Cryptonomicon, or: Randy Waterhouse’s Incredibly Convoluted Quest for Nazi Gold

I realise that a good few of my few good readers are big fans of Neal Stephenson. I do realise that if I say anything against him I’ll never be allowed to release any fiction of my own. I’ll start with some personal background for you:

I get through two or three books in the average working week. Snow Crash took me maybe a day and a half, and I had a good, brief time. Cryptonomicon took me in excess of two weeks. I had a mighty uphill struggle reading this book. You can’t say “But Alex, Snow Crash is only 230 odd pages, to Cryptonomicon‘s 918!”. Indeed, they are very different beasts. By the logic stated here, it should have taken me merely four times as long to read Cryptonomicon. Length has nothing really to do with the speed of reading; in the week after Cryptonomicon I read somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1000 pages.
No, friends, Cryptonomicon is dense. It’s dense and many things happen in it while, at the same time, nothing happens at all.

Examine this, from Something Awful forum user BrickRedTruth, in the thread Let’s imagine things created by famous authors when they were children!:

A Weak Link In the Chain:
A Legend of Zelda fanfic by Neal Stephenson, age 13

Chapter 1
The Hero of Time belongs to an elite order. He’s got his Master Sword; it’s sharper than a CIA sniper’s eye and cuts through flesh like a Kawasaki jet ski cuts through the Pacific: clean and fast and fun as hell for the person in control. He’s got his bow and arrow; trusty as the horse in some old western serrial and accurate as the gunslinging hero that rides it. He’s got his hookshot; a hook that sticks to wood like a spider in the mayonaise jar and 20 feet of stainless steel chain capable of pulling him through the air fast enough to throw out his shoulder if he isn’t careful. He’s got his piece of the Triforce, that little slice of godlike power that lets him tear out the spinal chords of three Moblins like you’d peel the skin off an orange. But most of all, he’s got Moxy. Pizazz. Mad skills. Whatever you call it, he’s got balls so big he has to hire somebody to carry them for him, like Gunga Din if Gunga Din hauled around a set of mammoth testicles instead of water.

Link, the Hero of Time, Hyrule’s resident Dodongo-puncher, Wolfos-stabbing, Poe-bludgeoning badass, stood atop a grassy knoll in Hyrule Field and surveyed his kingdom with a nagging sense of dread, like a bad toothache. He had brought down a tyrannical dictator, shoveled dirt over more evil wizards than he could bother to remember, and had a dick the size of a grain silo…and yet something troubled him. Whatever it was, he reasoned as he delicately fondled the hilt of his Sword as if searching for its g-spot, today was going to be a bad day.


The scary thing is that this isn’t really far off. I read Cryptonomicon slowly because it kept on changing its orientation, sometimes had pages upon pages of technical explanation (much of which, thanks to the march of time, is now thoroughly irrelevant), and generally thought that it was the greatest book ever written by man or beast. I don’t strictly look for a point in the books that I read, but nonetheless I found Cryptonomicon distinctly lacking in the department of points, and I feel like it ate my time. I don’t regret having read the book, but … well, now I feel like I’m starting a cyclical argument. So I’ll digress!

Amidst all of the whatever going on, there’s some talk of sex. I’ll make it clear now: this has nothing to do with my own sexuality, so you can’t use that against me. Anyway, it’s terrible. You want to personify your protagonist’s prostate, Neal Stephenson? Call him “Little Man ‘Tate”? Okay. You want to spend, let me count them … approximately eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture? Be my guest, I guess.
Then, when you come to write the narrative sex scenes, all I can say is wow. I can’t say that I’ve read a lot of bad, or mind-warping, sex scenes in my time because generally the books I read lack that level of description and I don’t read horrid fantasy or sci-fi (you may have noticed, if you’re experienced in the field, that a lot of authors’ works eventually degrade into endlessly depraved sex scenes).
Anyway, the one we’ve got here is pretty terrible. I will reproduce it for you in part. I’ll set the scene: Randy, the book’s modern day and least interesting protagonist, and Amy, the headstrong and therefore potentially lesbian woman of his dreams, are in a jeep. Amy has just removed her underpants and “sat down on” Randy.

