September 2, 2020 9:22 AM - by Stephenson, Neal - Subscribe

Written by Neal Stephenson and published in 1999. Two groups of characters, one from the late thirties and forties and one in the then present-day ~1999 (a few who are descendants of the earlier group) involve themselves with codes, codebreaking, and Axis war gold, among other things.

A doorstopper like this book has quite an intricate plot. If you're looking for a summary, Wikipedia can help you out better than I could here.

A review of the book at Medium that includes an excellent summary of what the book is and is not.

The Guardian's brief interview with author Neal Stephenson later in the year the book came out.

A positive review from the AV Club.

A not-so-positive review from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

A review at that discusses how the book ties into the Baroque Cycle and a possible sequel.

"Mother Earth Mother Board". The non-fiction work published in Wired in 1996 that reads like the dry run for portions of the present-day segments of the book.
posted by Fukiyama (41 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I read a little piece about the book in Time or Newsweek in 1999. I was 18, I had had Web access at school for awhile and at home for only a year. The Internet(!) was still new and exciting and the piece piqued my interest, so I picked up the book. It was a hefty thing, but having read a certain author known for his thick technothrillers, I was not intimidated.

Cryptonomicon was an experience. Most of it worked for me. A few bits dragged. I enjoyed Stephenson's diversions. As far as infodumps go, Neal is one of the best at maintaining my interest. Most all the characters had interesting things to say and do even if they weren't totally three dimensional. My favorite of the two storylines was the present day one mostly because we all know who won the War. Both though are very well done.
posted by Fukiyama at 9:24 AM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure that this is the last Stephenson book that I finished. (I say "pretty sure" because, for a while, Stephenson had a reputation of having books end less like "this is the story's natural conclusion" and more like "I'm tired of writing this thing now.") I'm not sure why I was able to finish this one, but not the first book of the Baroque Cycle (even though I know that it tied into this one), but it didn't seem like a chore in the way that the Baroque Cycle did.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:05 AM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I slogged through Cryptonomicon until it didn't feel like a slog anymore, at some point the book sort of "clicked." Mainly I read it because most of the folks in my circles at the time were reading it, and felt like I would have been missing out by not. Looking back, I don't feel that way so much... Note that I did end up enjoying it, but the slog aspect never really left me.

I made it most of the way through the Baroque cycle, moved and misplaced the third book and now it's been well more than five years since and I'd be utterly mystified if I tried to pick it up again. And I can't face starting it all over.
posted by jzb at 1:09 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I feel this book embodies all that is good and bad about Neal Stephenson: clever, ambitious, far-reaching, gleeful, but also willfully 'un-PC' [ie: offensive], tediously detailed, self-congratulating. He also has little interest in women as people.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and had to take a several-years-long break from him after finishing.
posted by latkes at 1:14 PM on September 2, 2020 [10 favorites]

I found the parts set in the 30s and 40s endlessly fascinating and the parts set in 1999 duller than watching paint dry.
posted by kyrademon at 1:27 PM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I read it when it was new and I enjoyed the whole ride. (Growing up reading science fiction had primed me to overlook a book's failure to sufficiently delve into the internal state of half the human race.) It seemed like the first time I'd seen that kind of nerdiness - particular the modern day internet nerd culture I was embedded in - portrayed like that. I knew real-life analogues of some of those nerds. The WWII stuff was interesting in a different way, and sent me off alta-vista-ing to find out which weird historical facts were true vs fiction.

To be fair, I could've done without the mediocre porn interlude and the 10000 word treatises on mouth injuries from Captain Crunch cereal. And, like every book of his since Zodiac, it seemed lacking in depictions of nitrous oxide use.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:30 PM on September 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

Bought the hardcover and read when it first came out; enjoyed the historical parts much better than the modern ones.

The use of coincidences of association between the various bloodlines here (and in the Baroque Cycle) is indulgent, but I didn't mind too much. Huh, wasn't aware of 'Fall, or Dodge in Hell.' Apparently Enoch Root gets explained there.

