Cryptonomicon, or: Randy Waterhouse’s Incredibly Convoluted Quest for Nazi Gold

I realise that a good few of my few good readers are big fans of Neal Stephenson. I do realise that if I say anything against him I’ll never be allowed to release any fiction of my own. I’ll start with some personal background for you:

I get through two or three books in the average working week. Snow Crash took me maybe a day and a half, and I had a good, brief time. Cryptonomicon took me in excess of two weeks. I had a mighty uphill struggle reading this book. You can’t say “But Alex, Snow Crash is only 230 odd pages, to Cryptonomicon‘s 918!”. Indeed, they are very different beasts. By the logic stated here, it should have taken me merely four times as long to read Cryptonomicon. Length has nothing really to do with the speed of reading; in the week after Cryptonomicon I read somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1000 pages.
No, friends, Cryptonomicon is dense. It’s dense and many things happen in it while, at the same time, nothing happens at all.

Examine this, from Something Awful forum user BrickRedTruth, in the thread Let’s imagine things created by famous authors when they were children!:

A Weak Link In the Chain:
A Legend of Zelda fanfic by Neal Stephenson, age 13

Chapter 1
The Hero of Time belongs to an elite order. He’s got his Master Sword; it’s sharper than a CIA sniper’s eye and cuts through flesh like a Kawasaki jet ski cuts through the Pacific: clean and fast and fun as hell for the person in control. He’s got his bow and arrow; trusty as the horse in some old western serrial and accurate as the gunslinging hero that rides it. He’s got his hookshot; a hook that sticks to wood like a spider in the mayonaise jar and 20 feet of stainless steel chain capable of pulling him through the air fast enough to throw out his shoulder if he isn’t careful. He’s got his piece of the Triforce, that little slice of godlike power that lets him tear out the spinal chords of three Moblins like you’d peel the skin off an orange. But most of all, he’s got Moxy. Pizazz. Mad skills. Whatever you call it, he’s got balls so big he has to hire somebody to carry them for him, like Gunga Din if Gunga Din hauled around a set of mammoth testicles instead of water.

Link, the Hero of Time, Hyrule’s resident Dodongo-puncher, Wolfos-stabbing, Poe-bludgeoning badass, stood atop a grassy knoll in Hyrule Field and surveyed his kingdom with a nagging sense of dread, like a bad toothache. He had brought down a tyrannical dictator, shoveled dirt over more evil wizards than he could bother to remember, and had a dick the size of a grain silo…and yet something troubled him. Whatever it was, he reasoned as he delicately fondled the hilt of his Sword as if searching for its g-spot, today was going to be a bad day.


The scary thing is that this isn’t really far off. I read Cryptonomicon slowly because it kept on changing its orientation, sometimes had pages upon pages of technical explanation (much of which, thanks to the march of time, is now thoroughly irrelevant), and generally thought that it was the greatest book ever written by man or beast. I don’t strictly look for a point in the books that I read, but nonetheless I found Cryptonomicon distinctly lacking in the department of points, and I feel like it ate my time. I don’t regret having read the book, but … well, now I feel like I’m starting a cyclical argument. So I’ll digress!

Amidst all of the whatever going on, there’s some talk of sex. I’ll make it clear now: this has nothing to do with my own sexuality, so you can’t use that against me. Anyway, it’s terrible. You want to personify your protagonist’s prostate, Neal Stephenson? Call him “Little Man ‘Tate”? Okay. You want to spend, let me count them … approximately eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture? Be my guest, I guess.
Then, when you come to write the narrative sex scenes, all I can say is wow. I can’t say that I’ve read a lot of bad, or mind-warping, sex scenes in my time because generally the books I read lack that level of description and I don’t read horrid fantasy or sci-fi (you may have noticed, if you’re experienced in the field, that a lot of authors’ works eventually degrade into endlessly depraved sex scenes).
Anyway, the one we’ve got here is pretty terrible. I will reproduce it for you in part. I’ll set the scene: Randy, the book’s modern day and least interesting protagonist, and Amy, the headstrong and therefore potentially lesbian woman of his dreams, are in a jeep. Amy has just removed her underpants and “sat down on” Randy.

Randy’s toe knuckles pop audibly. He lifts himself and Amy into the air, experiences some kind of synaesthetic hallucination very much like the famous “jump into hyperspace” scene from Star Wars. Or perhaps the air bag has accidentally detonated? Then he pumps something like an Imperial pint of semen – it’s a seemingly open ended stream of ejaculations, each coupled to the next by nothing more than a leap of faith that another one is coming – and in the end, like all schemes built on faith and hope, it lapses, and then Randy sits utterly still until his body realises it has not drawn breath in quite a while.

So, if I’ve read that right, Randy sticks it in, and then is finished instantly. Yeah, generally, as is my understanding, guys don’t want to do that. Randy, later on that page, opens his eyes to make sure that she’s not disgusted with him (he settles for “bemused”). He at least has the excuse that, due to his misadventures, he’s been unable to relieve himself manually for a couple of months – which is something you generally wouldn’t read in a book anyway (do I want to know the lead character’s masturbatory habits? Do I want them charted against productivity?). That’s not the worst of it. Comparing sex to Star Wars? You do realise that, if you compare sex to Star Wars, and then go on to refer to an Imperial pint of semen, you’re going to make your readers think of Stormtroopers. I had almost thought it was deliberate. It probably was deliberate. Neal Stephenson, you’re a sick, sick man.

