The Pequod Review:
Cryptonomican is far and away Neal Stephenson’s best book, a sprawling and digressive techno-thriller that is about not just cryptography and encryption, but also our relationship with technology and the role of the individual in modern society.
The book has three primary storylines, one set in the present day (involving an eclectic group of hackers seeking to create an encrypted “data haven” in Southeast Asia), one set in World War II (involving an attempt by the Allied powers to decipher Nazi/Japanese code, and then to conceal their success), and a third that overlaps both periods and describes the attempts by the Germans and Japanese to stockpile gold at the end of the war.
The pleasure of the book isn’t just the narrative (which rips along at a impressive pace) but in how Stephenson gets all the details right, with informative tangents on everything from internet start-ups to classical music to how computers actually work. And he is even better at getting into the psychologies of his obsessive characters, as for example one of the code breakers goes for a walk on the beach and sees the ocean as merely a mass of encoded information:
The ocean is a Turing machine, the sand its tape; the water reads the marks in the sand and sometimes erases them and sometimes carves new ones with tiny currents that are themselves a response to the marks.
The book is not without flaws: Stephenson’s haughty prose often becomes wearisome, too many of the book’s bad guys are simplistic caricatures, and a few of the narrative threads don’t fully hold together. But the book is just such a propulsive delight that it flies right past these flaws to the next amusing digression, and barely gives the reader enough time to care. Highly recommended.