc is only revealed a good 250 pages in, and you have to wait until almost the very end to glimpse the links between the plot arches.

The characters are not especially likable, except for Lawrence Waterhouse, who is a truth-in-TV, might-have-Asperger’s so clichéd it’s not even funny. The others are just borderline stupid and insipid, Randy being the major offender. While on the topic of Randy, it’s hard to dismiss Stephenson’s fixation with Liberal Arts majors. People like that exist, and I should know because I’m a Liberal Arts major, and I studied with them, but the whole book is polarised between religious, saintly scientists and heralds of truth and exactitude and uptight, arrogant, ignorant and morally corrupt humanists. To say nothing of the portrayal of the Japanese and New Guinea natives. As the Spanish saying goes, it was worthy of confession and communion. Look, I’ve never cared about writer’s religions, but in this case it comes out of the territory of the subtle. The big examples are the passages where it’s explained that the only ones who actually weren’t a shitstain of human beings to Randy during his pseudo-divorce are a couple of scientists who have been keeping as a secret the fact that their children are baptised and and go to church every Sunday and the passage where Avi’s family life is described as his wife being perpetually pregnant and his never masturbating to keep his devotion for her. That sounds as alien to me as if someone said they never watch TV alone in order to keep their devotion to their spouse when they can watch TV together. Does not compute. The mention of honour goes to the bigoted and disgusting portrayal of Japanese culture and sense of honour and duty, crowned by ***SPOILERS*** Goto Dengo’s christening. “Are you feeling like shit and coming from an inferior and stupid culture? Have you considered becoming a Christian? This shit solves your every problem!” Gross. ***END SPOILERS***

If I had to say something good and that actually helped me finish this nightmare of a doorstopper is the narrating style. In quite a lot of passages the choice of words is simply staggering. I saved a couple of gems:

“Over in that Casbah, starved-looking, shave-needing ragheads lean out of spindly towers yodeling out of key.”

“Inside, a tiny anteroom is dominated by a sculpture: two nymphets in diaphanous veils kicking the crap out of a scurrying hag, entitled Fortitude and Adaptability Driving Out Adversity.”

”[…] and he accelerates up the throat of a nightmare, like the butt of a half-digested corn dog being reverse-peristalted from the body of an addict.”

It does get boring, though. The description of Randy eating Cap’n Crunch was obnoxious and I have to admit I have skipped over full paragraphs of descriptions, especially towards the end.

Final verdict: as much as I enjoyed The diamond age and Snow Crash, don’t waste your time with this.

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