A Poll for Those Who Read Cryptonomicon:

I hope to blog something that's nonobvious — or at least not entirely obvious — based on the results of this poll (of course, if the results are as I expect them to be); so if you can participate, I'd be much obliged.

If you read Cryptonomicon, what did you think about it?
It's one of my favorite novels.
It was excellent, but not one of my favorites.
It was enjoyable, but not excellent.
I read it all, but didn't like it.
I started it but never got to the end.
Free polls from

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Cryptonomicon:
  2. A Poll for Those Who Read Cryptonomicon:
adam Scales (mail):
Funny, I was just thinking about this book, and how I would rate it this morning (I live in a building with horrible elevators, and I'm always puzzling over what the efficient queueing system would be. I certainly don't know, but can imagine Cryptonomicon's author solving the problem in a character's daydream).

This is a titanically interesting novel. You will learn a lot of math and see its relevance to things ordinary and extraordinary. It is endlessly imaginative, and the author's curiosity and intellect seem boundless.

It is also simply too long. I read all but the last 50-75 pages, because I was beginning to forget what plot payoff I had been anticipating, and why I cared about some of the characters.

In general, book editing seems to be in decline. Cryptonomicon must have posed an unusual problem in that it would have been very intimidating for any editor to get this thing pared down. The author is so smart, so talented - and the thing is damned interesting - that I suspect he was given freer reign than a lesser author might have received.

I bought this on Eugene's recommendation, and I DO recommend it, but it isn't without flaws.
11.1.2007 4:11pm
adam Scales (mail):
If I'm not mistaken, "free reign [sic]" is one of the many solecisms Eugene has singled out for criticism. My apologies!
11.1.2007 4:26pm
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
I think many similar themes-- mathematics, money, encryption, time-- are better developed in Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle, although it is much, much longer. The second was the best and can be read alone-- I started with it, and then read the 1st and 3rd. Stephenson set up a kind of Wiki on his website for the book so that you could, for example, read further about the characters introduced on page 782. I think it got shut down. You must like history to like the Baroque Cycle.

On the down side, the man has no editor it seems, and every digression deserves pamphlet length treatment. Plus, all of his characters have the same tone in their dialogue.

But its a rollicking fictional and narrative version of Pursuit of Glory.

His sci fi books, Diamond Age & Snow Crash, are very good contemporary science fiction. As good as Gibson.
11.1.2007 4:27pm
There's a bit of an Umberto Eco-like quality to Stephenson's work in that by the time you finally get to the end, it seems like every topic in the known universe has been tied in somehow.
11.1.2007 4:37pm
I read it just as the dot-com bubble was bursting, found the tone of the technology start-up plot instantly dated, and stopped reading. Maybe I'll try it again.
11.1.2007 4:43pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Perhaps I'm in a significant minority, but I don't actually think Stephenson needs an editor. Many great authors (Melville, Dickens, Pynchon come to mind) go through similar discursive exposition and nerdy digression, which may not be of a lean style that, e.g., Hemingway embodies, but this does not make it wrong period or wrong for Stephenson's style. It may be something some readers do not prefer or have the fortitude to endure, but why should great writers have to make everything comfortable for an audience?

All that said, some writers do write too much, which in the case of some means they write at all (I think Dan Brown of the Da Vinci Code falls into this execrable category).
11.1.2007 4:54pm
...Max... (mail):
While I think that all of Stephenson's books (including less-known oldies such as "The Big U" and "Interface") deserve reading just for the nontrivial ideas and turns of the plot, it is just so interesting to observe how much he has grown as a writer on the path from, say, Snow Crash to The Baroque Cycle. Cryptonomicon is next-to-last in this sequence so it certainly deserves praise from pretty much any angle, as far as I'm concerned. Oh, and the bigger the better... those of us cursed with the ingrained speed-reading habit delight in a 3-pound paperback, ya know ;)
11.1.2007 4:56pm
I've always wondered to what extent Stephenson figured the scheme his characters enact is a viable banking alternative. I thought it sounded interesting but was ultimately fairly silly.
11.1.2007 5:00pm
Constance Reader (mail) (www):
I was one of those that started but never finished it, which is almost unheard of me. I was deeply engrossed in the novel (I assume that at some point the two different novels become one?) that was set during WWII but not in the novel set in 1999. Which is the opposite of what I would expect. I'm still going to start into Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, though.
11.1.2007 5:11pm
SmokeandAshes (mail):
Sorry for a little hijack but I have a question - Has anyone listened to this book on audiobooks? I see that on audible, they have an unabridge excerpt version. I have read the book but had a hard time with all the cryptography - love the subject, my brain starts to hurt after a while of banging it against the wall though. I was just wondering if it would be easier with the spoken version.
11.1.2007 5:13pm
Joel (mail):
Stephenson has helped me to realize, by contrast, how good of a writer J. K. Rowling is.

