Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Nobody needs me to say that Cryptonomicon is relentlessly witty, written with wonderful, vivid prose, immersed in layers of fascinating concepts and technology, and absolutely vertigo-inducing in scope. These are all the elements that kept me coming back, despite the book having a page count higher than War and Peace. I just wish that there had been a plot to hold all of it up and make it into a coherent story, rather than a series of interesting digressions.
60% of the way through the book, I found myself aggressively skimming chapters, looking for keywords: The Crypt, Arethusa, Waterhouse, The Dentist, Root, Wing, anything that signaled that something significant was happening. But the book is directionless in the most essential way, with all of the beautifully rendered subplots either tapering off or limply hanging together on a single nail, which ends up being the cache of gold. Bobby Shaftoe is a notable exception here, but his story just begs the question: what does all this add up to? How do all these characters, all these lives, all these small stories, add up to something significant? And the answer ends up being a shrug.
So the loving detail given to elements like Ordo and Pontifex ends up feeling like indulgence. I put a lot of thought into the mechanics and minutiae behind the magic systems and worlds in my stories—I wrote an entire article on my blog about data compression, binary code, and metaphysics to help flesh out the idea of “true names” when used in magic, so I’m familiar with the thrill of discovering the depths of nerdy esoterica. But at the end of every one of those esoterica-based articles, I feel compelled to write a disclaimer: this is not what makes a story good. Well-written characters, emotional stakes, and strong plotting make a story good.
Compare that to Cryptonomicon, where there’s an appendix that explains the modulo 26 Pontifex encoding system in detail. It’s a story element whose only function was to confirm what Randy already knew: that his computer was under surveillance. But damn it if we don’t follow Randy’s entire decoding process, and then get a special primer at the end of the book on how it’s the coolest, most practical way anyone can encode messages with a deck of cards. This is what frustrates me most about Cryptonomicon.
But I’ll say this again: I wish I could write half as well as Neal Stephenson. Every sentence has something to admire, respect, even drool over. The dialogue is fantastic, and the characterization is vivid enough for me to write psych evaluations and Christmas lists for the characters. But when it comes to a final judgment on Cryptonomicon, as a story, I just have to shrug.