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Long winded reviews

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Beth Meacham, David Brin

A Tough Long Read

Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson

This book took me over a month to read, with a couple of short books sandwiched in between. It is not a good sign for me when I need to take two breaks to finish a book. However, this is not a book that I can dismiss regardless of whether I like it. I have several friends who love Cryptonomicon to bits and they are smart, discerning readers. I remember when I finished readingTwilight I was kind of glad that I didn't think it was very good. Had I found it to be an amazing classic I would have no credibility left among my peers. With Cryptonomicon the problem is the opposite, I am kind of disappointed that even though I like some of it, on the whole I don't particularly care for it. Still, better to be accused of being a philistine than to write a dishonest review just to be up with the Joneses eh? 

Cryptonomicon is a hard book to synopsize, I feel nonplussed just thinking about how to describe the basic plot in a few sentences (so I won’t). The novel is set in two timelines 1942 and the present (or the 90s, the “present day” at the time the book was written). There are several narrative strands that gradually intertwine toward a single ending. The book is also hard to categorise, part historical fiction, part thriller, some element of cyberpunk, a bit of romance and (thankfully) a substantial amount of comedy. 

This novel seems to be more character driven than the other Stephenson books that I read*. The central characters are quite well developed and are generally interesting and likable but unfortunately I could not invest in their adventures. I think this has more to do with the plot they are embroiled in rather than any deficiency in their development. The structure of the book is quite complex and there does not seem to be much in the way of momentum in the pacing, it also seems to be somewhat incohesive. The frequent switches in narrative strands made it difficult for me to remember what each character is up to the previous time they appear. 

On the positive side the book is often very funny, the main saving grace as far as I am concerned. Lines like this just crack me up

 

“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says.

I laughed out loud quite a few times while reading the book. On the whole I find it to be well written, with some wonderful turns of phrase, another factor that prevent me from giving up on it. Some of the cryptography and hacking scenes are also fascinating.

Of the four Neal Stephenson books that I have read Cryptonomicon is the hardest to get into, and even by the end of the book I still wasn't really into it. It is clearly too good to dismiss out of hand and I always admire Neal Stephenson for aiming his writing toward an intelligent readership; I am not sure I can claim to be a proud member of his target demographic but kudos to him for respecting his readers. Regrettably this book turned out to be one of those "good but not for me" books. I wouldn't like to dissuade anyone from reading it, but I can't honestly recommend it either. If you are interested but in doubt I suggest you read a few more reviews and decide for yourself whether it seems likely to appeal to you. I suspect you never know until you actually try it though.

*In order of preference: Snow CrashAnathemThe Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon.