In 1992, eight years after William Gibson published the first great cyberpunk novel, Neal Stephenson published the last one. Not much of an interval, really, as literary history goes, but as fin de millennium technological history goes, those eight years were a lifetime. Where Gibson’s elegantly dystopian Neuromancer (written in the pathetically undernetworked pre-Macintosh days) had peered at the far-off wired future as if through a telescope darkly, Stephenson’s more buoyant Snow Crash (finished amid the first glimmerings of Internet mania) was already standing at that future’s edge and ready to jump in. Sure, Snow Crash had many of the same noirish elements Neuromancer did—the hacker antihero, the geopolitical landscape dominated by all-powerful corporations and vestigial nation-states, the lushly immersive cyberspace that makes the ecologically decrepit real world seem even shittier than it is—but Stephenson’s brilliantly comic voice and giddy technological inventiveness gave the game away: ultimately, he was more excited than creeped out by the evolving digital technosphere.
Now, another lifetime later, Stephenson has published a book that communicates that excitement more convincingly—and more thoughtfully—than anything he’s written yet. Snow Crash fans, be advised: unlike The Diamond Age, a fine but somewhat inscrutable 1995 follow-up, about a future shaped by nanotechnology and the full-scale revival of Victorian culture, Cryptonomicon is Stephenson 2.0, a critical upgrade.
Like a lot of upgrades, it’s on the hefty side—928 pages, to be precise, and crammed with dense technical details of the sort that fascinate its wonky characters and drive their stories. But pound for pound, it’s every bit as unrelenting an entertainment as Snow Crash was, and just as deftly timed to the latest turning point in fin de millennium technological history—which, in this case, is the moment when the dazzle of our increasingly wired present starts wearing off, and we begin to realize that it has a past as well as a future. What cyberculture needs right now is not another science-fiction novel but its first great historical novel, and Cryptonomicon is it: an intimate genealogical portrait of the 20th century’s computer geeks, great and small, and of the technosocial landscape they have more and less knowingly shaped.
For Stephenson, as for most people interested in the history of the information age, the past that matters is World War II, through which approximately one half of Cryptonomicon‘s labyrinthine plot runs. His war hero is one Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young navy officer and mathematical genius who gets drafted into the Allied code-breaking effort, headquartered at the famous Bletchley Park, England, where his old Princeton bicycling pal Alan Turing is at work on various top-secret projects, among them the construction of a massive calculating machine programmed to crack the German Enigma cypher. There, Waterhouse catches a preview of the world order soon to emerge from this colossal conflict, a state of things in which control of information—and of the technology that processes it—is the prize around which increasingly complex power struggles revolve.
Waterhouse spends the rest of the war in a crazy orbit around Bletchley Park. Assigned to the ultra-hush-hush Detachment 2072, he moves around the globe playing a long-distance game of cryptographic cat-and-mouse with his other old Princeton bicycling pal, math wiz Rudolf von Hacklheber, now Germany’s master crypto guy. Concocting elaborate feints to hide the fact that the Allies have cracked Enigma, Waterhouse sends the men of Detachment 2072, led by insanely gung-ho marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, out to stage his dangerous ruses. Hilarious consequences ensue, as do mayhem, loss of life, and, eventually, a complicated international conspiracy loosely linked to the invention of the computer.
Meanwhile, back in the late 1990s (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), Waterhouse’s thirtysomething grandson Randy, a professional programmer and computer-industry lifer, is grappling with the novel demands of his third dubious start-up venture: an attempt to establish a cryptographically secured offshore e-bank in a small Southeast Asian island-nation. Jetting back and forth between California and the Philippines, Randy Waterhouse leads us on a backstage tour of contemporary Pacific Rim technoculture, as rich in tellingly precise observations as the World War II sections are in vivid historical detail.
Indeed, while it’s the swashbuckling Detachment 2072 scenes that give the book its most powerful bursts of narrative, the funniest and most memorable flights of prose tend to emerge from Randy’s hackerly ruminations on the wayward trajectory of his life and the curious workings of his desire. In one instance Randy muses at length on the similarities of his love life to a long-ago search for an oral surgeon willing to remove his monstrously impacted wisdom teeth (the man who finally did the operation walked away from it “weighed down, Randy thought, not so much by the stress of his job as by the knowledge that no one was ever going to give him a Nobel prize for what he had just accomplished”).
Though infected here and there by some of Stephenson’s more annoying attitudinal tics (he apparently never met a combat veteran he didn’t want to swaddle in quiet Spielbergian hero worship, or a cultural academic he didn’t want to squash like a bug), his study of Randy as a likable sort of American everygeek is an affecting one, rendered in small but brilliantly elaborated moments: Randy with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch in a lonely Philippine hotel room, his meticulously engineered procedure for eating the stuff laid out in a two-and-a-half-page fugue (“The gold nuggets… pelt the bottom of the bowl with a sound like glass rods being snapped in half. Tiny fragments spall away from their corners and ricochet around on the white porcelain surface. World-class cereal-eating is a dance of fine compromises”); Randy briefly visiting his clan of science-professor relatives, who are divvying up Grandma’s furniture by distributing it on a complexly valued Cartesian coordinate plane mapped onto a university parking lot.
Obliged to move his two plotlines toward some kind of convergence, Stephenson does so gradually, and with a masterful sense of pacing. But the end, when it comes, is a letdown. Stephenson’s attempts to raise Randy & Co.’s data-haven project to the same world-historical level as Detachment 2072’s fight against the forces of holocaust—for instance, by suggesting that it will fund a grassroots project to teach the little people of the world how to resist genocide—seem forced and unconvincing. More dismayingly, especially for an author as committed to the pleasure of the genre fiction text as Stephenson is, the book’s final pages peter out with an awkward abruptness, taking us as far as the action’s climax and then leaving us there without so much as a postclimactic cuddle.
These things happen, of course (deadlines impinge, energy flags), but the impression given is of a sudden loss of faith. It’s as if, in the last minutes of writing, Stephenson had come to doubt that he’d really pulled off his ambitious feat—that he hadn’t in fact succeeded in reimagining the last half-
century as an invention of hackers. That, more than any strictly narrative delights, is the thrill Cryptonomicon promises and irrevocably delivers.