I've re-read it once, but probably never again. Also have the Baroque cycle in hardcover but I've never been tempted to reread it.
posted by porpoise at 2:45 PM on September 2, 2020

I know I read it and it had something to do with the Enigma machines and Linux but I don't remember much more than that.
posted by octothorpe at 4:00 PM on September 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yup, I enjoyed this one too and my main complaint is it made me stick with the whole damned Baroque Cycle in the hope that it would start to develop into an entertaining whole.

There are a lot of not-great things, and it's not what you'd call tightly plotted, but it was worth reading and in my wheelhouse. I believe I'd read things like David Kahn's Codebreakers before this, so stories like the bicycle chain and gear having imperfections and the implications if those are prime numbers made me literally laugh out loud. Or the submarine captain who is so sure the code is broken he transmits in plaintext.

I also loved the conceit of a special ops team that infiltrates enemy territory and radios out messages that blow their cover, simply to make it look like they are getting human intelligence in daring raids when they have nothing to do with it. I want to see the TV series about them one day.
posted by mark k at 7:25 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

simply to make it look like they are getting...

Thanks for reminding me of this passage:

The next morning they dig a latrine and then proceed to fill it halfway with a couple of barrels of genuine U.S. Mil. Spec. General Issue 100% pure certified Shit. As per Chattan’s instructions, they pour the shit in a dollop at a time, throwing in handfuls of crumpled Italian newspapers after each dollop to make it look like it got there naturally.
posted by porpoise at 7:43 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Huh, wasn't aware of 'Fall, or Dodge in Hell.' Apparently Enoch Root gets explained there.

I love Neal Stephenson's books (despite latkes' spot-on description of all that is not so good about them), I've read the Baroque Cycle more than once, Anathem might actually be my favorite book... and I cannot in good conscience suggest that anyone read Fall. By the end I resented every moment of my time that was spent reading it. Do not recommend.
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:41 PM on September 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

seconding skycrashesdown, with prejudice.
posted by 20 year lurk at 9:18 PM on September 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Everyone who can’t quite face The Baroque Cycle - try Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism instead. All the good research, excellent illustrations, and it gets going within a hundred pages, so, faster than late Stephenson.
posted by clew at 9:38 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

For me Cryptonomicon is a classic case of less than the sum of its parts. I zipped through it in a week, and there are many sequences that I enjoyed, but as a whole... the book is over-indulgent, totally uninterested in its female characters, and has a variety of off-putting political undercurrents.

I hope it's not pretentious of me to say that I'm a computer scientist with broad intellectual interests, so like others here, it's kind of exactly in my wheelhouse. But I guess it represents a lot of what I don't like about what's in my wheelhouse?

I've always been tempted to pick up Anathem, but I'm worried that I'll feel pretty much the same about it, and I'd rather not invest the time to find out.
posted by Alex404 at 6:39 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ah, Anathem. I bounced hard off of it, even while I was a Stephenson fanboi, twice. The third time I managed to read through it.

Intellectually interesting but bonkers and I recall not getting any satisfaction out of it.
posted by porpoise at 8:23 AM on September 3, 2020

Stephenson books were my go-to when I was traveling a lot. Anathem is probably my favorite, although it is indeed bonkers. The books before that (Cryptonomicon especially) are basically dumbed-down Pynchon. Anathem is dumbed-down Greg Egan - an underpopulated niche.
I gave up after Reamd though. Stupid fucking book.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:37 AM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Aye, Reamde weaned me off of Stephenson.
posted by porpoise at 9:19 AM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

The 'Ghost Army' that was engaged in deception in WWII was definitely a real thing. I've seen at least one documentary about them.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:08 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

A little reminder hangs in my kitchen: What Would Shaftoe Do? Display Adaptability.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:53 PM on September 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

One thing I got out of the book that has served me well over the years is this line:

“Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker's game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.”

It is always a reminder to me in more animated discussions to say what I have to say and then shut up.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:40 PM on September 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

MonkeyToes: that is an excellent reminder.

Do not talk about the fucking lizard, though. Even though Shaftoe would.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:43 PM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've always been tempted to pick up Anathem, but I'm worried that I'll feel pretty much the same about it, and I'd rather not invest the time to find out.

So for reference I was following Stephenson for a long time. Loved Cryptonomicon, Baroque cycle was just okay with some good bits, Reamde was mostly just okay with good bits, Seveneves was like bad Niven but could have been rearranged to be much better, and Fall, well, no.

