Saturday, March 25, 2006

Re-Reading Cryptonomicon

I just finished re-reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. This is my favorite of Stephenson's novels (for the record, the surprisingly durable The Big U comes in second).

There are several things that come to mind upon my completion of this endeavor:

  • The ending is less abrupt than I thought. I just wasn't paying attention the first time or two.
  • Stephenson is terrifically funny. The whole "beards as totems of the white male patriarchal privilege" episode still makes me fall off my chair, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is in general a cause of hysterical laughter.
  • Stephenson could easily be a "literary" writer if he wanted to -- the several page story about Randy's impacted wisdom teeth would not look out of place in the New Yorker. Except that it's hilarious. Hilarity does not often ensue (in text anyway) in the pages of the New Yorker. Of course, if he were a "literary" writer he'd make almost no money. (See question #2 in this Slashdot interview.)

But the biggest thing that comes to mind after re-reading Cryptonomicon is this: ye gods, we geeks were naive in the 1990s.

One strand of this naivete of this parallels the evolution of Bruce Schneier's thoughts on security. He started out (in Applied Cryptography) claiming that cryptography was going to save us, but came around to the idea that cryptography is necessary, but hardly enough. In Beyond Fear, he uses the metaphor of a mile-high fence post when the rest of the fence is two feet high, or nonexistent. Human and physical factors are extremely important too. Good crypto does you no good if the Feds (or the Mob, or your company) put a keystroke monitor on your computer.

An overtly political strand of geeky naivete is that back in the Clinton 1990s, we thought that the biggest threat to freedom was going to be people trying to pass laws against cryptography. We had no idea that we'd be faced, within a few years, with a President and Administration that claims it's above the law (and therefore can spy on people at will, violate the Geneva Conventions, and so on), a Congress that would bend over for it or actively abet it, and a corporate news media that would report government press releases as if they were actual news stories.

I miss the 1990s. I already look back on the Clinton Presidency as a lost Golden Age. Okay -- a Silver Age. I wonder how long before we all look back on those eight years of peace and prosperity with nostalgia and sadness?


ravenweb said...

One could argue that Stephenson is already considered a literary writer. I base this on the fact that a number of people I know who read SF regularly and read Snow Crash and the The Diamond Age have steered clear of his Baroque Cycle because, to quote one such person, "it looked like too much of an effort, like reading The Corrections".

rantingnerd said...

Heh. That's pretty funny. I haven't yet read The Corrections, so I can't comment for sure, but I doubt it includes lengthy nerd discourses about the beginnings of modern monetary systems, modern science, or the Enlightenment in general.

My problem with The Baroque Cycle is that I was finishing it up as the 2004 US Presidential Election was happening -- so I was reading about the dawn of the Enlightenment while in the US, the Enlightenment was declared dead.

Hyperlexic said...

Meanwhile, for me, the Baroque Cycle is the only truly good Stephenson writings. Snow Crash was unbearable after the first 10 pages (which were brilliant); Diamond Age was decent but not fantastic; Cryptonomicon dragged; but the Baroque cycle was fascinating throughout.

But then, I'm a history geek.

rantingnerd said...

I disliked The Diamond Age intensely. Cryptonomicon could have used some copy-editing with a machete or a back-hoe -- but so could the Baroque Cycle. I liked the Baroque Cycle a lot, but I can totally understand why someone would have hated it. Given the similarities in tone between the BC and Cryptonomicon, though, I'm constantly surprised when people like one but not the other.