Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

The Cryptonomicon Rant

by Daniel Abraham

So over on the good Mr. Scalzi’s Whatever, Ty and I were lucky enough to get a chance to post our Big Idea. In the middle of it, as an aside, I included this:

(At this point, Daniel goes on a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about that one part of Cryptonomicon despite the fact that it’s in many ways a fine book and his friends assure him that Neal Stephenson is a perfectly decent human being.)

The Last Neal Stephenson Book Daniel Ever Read

There have been several requests to hear the actual rant, and I can see why folks would be interested.  But more than that, I can see how it might actually be useful and interesting.  So okay.

First off, I’m going to put in some caveats: Neal Stephenson is a damn good writer.  I have gone back and re-read Snow Crash and In the Beginning … was the Command Line more than once.  I admire his intelligence and his ambition, and that he lost me as a reader isn’t a reflection on his skill or the result of any kind of failure on his part.  It’s about his project as a writer and mine as a reader.

Another caveat:  I’m about to spoil the hell out of part of Cryptonomicon.  Really.  Stephenson did something in the book that was clearly an intentional choice and (I think) clearly signaled what he intended to do, and it’s the issue at hand.  If I don’t talk about it in concrete detail, it won’t make much sense.

So.  Yeah.  All right.

There I was, back in ’99, and I was an utter Neal Stephenson fanboy.  I’d read Snow Crash and shared it through with all my friends.  I’d reviewed The Diamond Age for my college newspaper.  And then here was Cryptonomicon, and it was built out of everything awesome.  High drama, cryptography, H. P. Lovecraft references, economics, Godel’s theorem, philosophy, Nazis.  I was aching to get my fingers on this book, and I dove into it like it was a swimming pool.  I engaged.

If you haven’t read it, the book has an alternating timeline.  One story is going on in the present day, the other in 1940s.  The 1940s timeline follows a group of people whose job it is to stage plausible events that would explain how the Allies could have found information even if they hadn’t broken Enigma (because if they knew things that they could *only* know by having broken Enigma, then the Nazis would know they’d broken Enigma).  It was tense and fascinating and it turned all my dials up to 11.

And then there was this one part.

I haven’t gone back to look at this in over a decade now.  I don’t really know how much of this is supported by the text and how much is my own fallible memory.  But here’s what I recall.  If you’ve read it more recently, you can correct me where I’ve strayed.

So we have a character — Bobby Shaftoe — who knows that Enigma’s been compromised.  He’s been captured, and is in a Nazi U-boat.  And he’s a morphine addict in the early stages of withdrawal.  And the whole Allied fleet is trying to sink the U-boat to keep him from spilling the beans about Enigma.  And the Allies have convinced the Nazis that the U-boat has actually been seized and the crew replaced by Allied submariners, so the *Nazis* are trying to sink the U-boat too.  And Bobby Shaftoe’s in the brig with the Nazi captain — the fate of the world in the balance — when the chapter ends.

Now you have to imagine me reading this, right?  I’m hunched over the book.  I’m blowing off my assignments for class.  I’m taking it with me to work to sneak in a few pages in the slow times.  The next chapter is the present-day one, and I’m going through page by page, knotted with suspense until I get to the next Bobby Shaftoe chapter.

Where he’s in Holland, in bed with this blonde woman we’ve never met before, and the resolution of all that narrative tension I was feeling?  Yeah, we covered that with an expository flashback.

Neal Stephenson isn’t a stupid man.  I believe he knew what he was doing when he built up those — very standard, very genre, naive even — narrative expectations and then didn’t follow the traditional path that they led down.  I understood that this was a signal that the novel wasn’t a standard narrative — not even a wildly baroque and powerfully intelligent one.  I got the point.  Intellectually.

How I felt was stupid.  And yeah, a little humiliated.

Because, y’see, I was that naive genre reader.  I was the sucker who’d actually taken it seriously.  I’d gotten excited by this silly, over-the-top scenario.  I hadn’t seen the wink, and so I was exposed as the silly, unsophisticated reader who’d actually thought he was reading that kind of book.

I don’t think Stephenson set out to cultivate contempt for his reader — by which I mean me — but that was my experience.  After that, I appreciated his writing and his intelligence, but I wasn’t going to be so silly and gauche as to actually *care* anymore.  And I haven’t.

