July 17, 2004

Cryptonomicon: initial impression

I've started on Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, finally, after years of it sitting on my to-read list. I've read Snow Crash, and liked it, but none of his other books. This sucker is a tome of a paperback, weighing in at a cool 1,150 pages, but it's all good.

I knew it couldn't be bad when the prologue started out with a haiku:

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down.
From it, warring songs.
Well, strictly speaking it wasn't the haiku that got me all fired up. It's that I immediately made the mental observation that this guy must pronounce "tire" as something like "tahr", if he was only counting it as one syllable. And then right there in sentences one and two: "...counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question. Is 'tires' one syllable or two?" My kind of book.

Incidentally, it's a little weird seeing a novel written in the present tense. I can't remember if Snow Crash was that way, and you certainly adapt fast enough. But all the stuff that happens in the "present", which due to the format of the book is at least two different years at any one time, is actually present tense. I'm definitely not used to that.

The thing that I most love about Stephenson's style, though, is his way of digressing for a paragraph or a whole page or two, such that you barely even register that this is totally irrelevant to the main storyline. Sometimes the digressions are the history of some word or device or character. Sometimes they just turn around a commonplace event and describe it from a completely different perspective than you're used to. For instance:

He starts up his laptop again. Seeming to levitate in the center of his dark room, the screen is a perfect rectangle of light the color of diluted milk, of a Nordic dawn. This light originates in small fluorescent tubes imprisoned in the polycarbonate coffin of his computer's display. It can only escape through a pane of glass, facing Randy, which is entirely covered by small transistors arranged in a grid, which let photons through, or don't, or let through only those of a particular wavelength, cracking the pale light into colors. By turning those transistors on and off according to some systematic plan, meaning is conveyed to Randy Waterhouse. A good filmmaker could convey a whole story to Randy by seizing control of those transistors for a couple of hours.
See what I mean? Brilliant. He has a way with words, a way that appeals to the geekiest of geeks without (I imagine) becoming so very unreadable to the teeming millions. When his characters are computer geeks, they actually make weird analogies in their heads just like computer geeks really do:
This was just the executive summary of a weird life that Randy only learned about in bits and pieces as the years went on. Later, he was to decide that Andrew's life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.
So anyway, I'm a bit less than a tenth of the way through the book. I imagine it will last me through my trip to Barcelona.

UPDATE: fixed embarrassing typo in second paragraph.

"Saturday, Dolly gets theological: "God never takes a vacation 'cause He can't find anybody good enough to fill in." Poor God. Handcuffed by His high standards. Too bad He can't just slap in two weeks of reruns from 1977, like Bil Keane. And Bil Keane has Jeff Keane to help him out. If only God had a son to help Him out. Oh." --Funny Paper

Posted by blahedo at 11:14pm on 17 Jul 2004
I just read this and Kelly is currently reading it. She just got past the penis scheme part and onto the glockenspiel bit and is convinced that this is the last we will hear of Lawrence. Posted by lee at 11:18pm on 20 Feb 2005
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