Other commenters above have noted that all of Stephenson's characters talk the same: same style, same vocabulary, same verbal mannerisms. Rowling characters, on the other hand, have distinct verbal personalities. Show me a couple lines from one of Rowling's characters, and I can probably tell you who it is. That won't work with Stephenson.

Having said that, it is only fair to note that Rowling's books are just as bloated as Stephenson's. Editing is in short supply, it seems.
11.1.2007 5:22pm
Matt V (www):
I liked Cryptonomicon, but The Diamond Age is by far my favorite book of Stephenson's.
11.1.2007 5:33pm
Prosecutorial Indiscretion:
Despite its flaws, Cryptonomicon is one of my all-time favorite books; I can't think of anything I enjoyed more. I look forward to the follow-up post(s).
11.1.2007 5:33pm
Well, I see I have some company in the "didn't like it" camp, though we're still in Ron Paul territory. There seems to be a consensus, even among those who liked it, of the books faults: the endless (albeit interesting) digressions and loose ends, the sloppy plotting, the too-clever writing, and the sheer length that causes the reader to stop caring (or to forget about) the characters. Also, a lot of the gee-whiz technological and business aspects are now quite dated. (I read it about a year ago) All in all, I wouldn't say it was a terrible book, just a seriously flawed one, and its many merits didn't outweigh the flaws IMO.
11.1.2007 5:34pm
markm (mail):
I've read one Stephenson novel, I think it was Quicksilver, and unless I get into a long period of unemployment, that will be the last one. I just don't have time for his bloated writing style.

Ditto for Rowling.
11.1.2007 5:35pm
Jeff Dege (mail):
"Other commenters above have noted that all of Stephenson's characters talk the same: same style, same vocabulary, same verbal mannerisms. Rowling characters, on the other hand, have distinct verbal personalities."

You mentioned Rowling. I think Tolkien. The council meeting at Rivendell is exactly what writers are always told not to do - pages and pages of people sitting around talking about what had happened elsewhere. But with dozens of characters participating in the debate, you never lose track of who is speaking - each uses language in a wholly different way.
11.1.2007 5:38pm
AC (www):
Stephenson has also written one of the seminal works on thinking through persistent worlds. Snowcrash does not suffer from the verbosity that weighs doewn Cryptonomicon. I recommend it.

As for the remainder of Mr. Stephenson's stuff, I found it hard to get through.

Also, something you may not know about the writer: an avid Linux user, he still writes out his novels long-hand.
11.1.2007 5:56pm
I liked the beginning of Cryptonomicon, but then it got boring and inane. This is a combination I just can't tolerate.
11.1.2007 6:48pm
Drake (mail) (www):
I read Cryptonomicon and greatly enjoyed it (I voted excellent-but-not-one-of-my-favorites). I thought it an unusually entertaining didactic novel.

I then eagerly commenced reading Quicksilver, but never got past the first third. What had seemed delightful in the first book (anachronistically "hip" dialog, pop-talk, transhistorical references, etc.) soon wore thin and gimmicky.
11.1.2007 7:13pm
M. Thompson (mail):
While Stephenson does have some flaws as a writer, I found Cryptonomicon a fun book, but I prefer The Diamond Age.
11.1.2007 8:07pm
Josh644 (mail):
I love the way he writes, but Stephenson simply cannot write a story involving characters. I think he realizes the need for people to be involved in the plot, and he tries, but the center of attention is always elsewhere - in a computer/robot book, infectious memes, or simply cryptography (Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon). In Quicksilver, history is center stage and the characters are merely along for the ride. You can always tell when Stephenson decided that the central story of the book had been told, and he grudgingly turned to tie up the plot as it involved his characters.