I want to like Neal Stephenson’s books.  I really do admire his ambition and the depth of commitment he has for his projects.  He’s hellishly smart, and the work he’s doing is made of everything I want to read.  But I haven’t picked up anything after Cryptonomicon because we have different opinions about story and about sentiment.

The project he’s engaged with isn’t — or at least wasn’t — something that had room for emotional engagement, and I have emotionally disengaged from his body of work.  I feel that Cryptonomicon is a Fuzzy Bunny book where we’re all supposed to be laughing, albeit with a very intellectual and sophisticated kind of laughter.  What I thought was a story was conceptual humor. Or not humor.  Wit.

When I want a story, I go places where I feel safe caring about the characters.  When I want intellectual stimulation, I read non-fiction.  And, honestly, it’s a freaking shame, because I ought to love this guy.

21 Responses »

  1. Bingo! I had exactly the same reaction to that scene. I felt cheated and let down. And like you, I haven’t been willing to invest myself in another one of his novels since then.

    I mean, there we are, hanging by our fingernails from this cliff, wondering how the hell the author’s going to get us out of this delicious mess he made. Then in a blink we’re on a balcony in some new city? Everything just worked out somehow because everyone’s healthy and relaxed 1000 miles away from the danger? Feh.

    If he writes a shorter book I might give it another whirl, but reading an 800 page tome is a significant investment and I haven’t had the spare time to risk.


  2. First: Daniel, thank you for making your fine rant available! (Headed here from Whatever, on the off-chance I might find something.)

    I get the desire to be involved. Mr Stephenson’s writing can frustrate one at times, but he does drop little crumbs on the way that I’ve learned to spot as a sort of “wait for it” indicator.


    As I recall, Shaftoe’s (internal) narration shifts gradually from WAATGTFOOL[1] to increasingly flippant, until at the life-changing moment –
    pna gurl anivtngr na bofpher cnffntr naq fyvc cnfg obgu sbeprf jvgubhg uvggvat obggbz bs na haqbphzragrq qrcgu? — Obool syvcf gur dhrfgvba bire gb Rabpu nf n punyyratr: Qbrf ur erpnyy gur fbhaqvatf ur urycrq gnxr fbzr zbaguf rneyvre? Jbhyq ur org uvf yvsr ba vg, be gurvef? [2]

    Rabpu’f pnyz ercyl (“zrzbevmvat gur qvtvgf bs cv jnf gur pybfrfg […] jr unq gb ragregnvazrag”) jnf gb zr na vaqvpngvba gung gurfr pna-qb jneevbef/trrxf jbhyq qvfcynl fbzr nqncgnovyvgl naq gevhzcu bire chal bofgnpyrf; retb, ab arrq gb serg be qribhe bja svatreanvyf hagvy gur Arkg Rkpvgvat Vafgnyyzrag vf erirnyrq.

    Had Mr Stephenson repeated this stunt another time or two, it would have had a similar effect on me as you describe — I would largely stop caring about these characters as people, because they’re just being pushed about like peons. Er, prawns. Pawns, dammit, *pawns*!

    Lastly, want you to know that your Big Idea posting has sunk a big adamantium ‘must read now now now!’ hook right where it hurts me the most, durn youse both.

    Looking forward to meeting your works!

    [1] Jr Ner Nobhg Gb Trg Gur S*pxvat Bs Bhe Yvirf
    [2] Obool qvq trg uvzfrys n qbfr bs pnyz sebz n checyr obggyr; vg nppbhagf sbe fbzr bs uvf syvccnag qrzrnabe. Unq ur abg, ur’q unir orra /hfryrff/ sbe n pbhcyr bs puncgref.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. Our ‘problem’ gets even worse with ‘Anathem’, which felt more like an exploration of philosophical ideas in novel form than a novel inhabited by thinking and feeling human characters. I have a similar reaction to some of China Mieville’s books.

    • OOH, OOH. I have had Anathem on my bedside for two years. I read it in lieu of Ambien. Cryptonomicon was the last Stephenson book that I read to the end. Everything that has come up since then has weight and heft, but the action is completely out of whack. The Baroque Cycle was almost unreadable for me, a medieval history major in college and a major Dorothy Dunnett fan (who Stephenson credits at some point). Which is too bad, because when he is on, he is terrific.