Randy’s toe knuckles pop audibly. He lifts himself and Amy into the air, experiences some kind of synaesthetic hallucination very much like the famous “jump into hyperspace” scene from Star Wars. Or perhaps the air bag has accidentally detonated? Then he pumps something like an Imperial pint of semen – it’s a seemingly open ended stream of ejaculations, each coupled to the next by nothing more than a leap of faith that another one is coming – and in the end, like all schemes built on faith and hope, it lapses, and then Randy sits utterly still until his body realises it has not drawn breath in quite a while.

So, if I’ve read that right, Randy sticks it in, and then is finished instantly. Yeah, generally, as is my understanding, guys don’t want to do that. Randy, later on that page, opens his eyes to make sure that she’s not disgusted with him (he settles for “bemused”). He at least has the excuse that, due to his misadventures, he’s been unable to relieve himself manually for a couple of months – which is something you generally wouldn’t read in a book anyway (do I want to know the lead character’s masturbatory habits? Do I want them charted against productivity?). That’s not the worst of it. Comparing sex to Star Wars? You do realise that, if you compare sex to Star Wars, and then go on to refer to an Imperial pint of semen, you’re going to make your readers think of Stormtroopers. I had almost thought it was deliberate. It probably was deliberate. Neal Stephenson, you’re a sick, sick man.

With all of Stephenson’s talk of evolution being the domain of the “badass” (and not in the totally palatable, No Country For Old Men “ultimate badass” way, but in a “why is this being mentioned at all?” sort of way), one has to wonder: is Cryptonomicon actually a work of badass? I would posit that it is not. Snow Crash worked as well as it did because it was so compact, and because it simply ended. I loved that it turned out as it did. It was not until today that I realised that the Wing who worked with Goto Dengo in the war was the same Wing as the one causing such trouble for our rag-tag bunch of heroes who like to meditate on their nocturnal emissions and make shorthand jokes about prison rape.

Something that made sense in Snow Crash, it being an alterna-future where the US had split into nation states, was the use of slightly different names for things. I can therefore be forgiven for being confused when Cryptonomicon used the term “Nipponese” all the time while still being set in our own theoretical timeline. This constant, unexplained reference struck me as an act of amazing grease. Are there really people, techno-businessmen, who would go around refering to Japan as “Nippon”? I had really thought that maybe it would turn out to be a bizarro universe in which Japan had won the war and the language had changed to reflect that. But no. I daresay a great many people, if they were to hear tell of the “glorious nation of Nippon” would wonder what the heck was being talked about.

Which brings me to my final complaint: all of these disparate characters are supposed to combine for an ultimate goal. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal of … well, whatever it is that they end up with. Fifty years later, the descendants of these characters are remarkably untouched by everything that has happened in the WWII segment of the book. Stephenson may as well have written in wholly different characters for all the effect that these ones had. You’re left wondering, at the final page, precisely why everyone went through all of this, why Stephenson chose to present the parts of the story that he did, why you’re not grasped by the spirit of wonder. It’s as I’ve said before: being long is not the same as being epic. Cryptonomicon has many pages, but never once does it feel like a grand adventure.

I really feel like I’m trolling Neal Stephenson, but I’d prefer to think this is not the case. It’s just that somewhere, buried amongst the mountains of digressions, is some interesting material; it’s just a shame that you have to dig through evolutionary badasses, stockings, barely mentioned one-legged crazies, and the apparently insatiable sexual desires of WWII soldiers to get to it. I’ve actually bought the Baroque Cycle. Some day I’ll read it. Well, not some day, as such: possibly I’ll have to set aside a year. I don’t exactly dread it; it’s simply going to be a date with density.

Later: Mark responds. Yes, Andrew Loeb did indeed arrive out of nowhere as some sort of crazy man. Before he was crazy for litigation, but when he shows up in person he’s crazy for crazy.
All of the “sex stuff” was what stuck out to me in the book; most of the other digressions I could understand where they’re digressing to (although, to be fair, I should probably have mentioned the massively passive aggressive lecture tour about men hiding behind beards). Do people really write private, eight page documents about their fetishes? No, they post them anonymously to the internet. I mean, I know I’ve really just justified it, because that document needs an audience, but it strikes me as major weird anyway.
And while I did understand the “Nips” versus “Japs” part, it really makes no sense in the modern world. Do we have people who legitimately visit Japan, or hang out in the Pacific Rim, who call the country Nippon? Do Japanese people abroad refer to their country (in English) as “Nippon”? Probably not.

