Cryptonomicon [1999]

I’m trying to read The Cryptonomicon, based on dozens of conversations over the years that revolve around it and how awesome it is. I bought it the same day as I bought Quicksilver 4 years (ish) ago, for a song (AU$3). Quicksilver was so tedious that I never bothered with this book. But I just had one too many not-conversations while someone waxed lyrical about it at Dagger’s last party that I decided it needed to be done.

It probably didn’t.

The core material is fine: much more engaging than Quicksilver, and I find a couple of the characters interesting. But the writing is so shit that it’s a real struggle to make consistent progress. He treats his characters so much at arms length that sometimes it seems as if everything you know about them is from inference. And there are many times when he builds some dramatic tension to the point where actually start to engage with the story and wonder “what WILL happen next”… and then when he cuts back to that strand the climax has been cut and we’re into the aftermath, or the after-aftermath. Which is frustrating.

And the little tangents to discuss various physics and crypto concepts are boring. 95% of it is stuff I already know, and his laboured explanations, clearly targeted at a layman with no technical background whatsoever, are at best condescending.

Fortunately, it’s just a fore-taste of the manifest failings of Quickilver and so I think I’ll probably make it to the end, but I’d better have some fucking fantastic conversations about it in the future to get a nett pleasure gain from the experience.

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11 Responses to Cryptonomicon [1999]

  1. mundens says:

    Well, as of boxing day we actually had about ten more pre-registrations this year earlier than we did this time last year, quite a few from newcomers as well, as you can see by six games already being fully subscribed, so while I don’t expect it to be bigger than previous years, I think we’ll have enough people.

    And I was even lazier, pretty much only managing to restring a guitar and watch some anime. But thats what this time of year is for, huh?

    • mashugenah says:

      Yep. I was not very happy today, and I realized not too long after making this post that it may be because I’ve been conditioned to always want my time to be productive in some way. It’s a reasonably significant reason for my lack of television watching (it feels like a total waste of time.)

      Oh well. πŸ™‚ I’m not planning on achieving much more tomorrow; maybe some work on one or other of my KapCon scenarios.

      • mundens says:

        I know exactly how you feel about time being productive. I still have issues with that. But I’m learning to just chill sometimes πŸ™‚

  2. jenni_talula says:

    Oh yay for Resident Evil πŸ™‚ Which character did you play?

    • mashugenah says:

      It was not characters from the game. Loosely, I think it takes place in between the climax and the denouement of RE1, or just after the start of RE2.

    • mashugenah says:

      It occurs belatedly that you may have played in the first playtest.

      I played Vito, the Muscle. I did my best with an NY-style Italian Gangster accent… it probably wasn’t too much worse than my more usual stable of roleplaying accents. πŸ™‚

  3. exiledinpn says:

    I’m a bit worried that almost half the games on offer seem to be from Mike F and me.

    This is what happens if you run a different game each session.

    Most of the other games are running multiple times (usually 2), which on the plus side gives more people a chance to play them.

    Registrations are currently sitting at 44. This time last year we had 42. So, we’re certainly not running behind. If things follow the pattern of previous years, we’ll have another 30 before registrations finally close a few days before the con (ignore the website, it lies).

  4. milites says:


    Stephenson’s novels are often written in different styles depending on what he thinks the story is about. One of the things I liked about Cryptonomicon was that much of it was written from the point of view of a high functioning aspegers person. The Lawrence Waterhouse chapters are often confusing and you can’t be entirely sure what’s going on (except about the mathematics) and that feels like how I imagine life for aspergers people trying to understand the people around them.

    I wonder whether it would be a better read if you’d encountered more of his writing, or whether that wouldn’t make a difference, and that it’s just a difference in opinion.

    I think some of his works are dependent on the time you read them. “The Big U” was fantastic when I read it in 1986, but I tried reading it again in about 2001 and it was fairly crap. When I first read it I was a university student just out of the halls of residence, and so much of what he was writing reminded me of life there – and icehawk and I stole lots of the setup for a con game.

    His books also tend to feel like he spends a year on a hobby intensively, and then writes a book on it. Zodiac was very much a book that suggested he’d been hanging out with some rabid greenies (and his parents were scientists).

    Some action scenes aren’t interesting to him… (In Snowcrash, he explicitly says during one action scene once his protagonist gets to his motorbike “After that it’s just a chase scene…” and the chapter ends.)

    Cryptonomicon felt like he’d been playing with Linux for a few years, had written some freelance non-fiction about the undersea cable business, and was trying to make sense of it all by writing a book exploring the possible ways of using it for good or ill. It didn’t teach me anything about cryptography or computers, but I really enjoyed the way he wrote about them.

    So what about his writing makes it crap to you? I remember from an early age prefering writing where knowledge was delivered by inference. (Andre Norton comes to mind)

    • mashugenah says:

      Re: Cryptonomicon

      I wonder whether it would be a better read if you’d encountered more of his writing, or whether that wouldn’t make a difference, and that it’s just a difference in opinion.

      I doubt it would. I suppose though, that you are more likely to enjoy an author again that you have enjoyed in the past. I certainly cut Fallen Dragon a lot of slack based on what I liked about the Night’s Dawn Trilogy and Last Chance at Eden.

      Of course, Hamilton is an author that suffers most of the same flaws as Stephenson. Are they brothers, I wonder? I like Hamilton more simply because his settings are interesting in and of themselves. Also, he doesn’t shy away from showing climactic battles and stuff.

      Similarly in Forsyth and Clancy… there is at periodic intervals, the action-sequence to go with exposition.

      His books also tend to feel like he spends a year on a hobby intensively, and then writes a book on it.

      That rings true.

      So what about his writing makes it crap to you?

      My main problem is that he doesn’t like to describe anything at all directly. He almost exclusively uses metaphor and inference to convey what’s happening. This can be a good tool, but when used exclusively, it just makes him sound smug and superior. Too cool to actually talk about what’s happening in his own book.

      The other thing that bugs me a lot is that he never offers us a perspective on the instantaneous thoughts, feelings and experiences of his characters. So everything is at a distance. I just opened up the book at random and found the following passage:The locals have installed flower boxes around the pier, and all of them are abloom with some sort of pre-Cambrian decorative cabbage. The effect is not exactly cheerful, but it does give the place a haunted Druidical look, as if Waterhouse is looking at the northwesternmost fringe of some cultural tradition from which a sharp anthropologist might infer the existence of actual trees and meadows several hundred miles further south.If you have a close look at his language choices, you’ll notice that he doesn’t actually directly describe anything. Even “the place a haunted Druicical look” is a kind of off-hand and disinterested summary of what it looks like. I have, similarly, opened a passage at random from George RR Martin’s A Clash of KingsGods do not forget, and still the gales came raging up the narrow sea. Yet Storm’s End endured, through centuries and tens of centuries, a castle like no other. Its great curtain wall was a hundred feet high, unbroken by arrow slit or postern, everywhere rounded, curviving, smooth, its stones fit so cunningly together that nowhere was crevice nor angle nor gap by which the wind might enterStephenson shies away from his own material. He wants to be urbane and witty about absolutely everything. Martin has the capacity to analyze and interpret, but also wants to transport us there directly and invoke emotions in us.

      Stephenson’s got a fine mastery of his chosen technique, but it is unvaried and unbroken. It quickly becomes monotonous to me, and makes it difficult to care about the characters that he so deeply cares about that he must share every bit of relevant minutae in their lives with the audience.

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