I’ve generally tended to agree with the consensus that Neal Stephenson is a brilliant writer who sucks at endings. Having just re-read Cryptonomicon, I feel the need to revisit that supposed truism.
Cryptonomicon, called a science fiction novel, has very little SF in it, not much at all, really. What it has much of is science fact, couched in beautifully rendered historical fiction. Stephenson traces two timelines, one in the throes of World War II, another in present day. As the stories move on it becomes increasingly apparent to the reader that the two timelines are deeply interconnected. Randall Waterhouse of present day, an expert in computer systems and cryptographic codes working towards a completely secure “data haven,” is related to Lawrence Waterhouse of the 1940s, an expert cryptographer charged with keeping the secret of Ultra (the Allied program that cracked Enigma) from the Germans.
While Lawrence is planning daring missions to confound and mislead German crypto experts, Randy is jetting around Asia working on a web of fiber optic networks and a more subtle web of political intrigue that begins to solidify as increasingly powerful and unsavory figures begin to get involved in his ultrasecure data crypt. By the end, the two timelines have crossed completely, and a terrible decades-old secret clicks into clarity.
Stephenson is a master of the fine art of descriptive writing. His soaring, endless digressions into anything that catches his fancy open the readers eyes to the wonderful absurdities of the world around us. By the end of the book you will have a deep and personal understanding of the basics of cryptography, tunnels, SCUBA, the Philippines, tech startups, Linux, fine furniture, and Cap’n Crunch cereal, to name just a few things. Stephenson has a wonderfully captivating ability to draw the reader into every moment by examining detail with the precision of an electron microscope. This, in turn, makes every other paragraph absolutely hilarious, even at the most tense moments, and had me at times trying to turn the page before realizing that I was only halfway through the one I was on — it needed to go faster!
What about the ending, then? Are we, in typical Stephenson fashion, dumped, at the most inopportune moment, into an appendix? Well, yes and no. Reading this book the first time I felt it ended abrubtly. Reading it the second time, I realized it ended very cleanly, at a perfect place. By the end of the novel, the two timelines reach their conclusion, innumerable details click into place, vast expanses of understanding overwhelm the reader, and the world is opened up in a way it had not been before. Stephenson has a habit of starting out by dragging the reader, bodily, into his world, and capturing you for a rollercoaster that goes up, up, up, and then finally the bearings click, the brakes release, and you find yourself at the top of a ginormous drop, and you start down, and you keep going, and going, and going, building up speed, the wind whipping at your face, your body pressed back in your seat but at the same time weightless, hanging in the air, flying downwards faster then the speed of sound, passing divebombing birds who seem lazy in comparison, and then, finally, you level out, and, with a squeak of brakes, you are jerked hard by the stop, and told to exit to your left, and please check around you for personal belongings and misplaced organs that you may have accidentally expelled through your nose.
Stephenson grabs you by the shirt collar and forces you into his world, and then he just starts going. You get asides, you get antecdotes, you get lots of character development, and then, about 2/3 of the way through, you hit the peak and you start flying towards the ending, everything falling into place, the haze lifting as he lays out detail and action effortlessly. And when he finally has you where he wants you, when your head has been filled to overflowing with the wonder of the world he creates, he wraps it up nicely with a bow, pats you on the back, and sends you on your way. And you are left, even after almost 1000 pages, wanting, needing more. But it’s all there! You have to stop and ponder and think and work out the details and realize the dozens, hundreds of connections that you missed. Like a cryptographer, what remains is to discover what was in plain sight, but that you just didn’t put together the first time. And every once in a while, weeks or months after reading the book, a conclusion will emerge fully formed from your subconscious and it will just blow you away for a second as you realize that it was there all along, staring you in the face.
It’s pretty neat, really.
So is Stephenson bad at endings? Nah. He just doesn’t know how to ease up on the pressure. And to take that away would make his work far less exhilarating.