First things first: I enjoyed the book even though it is rather long; it has about a 1000 pages. I didn’t know this when I started reading it on my Kindle. The long line of dots under the book title gave me the impression that it was a long book, but I didn’t notice how much it dwarfed the other books in my library.
The book follows multiple story lines in two distinct eras. There story line in the future (i.e. 1990s) is relatively linear and told from the perspective of Randall (Randy) Waterhouse while the story in the past jumps across characters which are often spread around the globe. Cryptology, along with maths, computer science and technology is spread throughout the book, as expected. I would have regarded it as historical Science Fiction even if it hadn’t featured a mysterious Enoch Root. Some characters share ancestry while others appear in both time-lines!
There are some parts which seem tagged on; like the prurient letter by Tom Howard which probably was included so that Van Eck Phreaking sticks with the reader.
Anyhow, the scale of events described and the fisticuffs, especially towards the end of the book, seem to conflict with the wholesome narration. It reminds me of the Hollywood action-sequences thrown in with the real story in Anathem or with the fist-fight on the frozen planet in Interstellar. These seem to be minor details specially since they do not further the story in any meaningful way. The appearance of Andrew Loeb as a true evil villain towards the end is almost laughable and feels a little shoddily done. However, in defence of the book, I too was going through it a little faster towards the end to get it over with. So your mileage may vary.
The story unfolds beautifully, with each element dovetails into the other. References to old events are made just in time when the other timeline is about to mention them. These connections are often not explicit, but the connection is easy enough to make. The time and space jumps in narration are neatly delineated at chapter boundaries, which prevent the book from becoming a jumbled mess. The background research is done very well, as is usual for Neal Stephenson novels, and there is even a listing of Perl code of an encryption algorithm (designed by Bruce Schneider). I felt that I learned and grew with Randy: I struggled to solve Avi’s puzzle of Why Philippines?, learned about the business side of startups, gained an understanding of the importance of intelligence in the second World War, about crypto-currencies, and a lot more. I can see why this is one of the classics of Sci-Fi literature.
You should read the book.
However, there are caveats. I didn’t understand some parts of the book and I felt that the book was deliberately opaque at spots. I still don’t know what the point of those $220 million Gold bars in the center of the jungle was. Was it just to let the reader know that the trip was difficult? Or was there a message to all of it which I didn’t have to understand? If so, how did they get all the melted gold out later on? What was the title under the face of Randy on Time magazine? “Next billionaire”? Destroyer (melter?) of valuable treasures? Did they actually convert any money to Crypto-currency? Why did the government of Philippines tolerate Randy within its limits after he had been legally banished? Why did the Dentist decide to back-off, or did he? Did the money end up with Enoch Root’s church? How come Goto Dengo has the seconds of the latitude/longitude in his memory all this while? What was the lizard which Bob Shaftoe kept ranting about?
More than once I thought that Lawrence Waterhouse was out of his mind, e.g. when he saw a rocket get launched (?) and when he started talking about Qwghlm, but the story sort of recovered from that remarkably well. Also, Lawrence was a reticent presence at meeting tables in the first part of his career, but then suddenly he becomes very talkative at briefings and needs a retinue of photographers and note-takes just so that they could keep up with him? Wasn’t this out of character for him?
Perhaps all of these answers were lost just like the prayers of the Rabbi were chopped up by the rotor blades of a helicopter while they were desecrating the graves towards the end.
Another question I don’t have the answer to is how much of the story were the characters in the future timeline able to work out for themselves. There were clues left along which led Randy in the present world in the right direction (e.g. Lavender Rose), but was he ever able to piece the puzzle together of how things ended up where they were? Did he bother?
My favourite character is Bobby Shafote. I like the way he is introduced, the way his character develops, his stoicism and his general badassness. And I like his off-springs.
The story moves at a leisurely pace and has plenty of in-between happenings to keep it fun; much like side-quests of a game like Witcher. The characters are varied, have different motivations and different moral compasses. They are friends, business partners, enemies (though Andrew Loeb’s last stand is, as I said before, laughable), and then there are Shaftoes. Now that I think of it, there also are mini-bosses and an intellectual kind of inventory building.