Mark says:

[T]o say that the descendents are untouched by the WWII generation is to miss one of the themes in the book, which is that people of our generation are totally in awe of the WWII generation and feel a little awkward working in our world knowing that our grandparents were literally fending off evil on a worldwide scale.

Yeah, yeah: badasses. Didn’t stop me from thinking that these characters (when I say that, I really mean Randy, because Douglas Shaftoe wasn’t a victim) simply have a shared interest in cryptography and … that’s all there is to it. Avi seems like a tacked on moral compass because, as Randy would probably admit, he is himself rather lacking in ambition.
I don’t know, seeing Mark’s argument makes me feel like I’m a bloodless, dispassionate fiend of the night. He also suggests that Cryptonomicon is not an epic, rather that it is sweeping. Private correspondence with my friend Andy suggests that Stephenson doesn’t write epics, he writes chronicles. Andy also cleared up something that was bothering me about Enoch Root, so that was good as well.

Ultimately, Mark is right: you cut away the digressions, you cut the book loose. Some digressions are simply more valuable than others.

Later still: Shamus calls me out on my blasphemy. Except Shamus is a dignified chap and suggests I’m perhaps too normal a person to enjoy the bouquet of Cryptonomicon. I realise in retrospect how unbalanced this write up is, but I really don’t hate it. Really. I would hardly consider myself “sensible and well adjusted”, though.

Final Disclaimer: I didn’t dislike Cryptonomicon; I despaired of its excesses. I don’t think that I could force myself through a 900 page book out of sheer masochism. It’s just that Cryptonomicon was a heavy trudge that offered many gifts but also many distractions along the way, and I couldn’t help but feel a little empty after having consumed the whole.

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15 Responses to Cryptonomicon, or: Randy Waterhouse’s Incredibly Convoluted Quest for Nazi Gold

  1. Wavatar Philbeauxregard Q. Gumboor says:

    lemme tell ya, it will all make a little more sense once you’ve read some of the barock (as he n.s would spell it) cycle… not that i want to tell ya anything about what goes on and how, but i think all the books when assembled form something of an encyclopedia of all modern history post 1682 or so. tremendous.

    and those shaftoes, they’re badasses, i tell ya what.

  2. Wavatar Mark says:

    I wouldn’t say that it makes more sense after reading the Baroque Cycle. I guess you’ll get some more detail on the general themes and ideas (like cryptography and money) but if you found yourself annoyed by Cryptonomicon, you’ll be doubly annoyed by Quicksilver. It’s still worth reading, imho, but it’s just not as good as Crypto…

    Anyway, I wrote a long response to this post on my blog. It probably sounds overly defensive and argumentative, but whatever. I can see what you’re saying, I just don’t agree:P

  3. Wavatar Zerotime says:

    If you weren’t prepared to deal with the way he writes, why did you even bother reading it?

  4. Wavatar Alex says:

    Thank you for that, Zerotime! Perhaps I had read Snow Crash and enjoyed that? Perhaps I was interested in what happened in Cryptonomicon and enjoyed it despite my misgivings? Perhaps I actually included this information in the post proper?

  5. Wavatar Zerotime says:

    The way I read it – not the same way you wrote it, apparently – was that you only slogged your way through it to feel like some sort of literary martyr.

  6. Wavatar Alex says:

    It’s the risk that you run when you focus on the negative. This is a 900-odd page book, and these problems represent a relatively small number of those pages.

    If I really don’t like a book, I won’t finish it. I’m sorry that I upset you, it was never my intent. I’ve noticed on your site that you read Twenty Sided – which definitely preaches the perspective of being able to like things while being annoyed by them.

    Oh crap, I just realised that Shamus linked to this post. I may be in trouble.

  7. Wavatar Zerotime says:

    Reading through the rest of your book-related blog posts, it does seem to me that you focus more on negatives (which I shouldn’t really fault, being as I enjoy Zero Punctuation so much), but you do also have somewhat similar tastes in literature as I do.

    Not upset, just passionate about the subject and intolerant about things in general. :)

  8. Wavatar Yahzi says:

    “Fifty years later, the descendants of these characters are remarkably untouched by everything that has happened in
    the WWII segment of the book.”

    Like, for instance, the character we watch get sick and die and be buried in Norway.

    Only to show up in the future, as if nothing had happened.

    How did that get past an editor? Oh, right, when you’re famous, you don’t have to listen to your editor anymore. :D

  9. Wavatar Alex says:

    To be fair, that character apparently shows up in the Baroque Cycle as well, so he’s like the mystery guy who everyone loves for his apparent immortality/spitting in the face of the establishment/plagiarising a coding sequence and giving it a different name so as not to reveal its workings.

    I still think that if you kill a character and make the other people sad, it loses its meaning if that character turns up alive later on, and one of his mourners turns up dead.

  10. Wavatar John Adams says:

    It’s a singular observation, I know, but I loathed this book. It took multiple routes to nowhere tormenting me all the while. And that’s not to say I think Stephenson can’t write well because sometimes he can. There are some books written in a style that delights, regardless of their topic. Others, like Crypto, are a very long, hard wank. I never escaped the feeling Stephenson was editorialising constantly – he was right there in the story – and what was worse still was perceiving very early on which of the characters Stephenson actually was. Yuck.

  11. Wavatar JL says:

    I actually thought the style was quite delightful and didn’t feel like it was long and hard, just long. Cryptonomicon had a massive undercurrent of comedy that I wasn’t really expecting at all, from Shaftoe furiously counting haiku syllables on his hands while grenades were being thrown at him to the “Organ” chapter, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read (“headquarters of the Mary-fucking campaign of 1944”). Rather than it being an arduous read, I thought it was a lot of fun.

    I also didn’t feel that Stephenson was writing himself as a character (who do you think he was? Randy?) any more than any other author does. He’s certainly done his fair share of editorializing under his own name, in just as long-winded fashion, in scores of articles and essays.

    I don’t know what the heck was going on with Enoch Root, but I surprisingly don’t have a problem with characters with magical immortality and healing properties pop up in otherwise realistic fiction. I thought it was cool…

  12. Wavatar Blaize says:

    Your review is solid, and makes sense.

    I just re-read the book, and I actually like it. Enoch Root is supposed to be Totally Mysterious, and his “death” is supposed to have been immediately reversed by Rudy. I thought it was pretty obvious. But I have read a lot of Jacobean Revenge Drama and don’t really need realism.

    There is one actual error in the above post: “Do people really write private, eight page documents about their fetishes? ” First, yes, probably they do. Second, the document is question starts with “…let’s see ‘Letter to Penthouse’ print _this_.” So the conceit (whether you buy it or not being another matter) is that the writer of the document is drafting a Penthouse-letter style narrative. Therefore a. not meant to be private, and b. being written on the guy’s computer for potential uploading to the internet, as you suggest.

  13. Wavatar Bolero says:

    I agree that the book seemed to be a long-winded exercise in putting the densest number of concepts on a page at any given time, but I have to say that after about the first third of the book it changed from being “torturous” to “readable”. Once the characters developed into who they would be for the majority of the novel (as opposed to their horridly boring back stories, especially L.P. Waterhouse’s) they became enjoyable. Also while I could honestly not penetrate the match jargon and technobabble in some parts, I found myself laughing uproariously at many segments (in particular Bobby Shaftoe’s conversations with Douglas MacArthur). All that said, however, I felt very let down by Bobby’s death, especially since Douglas made reference to his father having talked to him about M1’s and Springfield’s when he was young. It seemed very slapped together and felt rushed to me, as if it was shoehorned in at the end. Also the sudden appearance of Andrew Loeb at the end still confuses me.

  14. Wavatar Alex says:

    It was a super hero’s ending! And yes, Andrew Loeb: tacked on. Writing from memory, by the way.

  15. Wavatar rox0r says:

    “approximately eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture? Be my guest, I guess.”

    It’s required to be super embarrassing and personal, because it is so embarrassing and personal that they cannot mention that they won the bet and it drives home the importance of privacy.

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