With all of Stephenson’s talk of evolution being the domain of the “badass” (and not in the totally palatable, No Country For Old Men “ultimate badass” way, but in a “why is this being mentioned at all?” sort of way), one has to wonder: is Cryptonomicon actually a work of badass? I would posit that it is not. Snow Crash worked as well as it did because it was so compact, and because it simply ended. I loved that it turned out as it did. It was not until today that I realised that the Wing who worked with Goto Dengo in the war was the same Wing as the one causing such trouble for our rag-tag bunch of heroes who like to meditate on their nocturnal emissions and make shorthand jokes about prison rape.

Something that made sense in Snow Crash, it being an alterna-future where the US had split into nation states, was the use of slightly different names for things. I can therefore be forgiven for being confused when Cryptonomicon used the term “Nipponese” all the time while still being set in our own theoretical timeline. This constant, unexplained reference struck me as an act of amazing grease. Are there really people, techno-businessmen, who would go around refering to Japan as “Nippon”? I had really thought that maybe it would turn out to be a bizarro universe in which Japan had won the war and the language had changed to reflect that. But no. I daresay a great many people, if they were to hear tell of the “glorious nation of Nippon” would wonder what the heck was being talked about.

Which brings me to my final complaint: all of these disparate characters are supposed to combine for an ultimate goal. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal of … well, whatever it is that they end up with. Fifty years later, the descendants of these characters are remarkably untouched by everything that has happened in the WWII segment of the book. Stephenson may as well have written in wholly different characters for all the effect that these ones had. You’re left wondering, at the final page, precisely why everyone went through all of this, why Stephenson chose to present the parts of the story that he did, why you’re not grasped by the spirit of wonder. It’s as I’ve said before: being long is not the same as being epic. Cryptonomicon has many pages, but never once does it feel like a grand adventure.

I really feel like I’m trolling Neal Stephenson, but I’d prefer to think this is not the case. It’s just that somewhere, buried amongst the mountains of digressions, is some interesting material; it’s just a shame that you have to dig through evolutionary badasses, stockings, barely mentioned one-legged crazies, and the apparently insatiable sexual desires of WWII soldiers to get to it. I’ve actually bought the Baroque Cycle. Some day I’ll read it. Well, not some day, as such: possibly I’ll have to set aside a year. I don’t exactly dread it; it’s simply going to be a date with density.

Later: Mark responds. Yes, Andrew Loeb did indeed arrive out of nowhere as some sort of crazy man. Before he was crazy for litigation, but when he shows up in person he’s crazy for crazy.
All of the “sex stuff” was what stuck out to me in the book; most of the other digressions I could understand where they’re digressing to (although, to be fair, I should probably have mentioned the massively passive aggressive lecture tour about men hiding behind beards). Do people really write private, eight page documents about their fetishes? No, they post them anonymously to the internet. I mean, I know I’ve really just justified it, because that document needs an audience, but it strikes me as major weird anyway.
And while I did understand the “Nips” versus “Japs” part, it really makes no sense in the modern world. Do we have people who legitimately visit Japan, or hang out in the Pacific Rim, who call the country Nippon? Do Japanese people abroad refer to their country (in English) as “Nippon”? Probably not.

Mark says:

[T]o say that the descendents are untouched by the WWII generation is to miss one of the themes in the book, which is that people of our generation are totally in awe of the WWII generation and feel a little awkward working in our world knowing that our grandparents were literally fending off evil on a worldwide scale.

Yeah, yeah: badasses. Didn’t stop me from thinking that these characters (when I say that, I really mean Randy, because Douglas Shaftoe wasn’t a victim) simply have a shared interest in cryptography and … that’s all there is to it. Avi seems like a tacked on moral compass because, as Randy would probably admit, he is himself rather lacking in ambition.
I don’t know, seeing Mark’s argument makes me feel like I’m a bloodless, dispassionate fiend of the night. He also suggests that Cryptonomicon is not an epic, rather that it is sweeping. Private correspondence with my friend Andy suggests that Stephenson doesn’t write epics, he writes chronicles. Andy also cleared up something that was bothering me about Enoch Root, so that was good as well.

Ultimately, Mark is right: you cut away the digressions, you cut the book loose. Some digressions are simply more valuable than others.

Later still: Shamus calls me out on my blasphemy. Except Shamus is a dignified chap and suggests I’m perhaps too normal a person to enjoy the bouquet of Cryptonomicon. I realise in retrospect how unbalanced this write up is, but I really don’t hate it. Really. I would hardly consider myself “sensible and well adjusted”, though.

Final Disclaimer: I didn’t dislike Cryptonomicon; I despaired of its excesses. I don’t think that I could force myself through a 900 page book out of sheer masochism. It’s just that Cryptonomicon was a heavy trudge that offered many gifts but also many distractions along the way, and I couldn’t help but feel a little empty after having consumed the whole.


  1. Philbeauxregard Q. Gumboor February 14, 2008
  2. Mark February 14, 2008
  3. Zerotime February 28, 2008
  4. Alex February 28, 2008
  5. Zerotime February 28, 2008
  6. Alex February 28, 2008
  7. Zerotime February 28, 2008
  8. Yahzi February 28, 2008
  9. Alex February 28, 2008
  10. John Adams August 12, 2008
  11. JL August 13, 2008
  12. Blaize October 7, 2008
  13. Bolero June 1, 2010
  14. Alex June 1, 2010
  15. rox0r November 7, 2010

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