  4. I was going to mention China Mieville as well; good call, Joshua. I’ve not read Crytonomicon, though Snow Crash was pretty good, and I’ve got that massive Baroque cycle waiting on my bookshelf where it taunts me with its absurd density. But yeah, a few of Mieville’s books have given me that same feeling: he’s being flippant with his language and references, and the casualness of it all can come off as a flamboyant display of “watch me be clever”. Kraken is the worst example of this, and despite enjoying everything else of his I’ve read, I’d go so far as to call it a terrible book. Embassytown does it a bit, but to a lesser extent, though there are scenes where I’d find myself disconnecting because of the obvious authorial choices being made.

    There’s definitely a fine line… I generally prefer authors with a tangible ‘voice’, and both of these guys fit that bill. In contrast, there are some genre writers who are essentially servants of the plot, and do their best to keep the language from intruding upon the story (Brandon Sanderson comes to mind). While that can work just fine, and in Sanderson’s case it does (particularly in the Wheel of Time books), I long for the subtle stimulation of being enmeshed in both story AND language. When the two come together just right, it’s magical. I gather Stephenson and Mieville are both quite capable of striking the balance, but it’s almost as if the further they go the harder it is to restrain that impulse.

  5. Thanks. I also liked Snow Crash fairly well and In the Beginning… was the Command Line is my favorite of his books. But I’ve stalled out every other time I’ve tried to read one of his books. (Flamed out spectacularly on Cryptonomicon.) So I was interested in the perspective of someone else who stalled out in hopes it would help me get why. Which you and commenters have.

    For example, I adored the setup of Anathem, but once there was a story I was increasingly irritated, because Story (not the particular story, but any story) didn’t seem to belong there.

    Gonna have to process this some more. Again, thanks for posting the rant.

    • And come to think of it, thanks to Joshua Bass, above–Un Lun Dun didn’t work for me either, but I hadn’t noticed that it was in much the same way as Stephenson. More grist for the mill.

  6. Hmm, I stopped reading Stephenson after Cryptonomicon, and I wasn’t really sure why. I do suspect that this is one of the reasons, the narrative did not seem coherent to me. I don’t remember this example, it’s been a long time since I read it.

    The example you give sounds very similar to the radio drama from The Rolling Stones. Hazel wrote herself into a corner and just started telling it as a flashback.

  7. In response to the original Big Idea post and the Cryptonomicon rant, I thought I would just quote the late David Foster Wallace. This is taken from a Salon interview he did – this pretty much sums up the way I feel about this topic.

    “…Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

    What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read.”

  8. *AND pretty much sums up the way I feel about this topic.

    Darn that missing “EDIT” button!

  9. The problem gets worse in Anathem? I don’t remember anything like the cheat he pulled in Cryptomoninon in Anathem. Just a little hokey in the ending, per usual.

  10. I think you’re throwing a lot of baby out with just a tiny bit of bathwater, Daniel, especially given the amount of enjoyment you seem to get out of his work other than surprise irritations like these.

  11. Your Cryptonomicon complaint reminds me of this that you wrote:

    “Back when I was in college, there was a column in Playboy by Asa Baber (yeah, I actually read some of the articles) talking about what to do when a woman says she doesn’t want sex. It had scenarios from the end of a date where you bought her dinner to her having a change of heart while your cock is actually inside her. The answer was *always* respect her wishes, be polite, drop it, and leave. Always. Anything else makes you at worst a rapist and at best a douchebag. That’s just the way it is.”

    While the immediate polite scenario is to drop it and leave. In such scenarios the guy often never comes back. However, to others it is a challenge and they return again and again hoping for a different outcome. Such is my case with Mr. Stephenson. Sometimes the tease is worth it.

    Though, I think you protest too much. Stephensons endings have always been a bit dissatisfying in terms of closure. For Cryptonomicon he just put one of his “classic” endings in the middle of the book.

  12. I had the same problem, at the same place in the book, and I too decided I wasn’t reading the book I thought I was. So I re-read it, without assumptions, and took notes. Some of those notes are relevant to your post:

    “So we have a character – Bobby Shaftoe – who knows that Enigma’s been compromised. He’s been captured, and is in a Nazi U-boat. And he’s a morphine addict in the early stages of withdrawal.”