His strengths are more than enough to overcome this for many people, but not everyone.
11.1.2007 8:45pm
John McCall (mail):
There are really three stories being told at once in Cryptonomicon. The 1999 story is quite dull: Randy spends the entire book wandering aimlessly from event to event, which may be an accurate representation of his character, but which doesn't much make for interesting reading. The WW2 cryptography story is enjoyable, but I think I appreciate it more as a computer scientist than someone without similar inclinations might. The WW2 adventure story is pretty consistently worthwhile.
11.1.2007 8:51pm
Tim Howland (mail) (www):
I love the first 90% of all his books, but he clearly hits a brick wall and writes a borderline deus ex to get out of it in each one.

I find that he does a great job on the tech ("in the beginning was the command line" is amazing), decent job on the characters, and can't quite get the end to work...
11.1.2007 9:08pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Liked it. I don't buy books new, unless they are Heinlein or Varley or Vinge or Stephenson. Bought two copies. Went to canada to hear him speak one time (the "hyenas" talk.)
But as an overly literalist libertarian geek type, i'm not sure about the category: It's one of my favorite novels. It's one of the books I like more than every other book? What exactly does this mean?
11.1.2007 9:18pm
WonkoTheSane (mail):
I read it just as the dot-com bubble was bursting, found the tone of the technology start-up plot instantly dated, and stopped reading.

I started reading Moby Dick the other day, found the tone of the whale hunting plot instantly dated, and stopped reading.
11.1.2007 9:42pm
Tim Fowler (www):

I've never read it.

I did read Snow Crash. I liked it, but I wouldn't say it was one of my favorites.
11.1.2007 9:45pm
Anderson (mail):
it is only fair to note that Rowling's books are just as bloated as Stephenson's

Pooh. Rowling's pages are typeset like the kid books they are; I doubt that even her longest is half the length of Cryptonomicon.

One criticism of NS that I haven't seen in these threads is that, at least in Cryptonomicon, he's not terribly successful with his female characters, who seem much more like they were dreamed up by his techie male characters than like anyone real.

Curiously, when I look at books of the similar genre to Cryptonomicon (what Northrop Frye called "anatomies") -- Gaddis's Recognitions, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Wallace's Infinite Jest -- I find similar problems with the female characters. Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be something particularly "male" about these sprawling, rambling sorts of novels. Dunno if anyone's ever followed that up. I enjoyed all of these books, but wonder how many female fans they have.
11.1.2007 10:53pm
Tyler Reddun (mail):
Frankly I found the book almost unreadable. The writing is on par with most fanfiction, even if the plot is okay, it's just hard to read.
11.2.2007 12:08am
Joel (mail):
Anderson wrote: "Pooh. Rowling's pages are typeset like the kid books they are; I doubt that even her longest is half the length of Cryptonomicon."

I did not say that Rowling's books were just as long as Stephenson's, I said they were just as bloated.

Rowling's books are indeed kids' books: extremely well written kids' books (except for the bloat). They belong on the shelf next to Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte's Web, and A Wrinkle in Time. The fact that sci-fi doesn't have any classics on par with these perhaps explains why Stephenson is highly regarded among sci-fi fans in spite of his many glaring weaknesses as a writer.
11.2.2007 10:57am
Eric R:
I thought Cryptonomicon was excellent--much less bloated than the Quicksilver/Confusion/System trilogy. And more inventive as probably could have been a bit more tightly edited, but not by much, maybe 5% of so....(a rough guesstimate).
11.2.2007 11:31am
Chimaxx (mail):
I agree with Anderson and Josh, above.

The book was filled with fascinating ideas and an interesting adventure plot, the male characters were thin, all talked alike, all thought alike, and the female characters were cyphers, there to entertain, distract or impede the men. And the text is bloated--makes my right hand itch for a red pencil. (It's not excruciatingly bloated like Anne Rice, but bloated nonetheless.)

It's been a while since I've read it, but I recall being vaguely disappointed by the ending--but this was a big step up from (if you can't resolve all the plot elements you've tossed in the air, just blow everything up) Snow Crash.
11.2.2007 1:36pm