Sunday, September 10, 2006

Starting Cryptonomicon

For our first book, we are reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. We'll start on Sunday, September 24.

For the first installment, I suggest "Acknowledgements" through "Barrens", or through page 27 in the paperback addition.

A couple of questions to think about: what genre is the book? If you answered sf, why? What makes it science fiction? Is the jumping around distracting? Is the math distracting? Do you need to understand the math to understand the book (a question that will become more pressing later on)? How true to life is the character "Alan Turing"? What purpose do the two epigraphs serve? What theme is being set? And, for Bret, what's the first sign that this is a book about monetary theory?


Blogger Susan's Husband said...

"Alan M. Turring". Note that Church, who (IMHO) contributed as much to defining calculability as Turing, was also an "Alan" (Alonso being the Spanish cognate thereof). I will be interested to see how the book deals with him.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I'm on my way to the local bookplatz.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

... which is where I once again learned why I avoid bookstores.

Go for one.

Come back with three.

5:36 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Goto lives, eh? Need to find my copy, think it's in one of the, er, offices.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Turns out I have a long plane flight on the Friday before 9/24 and I'll be to tired to read my usual nerdly documents so I'm looking forward to reading Cryptoeconomics.

It'll be interesting for me to see how the flow between main "posts" regarding the book and comments go. David, is there any other book club blog that you think would be good to emulate? BTW, my email address bretwallach -at- gmail -dot- com if you could be so kind to add me to the team list.

hey skipper wrote: "Go for one. Come back with three."

That's a feature, not a bug. No? You can never have too many books.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

To start, and hopefully not immediately derail, this discussion:

what genre is the book? If you answered sf, why?

I have gotten to page 322, and if left to my own devices, I would say it is building up to some thing in the conspiracy / thriller / who dunnit realms. But as I found the book in the SF section, then I must be wrong, or the SFieness hasn't reared its head yet.

Is the jumping around distracting?

Not so far. The characters and settings are clearly enough drawn to avoid losing the reader in the scene jumps. However, I have, on occasion, found his style occasionally clunky, with an odd admixture of occasional footnotes and parantheticals, unnecessary because they don't add anything the reader hasn't already gleaned from the story.

Is the math distracting?

Not to me, as I have been exposed to public/private keys, had a fairly in-depth education in the universal Turing machine, and am familiar with the meanings of the mathematical symbols used so far. However, I found the formulas an odd device. There is no accompanying explanation; certainly a character could speak about them. So that leaves the majority of the readers in the cold, if the formulas have any function in the story other than tarting up the text a bit. So far, that appears to be their only function, which makes them something of an excrescence. As is, BTW, the occasional hexadecimal string.

The author says not a word about public/private keys, the point of these strings, thereby missing another opportunity to introduce most readers to a new concept.

So far, mathematical knowledge is completely unnecessary.

How true to life is the character "Alan Turing"? Near enough for the book's sake. He was gay, and he was instrumental in breaking German codes.

What purpose do the two epigraphs serve? What theme is being set?

As for the first epigraph, I couldn't hope to say. The second appears to hint at some vast, hidden, storehouse of gold that will propel the story forward.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

OK, it's Sunday, September 24th. Should we only discuss through page 27 (of this 1100+ page book)? Because, for example, most of the questions hey skipper just answered required reading farther (I've also read a few hundred pages).

I'll do a post on monetary theory (which did actually occur in the first 27 pages) Sunday night.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I found it very tough going, but I'll wait to hear from all you boffins before concluding anything. I probably need a guided re-read. The jumping around was very distracting, especially all the jumping around within the jumping around (i.e. geographically and very improbably). The math was largely inaccessible to me and so I'm still in the dark about what I'm in the dark about, but I had the sense much of it was a template for his characterizations. I'll need some help there.

The characterizations really gave me trouble. I would have put that more objectively, but I was cowed by a NYT review that talked about how great they were. Not only is everyone unlikeable, shallow and one-dimensional, there is precious little inter-relationship among them, and what little there is is either menacing/invasive or so California cool as to be self-parodying. And the love angles! I know it isn't supposed to be chick-lit, but what a bunch of self-indulgent robots. I mean, who could remained dry-eyed at the high romance of Bobby Shaftoe's horrific screeching and grabbing the morphine at discovering his first love's (and mother of his son's) leprosy? What a waste of good condoms, eh Bobby?

Having no sci-fi background, I felt rather old and in a brave and quite disturbing new world. If this is a harbinger of what we are all becoming, I'm revisitng Orrin's war on cars.

BTW, Turing was a much richer character in real life. His personal hygiene was appalling (shades of Ord Wingate) and Bletchley had to suffer both that and his wearing his gayness openly because he was indispensible. He ran marathons and probably committed suicide in 1954. He ate a poisoned apple, which many thought was related to his favourite movie--Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! Why ignore such rich material? Was Stephenson trying to make a point through the dullness of his characters?

4:35 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Well, so far, I have to admit that I'm having trouble understanding the point of all the jumping around. I assume that at some point all of these threads will come together for an amazing ending, but so far I feel as if I'm reading 5 or 6 mostly independent novels. So far, each novel isn't all that great, but not terrible either.

Usually, either I can't put a book down or it completely loses me in the first few dozen pages. This is one of the first novels that I neither feel compelled to keep reading, but nor is it unenjoyable enough to abandon.

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