    Actually he’s a morphine addict who has just been given two shots of morphine (and has subsequently become very relaxed and talkative) in exchange for telling the Germans their own military secrets, none of which involve Enigma.

    “And the whole Allied fleet is trying to sink the U-boat to keep him from spilling the beans about Enigma.”

    And the whole *German* fleet is trying to sink the U-Boat because they believe it has been captured by the Allies (which is just a deception planted by the Allies because they don’t want anyone spilling the beans about Enigma.) More importantly, some higher-up Germans also want to sink the U-Boat to keep Shaftoe from spilling the beans about some gold whose provenance – and existence – would make Dönitz (and, more to the point, Göring) uncomfortable if it were to be broadcast over the air in cleartext, which it would be since Bischoff believes (without Shaftoe giving anything up) that Enigma has been broken by the Allies. The point of all of this is to highlight the layers of misdirection (Allies hiding Enigma info, Germans hiding gold info), which may have been spread on a bit thick since this chapter took out so many readers.

    “And Bobby Shaftoe’s in the brig with the Nazi captain — the fate of the world in the balance — when the chapter ends.”

    You seem to have skipped about ten pages in your summary, because a few pages back, the lingo veers sharply geographical and stays that way for a while… there’s a whole section that is best read with a map or globe or Google Maps handy. It ends with this:

    “Sometime around noon the next day, U-691, battering its way through a murderous storm, lances the Straits of Dover and breaks through into the North Sea. She must be lighting up every radar screen in Europe, but airplanes can’t do much in this weather.

    ‘The prisoner Shaftoe wishes to speak to you’, says Beck.”

    Following on the map, we see that Bischoff has successfully evaded most of the terrors in the south, is now just below Norway, and is at a loss where to go next. This is the calm *after* the storm… the fate of the world isn’t in the balance, the fate of the *sub* is barely in the balance. *THEN* he has the conversation with Shaftoe about the Gulf of Bothnia, which gives him a safe place to go, due east into a bay that had recently been charted by Shaftoe and Root.

    Then the story skips to various other characters and places and times, as you said. Then:

    “Where he’s in Holland, in bed with this blonde woman we’ve never met before”

    He’s in *Sweden* (this is important), in bed with a black-haired Finnish (this is important) woman, whose *son* we have *already* (this is etc) met… but *that* hadn’t been properly explored yet, so there is a bit of a detour – a necessary one – before returning to the parts of the story you expected.

    “…and the resolution of all that narrative tension I was feeling? Yeah, we covered that with an expository flashback.”

    As I hope I made clear above, that narrative tension had been – perhaps somewhat cryptically, pun nolo contendre – cleared up *before* Shaftoe had his morphine-tinged conversation with Bischoff in the U-Boat. That conversation did not take place in a tense environment, they were safe – for the moment – due to the storm and having done the ridiculously ballsy move of running the sub on the surface straight up the English Channel to the Black Sea, where nobody was actively looking for them.

    There are plenty of problems with this book, but the sheer scale of the project was bound to cause that, even without Stephenson’s quirks. And I’ve got plenty of things that irk the hell out of me, too… but the Big Problem you are speaking of simply isn’t there, every single problem you pointed out had been resolved *before* the part where you thought you were going to next find out how they got resolved. It’s a tricky chapter, sure, and this book isn’t for everyone… I just don’t want to see people hating it for the wrong reasons.

    • I’m not surprised I got some of the details wrong. I’m working from 10+ year old memories, and I don’t particularly care to go back and reread it. I’ve also had someone who I very much respect point out that all the almost supernatural derring do of Bobbie Shaftoe happens off stage throughout the books.

      I admire your very close reading of the chapter, and the hints you’ve picked up that reset the narrative as you experienced it. My experience was of an enthusiastic, headlong, trusting reader who was caught up in the adventure and then punished for it. If I had read it differently, as you have (google maps, etc), I can see that it would have been a very different experience.

  13. I just finished Cryptonomicon, went looking online for opinions and found this article.

    I think we should have been braced for the U-boat scene by Snow Crash. Do you recall when Hiro is surrounded by neo-nazi bikers in an inflatable arctic shopping mall and the chapter abruptly ends with nothing but the words “after that it’s just a chase scene”?


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