Cryptonomicon [spoilers] -- Whatinaheckisthissupposedtobe?

Like the thread title says, here be spoilers, so I’m not going to fool around with tags.

For a few of years now people have been telling me how I need to read Neal Stephenson. He’s brilliant, he knows his technical details, he writes intricate plots, et cetera. Finally, one day while I was in a used bookstore that is no longer open (like every other used book store I’ve ever patronized) I pick up a copy of Cryptonomicon, and it has lain in my “to read” pile for about a year or so. (There’s an enormous backlog, and despite the number of books I chew through in a month, I’ve just never gotten to it until now.)

So, I started reading it, oh, maybe two months ago. I normally read about four or five books concurrently–just whatever piques my fancy at the moment–but to take two months to get through a book is unusual. Heck, I even made it through Atlas Shrugged in three weeks (although it was the only book I was reading at that time), but for some reason I struggled to get into, stay into, and finish Cryptonomicon.

And now, I kind of regret that perseverance. I kept with it doggedly, through all that nonesense about Bobby Shaftoe, and some kind of not really explained underground with Enoch Root, and so forth. I liked the descriptions of WWII cryptology and the adventures of Goto Dengo. The modern day thread was mostly interesting, too, especially the plans for the Crypt. But, at least for me, the whole thing didn’t mesh together well. The various threads seem to be written in very different styles–part Vonnegut, part Heller, part Clancy–and the transitions between them were jarring. Much of the book seemed to be quite pointless, really. But, I was all for giving it the benefit of the doubt; that, in the end, it would come around to a justifiable conclusion. After all, everybody has been telling me what a great writer Stephenson is.

Bolsh and bullshit. Either I missed some major details in preceeding 900 pages, or the ending made essentiall no sense whatsoever. It’s as if the editor was on the phone, demanding that Stephenson finish of the script where it stood or he’d send out a team of ripsaw-armed turbo-ninjas to evicerate the author and publish the results of his entrails instead. The book bears all the hallmarks of months of careful research, painstaking plotting, detailed fact-checking, and circuitious editing, only to be finished off by fifteen pages of nonsensical crap that the author must have come up with on the way to the post-box.

And I’m told there’s supposed to be a sequel on the way. Never mind “how?” I just want to know “why?”

So, am I as wet as a duck in a thunderstorm here, did I miss some kind of major points that would make sense of the whole resolution, or did Stephenson just give up in fear of being crushed by the increasingly large galleys and just publish the thing before he was found one day trapped in his office under a mountain of editing revisions?

I’m very frustrated with this. Should I even consider reading any of his other books? Good Org, this was almost as painful an experience as reading Ayn Rand.


I feel similarly. Anybody who has read any Stephenson will tell you three things: 1) He can write at times 2) He is waaaaaaaay too wordy and 3) He can’t write an ending.

I too liked parts of the Cryptinomicon as much as than Snow Crash or The Diamond Age. But I was totally frustrated by the ending.

I gave him one (or rather three) more chances with the Baroque Cycle. I read it, it took me an age, but I regret it. If you have a month or so to kill on 3 800+ page books, it does explain a little about Cryptonomicon: the gold, Enoch Root, some of the backstory behind the Shaftoes and the Waterhouses. But it is, in the end, a tremendous waste of time. The sad thing is it is never bad enough to put down (at least for me); there are just so many better things to be reading.

In between books 2 and 3 of the Baroque Cycle, I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. Even though it is not Gibson’s best, it struck me how much better he was in almost every respect than Stephenson. Apart from the occasional humor that Stephenson puts into things (which is why Snow Crash is considered his best even though the ending stank), there is almost no comparison.

Take away from it the nice cryptography stuff and some of the better plotlines. If you get hung up on implausibility, bad endings, and verboseness, stay away from the rest of his stuff.

Cryptonomicon is the worst edited book that I have ever read. I’m being very specific here when I talk about its editing. It’s not a badly written book. In fact, there are a lot of good passages in it. Nor do I mean that it’s badly copy-edited. I mean that a good editor would have insisted that Stephenson cut out a great deal of what he had written. That book goes on forever with the most irrelevant material. There’s an entire chapter about eating Captain Crunch cereal. The problem is that Stephenson’s publisher is too cheap to spend money on good editing.

