Reviewed: July 17, 2003
By: Neal Stephenson
Publisher: Avon Books
1139 pages, $10.99
It took me weeks
to plough through this massive tome, and some of the hours spent in the
various time periods it chronicles were less interesting than others. Expectation
had something to do with it. The name and Stephenson's previous work led
me to believe I would be reading a story that fell somewhere between cyberpunk
and H.P. Lovecraft. Instead it was more like James Michener meets Tom Clancy,
narrated by Tom Robbins.
The novel takes
place in two different time periods. It opens in 1941, in China, where
a U.S. Marine with the improbable name of Bobby Shaftoe is busy evacuating
the area. It moves to America sometime in the 1930's, where a young man
named Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematical and musical prodigy,
is hanging out with a British chap named Alan Turing and a German named
Rudy. They love to talk maths and codes, and the text is littered with
formulae whenever they get together. Formulae tend to make my eyes glaze
over, but I can overlook that if there's a purpose behind them.
Finally, as part
of this late 1930's to early 1940's setting, there is the tale of Goto
Dengo, a Japanese soldier who manages to survive incredible hardships as
well as the machinations of his superiors and make it through the war intact.
His activities are, in fact, the key to the treasure hunt that takes up
the last part of the book.
Sometime in the
near future a young man named Randy Waterhouse is enroute to the Philippines
where he is to meet with a couple of hacker chums and get together to form
a massive information bank with a secure encryption system. There is much
talk of computers, cables, politics and the insecurity of life on the cutting
edge of the information revolution. There is romance and treasure hunting.
So - we have two
time periods and four distinct casts. Some of them with related names,
that we have to keep sorted out. Shaftoe's tale is about the fighting war,
drugs and romance. LPW's tale is about early computing machines, codes,
the secret intelligence war and romance. Goto Dengo's is about survival
at sea, in the jungle, and in spite of the plots of his officers, with
loads of engineering tossed in. Randy's tale is about computers, codes,
confusion, treasure, and yet another romance. It's also the part of the
book that brings all the other parts together.
three tales begin to intersect at various places in the book, and events
that don't seem at first to have anything to do with each other finally
make sense. Persist with this book and it will reward you.
On the other hand,
it could have been, oh, 200 pages shorter and still have done the job.
Stephenson could have left out the many pages in which Alan Turing calculates
just how far he can ride on his bicycle before the chain slips off the
broken sprocket. I realize the information is there to establish a certain
degree of eccentricity, but I got the point much earlier.
There is a really
long passage about Randy's dental problems which is quite hilarious, but
it's really only there to set up a metaphor about nervousness, so it could
have been left out. It was amusing enough that I eventually read some of
it aloud to my wife, who chuckled at first, but eventually began to wince
and observed that the author was apparently enjoying himself too much.
In another section
there are ten pages from the personal journal of one of Randy's colleagues
nattering on about black stockings, antique furniture and lust, while another
tracks the efficiency of Lawrence Waterhouse's cognitive processes as charted
(yes, charted) against his periods of enforced celibacy.
Finally, as in
a Clancy novel, there are way too many pages given over to the torturous
detail of how things work, which in this case involves more math, diagrams
and perhaps 100 pages of diary entries in a larger, sans-serif typeface
that's supposed to make us think of computer screens.
These are all clever
bits of writing, but for me they get in the way of the story and tell me
that Stephenson had enough clout with his publisher to allow him to disregard
the writer's rule about "always killing your darlings". In a
book with so many subplots and characters to keep track of, additional
tangents are not welcome.
Now, I did finish
the book, but it was a chore compared to Snowcrash, his previous novel.
It was more like his extended essay on the fallacies and foibles of computer
operating systems, called "The Command Line", which ran to about
90 pages when I downloaded it from the web a year or so ago. Fascinating
non-fiction, but too much of that can mess up the story.
Do I recommend
the book? Well, I ended up being glad I read it, but I think the prospective
reader should approach it with caution. Avon labeled it "fiction" rather
than "science fiction" for a good reason.