Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – Critical Book Review

I’ve read three books by Neal Stephenson – Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and, now, Cryptonomicon – and after finishing this 1130 page monstrosity, I can easily say that Cryptonomicon is by far my favorite. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age were decent reads – and I’m sure there’s not a Stephenson novel in existence that won’t leave you slack-jawed – but Cryptonomicon outstripped the other two in every way.

Cryptonomicon is a glorious mash-up of spy thriller, war epic, cryptography manual, treasure hunting tale, action/adventure story, and impressive creation of historical conspiracy theory. It follows a multitude of unique and engrossing characters, from a hard-bitten World War II Marine to an eccentric cryptanalyst to modern-day code-writers/harried businessmen, to even a priest/secret society member.

As with any Stephenson novel, you should prepare to have your mind blown at least once per chapter. Stephenson dishes out incredible ideas, witty metaphors, and extensive technical knowledge like normal people hand out candy on Halloween. Perhaps it’s because Cryptonomicon deals with events that have already taken place and technology that currently exists (mostly), but I found myself able to identify with (or at least vaguely comprehend) the technological concepts, historical nods, and cultural insinuations in Cryptonomicon far better than in the previous two Stephenson novels I’ve read. (Snow Crash and The Diamond Age take place at various points in the future and deal with Stephenson’s extrapolations on where technology and societal leanings will lead us.) Cryptonomicon also has a largely satisfactory conclusion (finally!), unlike other Stephenson finales, which usually leave me frustrated and grasping for something even dimly appearing like closure. Thankfully, I can say that Cryptonomicon won’t leave you with the same incomplete feeling that seems to be a trademark of Stephenson’s endings.

Stephenson’s research into history deserves special note. He does such a good job of mixing historical fact with speculative conspiracy that I had a tough time picking out the fact from the fiction. (This is no mean feat. It is not humble of me, perhaps, to say that I am something of a historical scholar, but it is true, nonetheless.) Stephenson should unquestionably be commended for both his dedicated research and his deft handling of historical fact into a compelling fictional novel.

As a special note, I thought I’d mention the sheer hilarity of the humor in this volume, because I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed so much in my life while reading a book. Stephenson’s insights into people, countries, organizations, and institutions are enviable, and the tongue-in-cheek approach he uses to gleefully nip at everyone’s respective heels is uproariously entertaining. Everyone is fair game, and the result is side-splitting amusement.

What I’m trying to say is this: If you’re going to pick up a Neal Stephenson novel – and I highly encourage you to do so, if for no other reason than to expand your mind with some incredible ideas – then make that novel Cryptonomicon. By all means, read his other works – they are certainly worth the time and effort – but Cryptonomicon is a must-read. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it for any adult.

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2 thoughts on “Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – Critical Book Review

  1. Richard Bryant

    It is a remarkable book. I’m sometimes put off by the size of Neal Stephenson’s novels. It’s a poor excuse but I have limited reading time and one of his more ginormous novels can take me as long to read as 2 or 3 more modestly sized books. Loved Snow Crash.

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    1. isilkemp Post author

      Very true. It’s quite understandable that you’d be put off by that. I’ve got an enormous reading list, and I was thinking that I could knock two or three out in the space of time it would take to finish Cryptonomicon. I’m glad I muscled past that feeling, though, and started anyway. I would have missed out on a thought-provoking book!

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