Friday, May 15, 2009

Cryptonomicon: My Experience

I just read Cryptonomicon for the first time. I'm ten years late in reading it. I should have read it when it was published. The year it was published, 1999, was also the year Stephenson published In the Beginning was the Command Line. I must have read In the Beginning minutes after it was published. It was amazingly important to me.

1999 was the year I settled down from years of adventure travel in places like Antarctica and Alaska. I was a newbie at computers, and had a custom tower built and installed Red Hat 5.2. Barely even knowing how to type, I spent two months hacking the X11 monitor configuration on the command line to get startx (the desktop) to work, and also hacked the network config to get a cutting edge wireless service called Ricochet to work. Once I was online I found In the Beginning, and it affirmed my pursuit of Unix as the one true way.

But I didn't read Cryptonomicon. I wished I had. Cryptonomicon would have made me smarter and better prepared to contend with idiot anti-technology Luddites who dominate the Pacific Northwest alterna education environment.

Fast forward to now, 2009, and I've spent that last ten years learning to write code and honestly spend more time looking up some coding arcana rather than reading history or philosophy books like in my pre-computer life. So reading Cryptonomicon was divergent with my latest life patterns.

Cryptonomicon has a lot of In the Beginning running through it. A paragraph here and a full page there tells how, for example, 1) video compression 2) Van Eck phreaking, and 3) various crypto systems work. A lot of the time, you need to understand these tech tangents to appreciate plot twists and scenes.

A surprise was Cryptonomicon's immersion of the reader into World War II, and war in general.

For you Hollywood war movie fans, this book may be a real let down. It has its heroes for sure, but along the way it wears the reader out with the tastes and smells of war. I'm not saying its poorly written, I'm saying it is the best. When Japanese sailor Goto Dengo has an entire battleship crumble under him and is thrust into a sea covered in the ship's former fuel supply, then all those in the water scream as they inhale nothing but gas fumes, then picked off by sharks in the night, then the castaways eaten by New Guinea cannibals, then a Japanese rescue party rapes and cuts to pieces the natives, then random animals poison or tear to pieces the Japanese while on march, get the idea. And that is just one phase of one subplot in the novel. Be prepared to read about 14 year old girls raped and then thrown out 10th floor windows. The book will make couch potato neocon war mongers tired of war, it will any reader tired of war, and in that way it does us a service.

There are amazingly entertaining and funny subplots and scenes also. The book accomplishes a strange mix of creating respect for both mental/math/genius types and action/ass-kicker/patriotic types. That mix of heroes with opposite skill sets (extreme in either the brainiac or patriotic way) is done with depth and sincerity.

Fast forward to the present, 2009, and I've purchased and started reading the hardback version of Anathem. The reasoning for reading it is a personal hunch that Stephenson writes with a view to urgent contemporary issues, within an enduring sort of construct. I loved Cryptonomicon, but as I said earlier, it may have served me better if I'd read it in 1999. I don't want to make the same mistake of procrastination with Anathem.

(characters in the book) Lawrence Waterhouse and Robert Shaftoe are now some sort of respected personages to me. Stephenson, you've won in your Metis Chapter contention: those archetypes are alive and embodied somewhere. At least I hope. But hey. maybe thats extramuros bullshytt.

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