Book Review

by Carolyn Dane


Neil Stephenson

918 pages

Supposedly, the Cryptonomicon was the Allies' codebreaker's bible during WWII. It contained notes on algorithms and methods of approaching various kinds of ciphers. The historical parts of this book are so thoroughly mixed with the fictional parts that I am unsure whether the Cryptonomicon actually existed by that name, although there must have been something like it.

I knew I was going to like Cryptonomicon right away, and now that I've finished all 918 pages, I can say that my first impression was right - it held my interest all the way, with something entertaining - a laugh, a point of interest, an insight, an arresting phrase - on virtually every page, en route to the unwinding of the complex story. I'm tickled pink that I have an autographed first edition (B&N may still have some) because I think it's going to be a classic.

The story opens at Princeton in the late 30s with three nerdy friends - a Brit, a German, and an American - who share an interest in cryptography, which they discuss while out biking and camping in the New Jersey countryside. The Brit is Alan Turing. The other two are fictitious (unless there really was a Rudolph von Hacklheber). A few years later, of course, the three chums are engaged in cryptoanalysis for their respective governments, trying to psych each other out. Soon after the breaking of the German Enigma code, the American, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, is sent to the British crypto center at Bletchley Park to work with Turing, where he puzzles over why the British women keep saying "woe to hice" until he figures out that that is how they pronounce his name (one of the throwaway lines I got a kick out of).

Another protagonist is Bobby Shaftoe of the U.S. Marines, part of a small ultra-secret commando group at the service of the codebreakers. There's lots of bloody combat, all very well told (didn't bore me a bit, though I usually skip those parts) and adventurous war stories. A U-boat captain, a Japanese miner, and a priest with a radio perched on top of a Pacific atoll also have roles in the drama.

Meanwhile, intercut with the scenes from World War II is a parallel story involving the grandchildren of some of the protagonists, especially nerdish Randy Waterhouse, who, with a couple of D&D and hacking buddies, is engaged in starting a company designed to provide a safe-data haven in a south Pacific island ruled by a sympathetic sultan. As they envision it, the data will flow through undersea cables connecting Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and mainland Asia into an underground cave (The Crypt) in the sultanate, where appropriate levels of encryption will be available to clients who wish to keep their communications safe from prying eyes and ears. These plans are sidetracked by the discovery of war treasure found by a cable-laying boat (operated by lovely Amy Shaftoe and her grandfather, Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe), with clues to a vastly greater hoard of gold whose location is identified in the only WWII code that remains unbroken, to which Randy has some clues found in his grandfather's trunk.

Neil Stephenson, author of this big book, is hip, cynical, and has a deft way with words that reminds me of Tom Robbins. Here are a couple of samples:

...The man has a shaved head that is sunburned as red as a three-ball. He's wearing what used to be a decent enough business suit, which has practically become one with the jungle now; it is impregnated with red mud, which has made it so heavy that it pulls itself all out of shape as he totters to a standing position. He's got a great big pole, a wizard's staff. He has planted it in the riverbed and is sort of climbing up it hand-over-hand. When he gets fully upright, Randy can see that his right leg terminates just below the knee, although the bare tibia and fibula stick out for a few inches. The bones are scorched and splintered. [Name omitted to avoid giving away plot turns] has fashioned a tourniquet from sticks and a hundred-dollar silk necktie that Randy's pretty sure he has seen in the windows of airport duty-free shops. This has throttled back the flow of blood from the end of his leg to a rate comparable to what you would see coming out a Mr. Coffee during its brew cycle....

...The road gets opened up again and then their problem becomes trying to keep people out - it is jammed with media, opportunistic gold-seekers, and nerds. All of them apparently think they are present at some kind of radical societal watershed, as if global society has gotten so screwed up that the only thing to do is shut down and reboot it....

Stephenson is an admirer of Robert Anton Wilson, and if you have read Illuminatus! you will find some of the same flavor here. Although all the threads are neatly tied together at the end, with some cool surprises along the way, word is that there will be a sequel. I hope it's true - I will certainly buy an advance copy.

Cryptonomicon got a lot of five-star ratings in the public comments, along with a few reviews from people who hated the book, with little middle ground. I suspect most of the people who hated it didn't understand it. It's a high-IQ kind of book. The elements of cryptography are explained, not in great detail, but sufficiently to make the principles clear. Same with various other technologies. There are also quite a few items or topics referred to that have been discussed in this forum but are mysteries to the general public.

As a bonus, there's an appendix with a virtually unbreakable code algorithm that uses shuffling a deck of cards as its randomization procedure.

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