by Neal Stephenson

Somebody once said that Neal Stephenson was the Quentin Tarantino of post-cyberpunk sf. But after his phenomenal successes with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino followed up with Jackie Brown, which was every bit as gritty, lean and low-budget as the flicks that had come before. 

Stephenson, on the other hand, has followed up Snow Crash and The Diamond Age with Cryptonomicon, one of the most sprawling, overblown and ambitious novels you're ever likely to read. The book comes in at just under a thousand pages-which, as my friend Bill the Berkserker pointed out, was probably the Line in the Sand laid down by the publishers. 

But Stephenson can fill up a thousand pages like nobody else. True, the story--or stories, I should say--really didn't need more than 500 pages. The book shuttles back and forth between WWII and the present day. Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is a mathematician, a friend and contemporary of one Alan Turing. Waterhouse gets involved in the allied effort to crack Axis codes, an assignment that takes him from Pearl Harbor (yes, on that day), to the farthest chilly reaches of the British Isles, to New Guinea to Australia get the picture. Of course, when you crack the enemy's codes and find out just where he's hiding his tanks and planes and ships, he's liable to get suspicious when you use that info to destroy those selfsame tanks and planes and ships. You've got to make it look like that information was obtained by other means. So  we're treated to the adventures of one Bobby Shaftoe, a resourceful US Marine sergeant who's become part of a secret special forces team that runs around setting up false scenarios for Nazis and Nipponese, making it look like there were spies or listening stations where none ever existed. This stuff gets surreal in a hurry, but surreal is where Stephenson lives. 

Present day: one Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, grandson of the aforementioned mathematician, is a corporate hacker involved in the construction of a "Data Haven," sort of a Swiss bank for encrypted info, somewhere in the South Pacific. Sounds fairly prosaic, but Randy quickly gets caught up in a bizarre web of politics, buried gold, sunken treasure, crypto and personal history. A message from his grandfather waits for him in a sunken U-boat off the coast of the Phillipines, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Shaftoe's granddaughter. The two timelines reflect each other beautifully, if improbably. And the end, as is usually the case with Stephenson, falls a little flat. Like the ending of The Diamond Age, it's too perfunctory, and leaves too many threads dangling. It's  almost as if Stephenson were rushing to get through that last 100 pages. 

Of course, that wouldn't have been so much of a problem if he weren't such a discursive writer. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson gets away with some of the most amazing, hilarious and outrageous digressions I've ever seen in a work of fiction. About the time Stephenson starts doing a mathematical analysis of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse's code-cracking productivity as a function of his horniness/ejaculation frequency, you begin to wonder why his agent and publisher didn't put a leash on him. But you're glad they didn't. Stephenson is the stand-up comic of hard sf writers. 

Cryptonomicon is a wild ride, fantastically entertaining. But it does little to illuminate the issue at its heart, that of data security. Still, at a time when our leaders are carrying on a maladroit political struggle with matters of privacy, Internet taxation, and data enccryption, I'd pay real money to see Stephenson testify before Congress. It probably wouldn't help, in the long run. It might be the end of the Republic as we've known it. But it would almost certainly be twice as long as necessary, and ten times as funny.


Sullydog Approves.

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