There’s no accounting for taste; I had him sign my copy of Cryptonomicon on the page with that description (it only takes up three pages, not a chapter) because the digressions are what make it great, and the Captain Crunch digression actually tells you a lot about Randy’s character.

As for the OP, if he can ask a specific factual question (e.g. “where did the gold go?” or “who has the punch cards?” or “what was The Message they kept trying to send Randy?”), I can answer it[sup]1[/sup]. Yes Neal has trouble with endings – but Cryptonomicon is the one that he did up right.

  1. Presuming that the questions aren’t rhetorical, e.g. “Why didn’t he write the ending so that X happened instead?”

I have said it before. Everyone has said it before. He can’t write endings for shit!

In his defence, he does create very interesting worlds that are at times very fun to dive into. This is probably his problem as well. He dives in. Swims where he wants to. Researches what his fancies. Forgets that he is writing a book that has to have an ending.

Every book that I have read of his, I am left with unforgettable images. Scenes like when Shafthoe? and his boys get into a barfight with the Japanese Marines. Shafthoe getting charmed by MacArthur.

If you don’t find the world interesting, then you’re in big trouble. I would recommend The Diamond Age. I found the world very interesting, but the ending…

Based on a recommendation in a thread here, I tried it. But I never finished it, which is rare for me. But I couldn’t find anything resembling an interesting plot and it just didn’t seem worth my time. Snow Crash was OK, but Cryptomonicon bored the piss out of me.

I’ve read both Snow Crash and Diamond Age and I’m going to jump on the dogpile and repeat with the others that Stephenson can’t write an ending for shit. Right now I’m re-reading Snow Crash and I’m thinking that I’ll skip reading the last two or three chapters completely. It’s pretty bad when skipping the ending is a better alternative than reading what the author put down on the page.

BTW: “Hiro Protagonist” - best name evar!


I really enjoyed Cryptonomicon, but I can certainly understand why some people would not like the ending or the digressions in the book. I thought the endings were better in the Baroque Cycle books, though overall I prefer Crypto.

I, for one, really dug the Cryptonomicon. But you’re right that the ending was weak. I appreciated Avi’s motivation and the recognition of it by Goto.

But the

Blowing the gold up so it would melt and flow out the mine shaft? Dear God above.

Big Neal Stephenson fan checking in here.

Cryptonomicon is a great book, and its ending is the best one he ever wrote. Yes, it’s the best one. Chew on that for a second.

Basically, Neal needs an editor who is not afraid to call him on his bullshit. Or, since all prose writing is essentially bullshit, he needs an editor to tell him when the bullshit isn’t working. It’s the same thing that happned to Stephen King. When he was younger and not such a huge economic force in the industry, he still had to submit to editors and his work was better for it. The Baroque Cycle proved to me that Neal is out of control. It was a great thousand-page book crammed into three thousand pages. Chew on that for a second.

Neal, if you’re out there, find someone you can trust to be your editor. Remember, Paul was better with John, and visa versa.

I find Stephenson’s books really fun to read, great characterisation and ideas. Even when he is padding the shit out of the story with meaningless discursion I don’t mind too much - his prose style is really easy on the eye I think.

That said, I was profoundly disappointed with the drop in quality between Crypto and Quicksilver. I had a feeling that Crypto was the book were he was ironing out some of his writing flaws, and he would follow it up with something right out of the top drawer. Instead he dishes up Quicksilver, IMO a book having none of his strengths and all of his weaknesses writ large. Not read the rest of the Baroque cycle, does it get better?

You expected something called The Baroque Cycle to be short and to the point?

Me, I’m of the school that Neal Stephenson can do no wrong. It used to bug me that his books tend to lack resolution, but I’m starting to see that as a deliberate choice. His books (Baroque especially) aren’t about plot, they’re about character and situation. Normally, that would drive me nuts: a strong narrative is usually a prerequisite for me to enjoy something. Stephenson gets around that with me. His characters are so interesting, and the circumstances in which they find themselves so compelling, that I don’t mind the fact that they usually don’t amount to more than a series of loosely-connected vignettes.

