Cryptonomicon and Underworld, two great novels in their respective literary realms, are definitely linked (as Richard Rorty noted in his blurb for the former), and they address each other’s weaknesses. They both span much of the last century’s history, and they both use the standard approach of the non-linear narrative. Underworld is material, replete with what Hart Crane called “America’s plutonic ecstasies” – wastes nuclear, industrial, human… It also, however, misses a crucial trick by more or less accepting the standard model of material progress in the western world, and doing no more than flipping it for our delectation, presenting us with the opportunity to indulge in our bad faith, our consumer guilt. It is an inversion that lacks sophistication. Though the actual work itself is an achievement, the message is banal.
Cryptonomicon is also a mirror though which we darkly consider our recent past, except instead of how DeLillo gives us the flip-side of our material successes (the world of “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing?”) in muck and mire, Stephenson focuses on information, on the immaterial. He is interested in how its structures structure our lives. More than this, if the ‘darkside’ parallel is to be valid, then just as the structure of information in the 20th century is such that openness and freedom of digital movement are the ideals held up by theorists and advocates, Cryptonomicon astutely shows that this is more often than not perverted by those who wish to dominate via information and technologies of communication.
With the Baroque Cycle (a trilogy, which serve as a kind of prelude rather than a prequel to Cryptonomicon, which he subsequently penned), Stephenson gives us what amounts to a secret history of the immaterial’s ascendancy, which shows that the material world was predicated on this world that was accessible only to those with the particular inclination to learn the language of the universe, maths and physics. Where Underworld is about burying the implications of our approach to living in the world, of using our skills, ideas, tools to alter our surroundings, Cryptonomicon gives us that which we haven’t even repressed as we don’t know enough about it. Encryption is the key to the whole other side of the bright, shiny story that is peddled out so often by the corporate histories (that not infrequently becomes academic and popular history). Not all the information that is out there is available to us, and we do not make all our own information available to others. Stephenson brings us to the point where we can ask ourselves, should everything be available to all?