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Neal Stephenson
Avon Eos Books, 917 pages

Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
Neal Stephenson Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kim Fawcett

I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson; I've read all of his novels, most of them more than once. So despite the fact that I jumped at the chance to review Cryptonomicon, his latest and most ambitious book by far, I was perhaps just a bit apprehensive. Could I write a fair piece, or would I go easy on him because I'm such a fan? I can forgive much of the man who gave the world Zodiac.

Fortunately, my forgiveness was far from required. Cryptonomicon is the best book Stephenson has ever written. It's easily the best book I've read this year -- probably the best I've read this decade.

Cryptonomicon alternates between the 40s, where the infant science of cryptography is winning World War II for the allies, and the 90s, where an eclectic group of businessmen, hackers, and thieves are using the same science to create an Internet data haven. That's the Cliff Notes version, of course -- even the simplest of Stephenson's plots defies description.

The 40s storyline mostly revolves around Bobby Shaftoe and Lawrence Waterhouse. Shaftoe is a bad-ass marine who has developed a taste for haiku and sushi, perhaps inappropriate considering that he's "killed more nips than seismic activity." Waterhouse is everything Shaftoe isn't -- a cryptography savant, a true geek who learned mathematics by disassembling a church organ, and who thinks of his own sex life in terms of quadratic equations. The two of them are part of a top-top-top secret counter-counterintelligence unit whose purpose only Waterhouse truly understands. All Shaftoe knows is that he gets the messy jobs.

In the present day, we're treated to Waterhouse's grandson Randy. He's just as brilliant, if considerably less focused than his forebear. Most of the time he's pretty much just trying to get laid, but he somehow manages to fall into the world-saving business despite himself. He's part of a loose group of Secret Admirers -- cryptography experts who want to use their skills to make the world A Better Place through surveillance-proof communications and, particularly, a totally anonymous and secure electronic economy.

Stephenson's prose is fast, intricate, and involving. His plots are unbelievably complex; a treasure hunt that could easily take up a book in itself is just one more strand in Stephenson's web of looping, whirling, tangled storylines. He regularly spins off and spends way too much ink describing some weird piece of technology or culture. The half dozen pages on how to eat a bowl of Captain Crunch leaps to mind.

And it's all wonderful. I remember taking literature courses where I'd turn a page in some 17th-century book, see the solid block of unbroken text, and moan in pain. In Cryptonomicon, that's a sign that you're in for a treat. I found myself gleefully flipping forward to search for the next paragraph break (and searching, and searching...), delighting in the page-long, intricately constructed sentences. I haven't had this much fun simply reading a book in as long as I can remember.

It's possible that there are a few people out there who will read this book and not enjoy it. I'll grant that it gets pretty technical at times. I seem to recall that Stephen Hawking's editor once told him that his book sales would drop by something like thirty percent for each formula he included. If that's true, then Stephenson is in for a disappointing royalty cheque.

Oh, and it's loooong. Very long. And there's at least one more book to follow. I get the impression that Stephenson would have made Cryptonomicon even longer if he could -- the ending seems tacked on, as if he had to cut it short to be marketable.

But the real reason I was disappointed in the ending was because it was the end. If he had written another thousand pages, I wouldn't have been satisfied -- just farther behind on sleep. Neal Stephenson has produced a brilliant, involving, painstakingly researched and lovingly constructed novel that I'll be re-reading more than once. I don't know how I ever doubted him.

Copyright © 1999 by Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett works, reads, writes, and occasionally sleeps in Ottawa, Canada. A day job working as a contract technical writer hinders her creative efforts, but has no effect at all on her book-a-week reading habit. She dreams of (a) winning the lottery, (b) publishing a novel, (c) travelling the world, and (d) doing all of the above all at once.

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