Granted, it was supposed to be long and ornate with lots of little curly bits. And I’m not against digression at all. It’s just…well, it was a little much. No, it was a lot much.

I think Stephenson is an original thinker and a poor writer. The longer the books, the less original thinking, the more bad writing. I’ve read all of his stuff up until the Baroque Cycle. I checked Quicksilver out of the local library a couple of months ago. I had it on a table to read. It sat there. It sat there. I took it back. I didn’t want to invest all that effort for what I strongly suspected would be very little in the way of return.

Unless you are wriggling with delight as you read each and every page, you should not bother reading Stephenson, because the ending is certainly not going to be any kind of a big pay off.

I enjoy his work so much that I wish they would never end. And when I get to the end, boy oh boy do I wish they had never ended, because his endings always suck, big time.

If I should ever become rich and powerful, primarily out of my own selfishness, but also as a service to Literature, I am going to kidnap Neal Stephenson and lock him up in my basement and force him to write me 50 pages of fiction a day. I will put them up on the Intarweb for everone to read, because I am a Nice Person.

Am I the only one who’s read The Big U? It’s one of my favorite bits. The ending is okay, I guess - beats his other endings. The hilarious/alarming send-up of “modern” academia is so, so great, though.

Books. One of my favorite books.

Hmm…Well, based on my sample size of one, my impression was almost exactly the opposite. His characters seemed very broadly drawn, almost charactures, and while he does have a flare for writing highly visual scenes, I never really felt all that compelled to keep reading, especially through the transitions from WWII to the present day. I just wasn’t really drawn to any of the characters, even Randy Waterhouse, who was the best illustrated of all.

On the other hand, it could see very definite threads of an elaborate plot, which kept threatening to materialize all through the book, only to fade away like mist in the morning sun at around page 900. I don’t insist that an author need wrap up all loose ends–it’s often better if he doesn’t, actually–but the pentultimate ending just came out of nowhere, a big “wazzit?” moment, and for no cause or reason, even in afterthought.

Also, his style seems very synthetic; the whole, repeated “Stupendous badass of a ____” thing reads like it was ripped from an unpublished Vonnegut novel, and a lot of his repetitious fact divulging seems identical in style to “Catch-22” or “Heaven Knows”. It’s not that I object to some degree of imitation (or apperance thereof), but I never really got a sense that he has a consistant style of his own. The tone cycled through rapid shifts, between absurdist action with Bobby Shaftoe and expository lecturing about cryptography with the senior Waterhouse to hardheaded technologism in the modern day. Clearly, the author did the necessary research; unfortunately, he seems compelled to throw every bit of information he knows about the topic on the page, whether it is germane to the story or not.

What I’m getting from respondants is that, for better or worse (depending on your preferences), this is typical of his novels and is not some kind of aberration. Based on that, I think I’ll stick him in the pile of authors along with Rand and Clive Cussler, whose books I’ll read only after the alien invaders have used their heat-rays to destroy every other bit of literature, album liner notes, and gum wrappers on the planet.

Besides, I still have a big pile of Wodehouse, some out of print A. C. Doyle books, the small remainder of unread Highsmith, and a fairish amount of Shakespeare’s canon to work through before I’m crushed by a falling overpass in an earthquake.

Thanks to all that responded.


Cryptonomicon biggest unforgivable digression was the part where Randy (working from memory here, not the book) essentially eavesdrops on what someone else is typing on his computer, all about his fetish for pantyhose and his uncle’s funeral. Good God. How in the hell was that allowed to stand?

His endings do suck, but I find his books worthwhile for the same reasons others have listed: interesting worlds with unique people. And, for me, his strong female characters are a nice draw, too.

I thought the ending of The Baroque Cycle was his strongest yet, actually, but maybe that was because I had lowered my expectations quite a bit. And it wasn’t until The Confusion that his characters became people to me. Overall, it was fun read, and I learned a lot, but the opening book is the weakest, to me.

yes, I found Big U hilarious. Much better than Tom Wolfe’s treatment of academia.