By Neal Stephenson
Avon; 928 pages; $29.50
Such, however, is the case with "Cryptonomicon," the latest offering from Neal Stephenson, author of the science fiction cult classics "Snow Crash and "The Diamond Age." Even more daunting than the novel's page-count is the fact that the text is liberally sprinkled with mathematic formulae and graphs. Nothing says "good reading" like a set of zeta functions...
But don't let any of this scare you off. "Cryptonomicon" is rich, involving, complex and funny, surely one of the season's best books. It has everything you could ask for in a novel, except, perhaps, an ending.
Stephenson has made his name as a genre writer, but his latest work doesn't seem to fall into any particular one, at least not in its first volume. The action is set in two alternating timelines, during World War II and in the present day. From London to Manila to the island sultanate of Kinakuta, "Cryptonomicon" follows three generations of soldiers, scientists and adventurers as they use the tools of physics, mathematics and modern warfare to defeat the Axis powers and then recapture an unimaginable fortune in stolen gold.
Soon after Pearl Harbor, math genius and organ enthusiast Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is assigned to the ultra-secret Detachment 2702. There it is Waterhouse's job to make sure that the Nazi don't figure out that their Enigma code has been broken. Towards that goal, he enlists Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe to execute a series of eccentric missions that provide false data to the Germans and the Japanese. Poor Shaftoe winds up hooked on morphine, captured by a U-Boat crew and waylaid in Sweden.
Here in the Nineties, Lawrence's grandson Randy is busy helping his company, Epiphyte Corporation, create the Crypt, a "data heaven" designed to store and retrieve the world's most private information with absolute security. Laying underwater cable for him are Douglas and Amy Shaftoe, son and granddaughter of Bobby. The wily Shaftoes have discovered a cache of sunken treasure that they don't want to tell Epiphyte's investors about. As the Crypt nears completion, the project receives the attention of various parties that run the gamut from the insanely litigious to the dangerously criminal.
Having appeared twice now on the cover of Wired magazine, Stephenson is definitely tapped into the zeitgeist of the Digital Age, but he has been able to keep his sense of humor about it. He describes Randy Waterhouse's newfound celebrity as a cover boy for TURING Magazine ("So Hip, We're Stupid!"): "TURING is such a visual magazine that it cannot be viewed without the protection of welding goggles, and so they insisted on a picture; a photographer was dispatched to the Crypt, which was found visually wanting (what? It's just a hole in the ground!); tizzy ensued; photographer was diverted to Manila and captured Randy standing on a boat deck next to a big reel of orange cable."
Stephenson has the enviable knack of making comprehensible and amusing even the most seemingly tedious material. In his hands, complicated exchanges of e-mail and long discourses on number theory sometimes prove laugh-out-loud funny. Mostly it's a matter of knowing when to supply a sly aside that twists the deadly earnest into the cynically absurd.
Stephenson masterfully keeps the narrative ping-ponging between the present and the past, building layers of intrigue and irony that only resonate more strongly as the book progresses. Whether writing about World War II spycraft or modern-day electronic banking, he combines the best elements of espionage fiction in the Len Deighton mold with the "geek-chic" sensibility of William Gibson.
"Cryptonomicon" isn't so crass as to end in a cliffhanger. Most of the plot's major threads are pulled neatly together in the last chapters of this volume. But the final pages are freighted with so many implications that the book leaves the reader on a note of high expectancy.
Perhaps only disappointment lies ahead. Nevertheless, "Cryptonomicon" will leave many readers wishing that the next 900-page installment were available immediately.
(c) 1999 by Michael Berry