Loooooooved Anathem. Science monks! This wonderful world that has seen global civilization rise and fall so many times with the science monks keeping watch over it all! Long digressions about the nature of consciousness instead of captain crunch! Still has the usual Stephenson faults. But it's absolutely one of my comfort books that I can always go back to when I don't have anything new to read.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:21 PM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I agree with that 100%. Anathem was the only one I reread more than once, and this is making me want to again. That world is excellent, just going through learning about it and meeting new characters is the best part.
posted by InfidelZombie at 5:48 PM on September 3, 2020

I know I read it because I have a couple pages of quotes from it in my commonplace book but I have absolutely zero memory of anything (plot wise) that happened within. (Not a good sign.) I never did read the other two books
posted by hoodrich at 10:17 AM on September 4, 2020

I bought this in hardback when it first came out, read it enough times that it literally broke in half in my hands, and the last time I read it was probably about 2006 or 2007. I probably don't need to read it again, because I'm not the same guy I was then, and probably wouldn't enjoy it as much. I like some of the action setpieces, and some of the funny bits, like the bit about the Greek gods (to explain Metis to Randy, I think), but for the most part, yeah, I'm done with it.

I still like Anathem, and enjoyed The Baroque Cycle (twice). I have no need to read Seveneves again, I remember Reamde as a mediocre action movie, and I kinda want to read Fall just because Mefites keep saying how bad it is. After Seveneves, I want to see how bad a really bad Neal Stephenson book can be.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:25 PM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I LOVED this book and the Baroque Cycle SO MUCH when I first read them that I don't really want to revisit them in case my many years older self does not derive the same level of joy from them. Unfortunately I find that many books I loved as a teenager and young adult don't really stand the test of time for me now and that always feels so disappointing.

Tried so hard with Anathem and Reamd but just could not manage to get through them but I enjoyed Seveneves a lot; I'll say one thing for Stephenson, he doesn't do things by halves.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:46 PM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I loved this book when I read it in college, while studying math and computer science, so perhaps that's none too surprising.

That IEEE reviewer sounds like a jackass, though. I don't remember the book being particularly obscene, though it might've dealt in some adult scenarios (I remember something about 1940s Waterhouse's sex drive acting differently once he became involved with a woman on some island somewhere in the north sea) and it probably contained a fair number of swears.

And yes, it's a long book, but that's kind of the style and his suggestion for shortening it by writing shorter sentences is risible. I suppose Seveneves could be a single sentence: "The moon exploded and wrought havoc on Earth but there were smart people in space who managed to survive and perpetuate mankind." Doubt I'd have paid for that.
posted by axiom at 6:32 PM on September 4, 2020

One of my favorite books, once, though its treatment of gender relations and sneering disdain for the liberal arts would have me hard pressed to stand by that now. But while I don't miss the Stephenson with that baggage, and who either didn't know how or didn't care to finish a book rather than just end it, I do miss the fun, digressive, irreverent Stephenson. I think this was the last time one of his books was ever funny, and it was pretty damn funny.
posted by valrus at 7:40 AM on September 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

A thing about Cryptonomicon though is that it's sometimes more complicated than it initially lets on, and this is also something that Stephenson seems to have set aside with Seveneves and beyond.

Yeah, the book just drips disdain for Randy's girlfriend whose name escapes me (which I'm sure is not coincidental) or the Finnish prof who's father is uncertain between Enoch and Bobby and German McGermanface. But there are also multiple occasions in the book where even Randy is struck by how right they were about something, like when Randy shaves his beard off for the first time in however many years.

Lots of the book can be summarized as "Randy realizes he was wrong about X"
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:01 AM on September 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

The girlfriend is Amy Shaftoe IIRC.
posted by axiom at 12:48 PM on September 5, 2020

I meant his ex back in California, that wrote the paper about beards.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:00 PM on September 5, 2020

According to Wikipedia that's Charlene, who was a liberal arts academic. So, yeah, disdain.

