Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson

“Two tires fly.”

I finished Cryptonomicon on a snowy Saturday afternoon, exactly 50 weeks after I started it, and after quite a concerted push to get to the end. Afterwards, I sat in a oddly empty little space, slightly disbelieving that I’d actually got there.

Which isn’t to suggest Crypt is a slog – well, perhaps to some (and people who only know Stephenson from the new and rather excellent Seveneves should be very wary!), but not to me. It’s still rather huge and daunting! Each chapter was less than 1% of the total (I was reading the eBook), and I was averaging a chapter per night. The sheer scale of such a task…! And that’s before you count the massive gap in the middle: I put the book down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because this was easily 3 or 4 ‘normal’ books, and my Goodreads challenge needed (!) the 3 or 4, not the 1. Which is precisely why I have no Goodreads reading challenge this year – this book broke that!

All of which is avoiding talking about the actual text, I suppose. Which isn’t entirely inappropriate: it’s sort of that kind of book. Things happen. Interesting things, to be sure, but not always things that feel wholly relevant, or at least necessary. They are not always high tension, or fast-packed action things, either. They are very readable little snippets in the more action-packed occurrences of the lives of the largish cast of characters; they get under your skin. A chapter or three later, you might come back around to that character, and think, “Oh yeah – what happened to them?”. There was something gloriously unrushed about my reading of this book, until that didn’t really suit the story.

Cryptography and cryptanalysis and cryptocurrencies aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nor some of the ‘behind the scenes’ kind of things of the Second World War, told in one of the book’s two timelines, and via several characters’ stories. However, Alan Turing’s been the subject of several films of late – he gets a cameo here, while the story is handed to other characters – and while cryptography is not my subject, it is vaguely fascinating, all the more so given the actually life-and-death nature of its use at the time.

The second timeline ironically feels the more dated, talking about the ‘new’ language of C++ replacing C, etc. Still, I had to go look up when cryptocurrencies were actually around (vaguely 1980s onwards), given this book was published almost a decade before ‘Bitcoin’ became a thing. Slowly, slowly, slowly the two threads start to collide, pulling everything into a single, decrypted whole.

I’m not doing it a jot of justice, but I liked it rather a lot. It loses a star for a relatively weak ending, in my opinion, but really at over a thousand pages (depending on edition) this had to be about enjoying the journey – and I did. Just, let me have a nice long break before I pick up Quicksilver!

 

Kindle: 1139 pages / 102 chapters
First published: 1999
Series: vaguely linked to the Baroque Cycle
Read from 15th February 2015 -30th January 2016

My rating: 8/10

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