Oh! And there's the bit about Van Eyck phreaking where they use it to observe one of the characters writing a journal entry about how his (ex?) wife could only orgasm when having sex on or near high-quality antique furniture, but decide they can't claim to have won a bet (about whether such phreaking was possible) because they'd have to admit to knowing this fact. I found that section fairly amusing, but I wouldn't call it obscene. The wife doesn't come off too well, anyhow.
posted by axiom at 1:45 PM on September 5, 2020

The furniture-marriage-sex thing is a great example of the protagonist expecting the women of the family to perform a particular kind of display that the men would feel worse without so that the men can get the benefit and also be scornful of it. Veblen nailed it for consumerism when consumerism was new; it happens in diasporas especially around food and sex; it isn’t obscure here.

Though, given how central biological inheritance and quality stuff are to Stephensons later plots, I can’t help reading it as an accidental indictment of the author.

I like several things in early Stephenson that most people don’t, even. YT seemed very plausible to me because I was a teenage girl in the 1980s and the most daring peers I knew were like that - and mostly lived into interesting careers, like YT in Diamond Age. And I don’t mind the books ending while the characters spin on, that’s how Clotho works. But the determined justifications for fixed hierarchies have been getting grosser since the Mouse Army.
posted by clew at 3:30 PM on September 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

Randy's friend Tom was not divorced. He was married to his wife throughout the book. And Tom's little piece about his sex life with his wife discussed not only her need for antique grade furniture, but his own need for pantyhose of some kind.

Make of that what you will.
posted by Fukiyama at 4:13 PM on September 5, 2020

> 10000 word treatises on mouth injuries from Captain Crunch cereal.

This is main thrust of my anti-recommendation in conversations where Stephenson gets recommended. He has a great deal of interest in many things, and writes a lot of words about all of them. Some of those are interesting to me. Others are things like the perfect way to eat Captain Crunch. I’ve found that nonfiction scratches the itch way better.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:18 PM on September 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I never read this book, but it held up my bathroom sink for several years. Thank you, Neal Stephenson
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:41 AM on September 6, 2020 [5 favorites]

The Mouse Army and the end of The Diamond Age were what made me drop Stephenson. As for Cryptonomicon, it's been at least 15 years since I read it, and I can't remember anything of the plot except that Alan Turing was on it and a vague suspicion that the bits about cryptocurrency will be unintentionally hilarious on reread nowadays.
posted by sukeban at 12:42 PM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I count my self in the camp that enjoyed Cryptonomicon a lot when I first encountered it (my brother and I did a book exchange and my bro sent me: a Dan Brown, Cryptonomicon, some Greg Bear lightly plotted textbook about Neanderthal DNA... Darwin’s Radio? And two other things I can’t recall. )
Neal Stephenson is funny, and I enjoy the lengthy digressions enough to excuse/move past the meanness of the Beards essay and the tediousness of the ejaculation committee nonsense. I have reread since, several times - I don’t have to agree with a work’s politics to enjoy engaging with it. I am an unapologetic sucker for competence porn, and reliably enjoy (fictional) devious workplace politics.

(Anathem was great. Bonkers indeed! And the Baroque Cycle is great fun - like the good parts of the Cryptonomicon- so long as you fact check any story that sounds particularly charming. Seveneves ends with or just prior to the words ‘5000 years later’ as far as I’m concerned. )
posted by janell at 1:06 PM on September 6, 2020

Cryptonomicon was one of my favourite books for a while1. It was one of the few books I kept during The Great Bookshelf Purge.

It is reminiscent of early Tom Clancy where a decent plot and enough suspense provide a framework for techno-geekery.
Multi-page digressions are a thing that Stephenson does really well but seems to have moved away from in his later books.
It is also the last of his books that I have read to have an actual ending, rather than a "I'm still writing this as it goes to press" ending.

1 (Or maybe still is, it has been a number of years since I read it, maybe it doesn't hold up).
posted by madajb at 1:49 PM on September 6, 2020

It sounds as though I'm in a minority in liking the Captain Crunch interlude. I've always assumed it to be an intentional Pynchon homage / pastiche.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:25 PM on September 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

I really enjoyed this, and liked it more after reading the Baroque Cycle-and I actually thought Reamde was a ton of fun. Seveneves sucked balls-I dislikes it in similar ways to my dislike of the Three Body Problem books-and I had the misfortune of having checked Fall out right before the pandemic and I..still..have it. Ugh.
posted by purenitrous at 7:09 PM on September 12, 2020

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