Book review: Cryptonomicon, by Neil Stephenson

A geek-a-liscious literary experience

It’s World War II and the allies have cracked the encryption of a major Axis communication codes. How can they act without revealing their access to this precious intelligence? Detachment 2702, a rag-tag group of soldiers and intelligence agents, is dispatched to create believable (and hilarious) alibis to justify why German and Japanese convoys keep getting sunk.

It’s the late ’90s and the grand-children of two Detachment 2702 members are part of an IT start-up venture in the Philippines. The discovery of a sunken WWII German submarine filled with gold leads to a set of encrypted punched cards that may contain the location of an even bigger Japanese war treasure hoard.

This genre defying novel is in fact a mashup of many stories: a WWII spy action, a harrowing death camp escape, a modern-day treasure hunt yarn, a philosophical mathematics treatise and a high-finance techno thriller. All of these narratives are tied together with a profound insight into geek culture and an unrestricted glee for hyperbole of hysterical proportions.

One of its many themes is the invention of the digital computer, with particular attention to its use in cryptology (encryption), communication and currency. The word “Cryptonomicon” itself refers to a fictional book summarizing mankind’s knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

Stephenson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in the most entertaining way. For instance, he’ll use graphs and formulas to describe absolutely ludicrous situations as a means to illustrate some of his more abstract themes. He will also often segue into seemingly unrelated side-stories, such as a letter to Penthouse about furniture and stockings or the tale of a wisdom tooth removal from hell. Far from being annoying, these are some of the most entertaining aspects of the book.

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite novels of all time. Reading this 1,100 pages behemoth has become an almost-yearly ritual for me. The reason I come back to this book over and over again is because of the sheer density and enjoyability of its material. Every reading brings a smile to my face and sheds new light into its many concepts and plot points.

Beyond History

Neil Stephenson, previously known for high-tech, high-concept science-fiction novels such as Snow Crash (virtual worlds) and The Diamond Age (nanotechnology), chose the historical fiction genre for this crazy chimera of a novel. Notable historical figures featured in Cryptonomicon are: Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan. We also encounter names that have the ring of familiarity such as Electrical Till Company (ETC), a reference to IBM (Idea Business Machines), a WIRED-like TURING magazine and a scrappy Finnish open-source operating system called “Finux”.

A cornucopia of themes

I will now simply list some of the themes covered in Cryptonomicon. Hopefully, this should give you an idea of the relentless fountain of craziness and though-provoking substance of this most unusual book:

  • What is encryption and why it’s so important;
  • Cracking an encryption code
  • The autistic-like nature of nerds and geeks;
  • Start-ups, NDA’s and business plans;
  • Pen-and-paper vs computer and card-based role-playing games;
  • The impact of horniness on concentration and the relative merits of self-administered relief;
  • Information theory and all the ways that information can leak our of a communication channel;
  • Mastering UNIX and TCP/IP;
  • Customizing a Linux-like fictional operating system to its core;
  • Building a digital computer using pipes and sound;
  • Encrypting messages using a deck of playing cards
  • Setting up a data haven;
  • Creating an electronic currency;
  • The social etiquette of the military;
  • The difference between Athena and Ares, the two gods of War from Greek mythology, and how this relates to WWII;
  • The optimal way to eat a bowl of Capt’n Crunch breakfast cereals;
  • The effectiveness of publishing encryption schemes vs keeping them secret;
  • Using anonymizer proxy services to protect your anonymity;
  • Using Zeta functions to generate pseudo-random numbers;
  • Eavesdropping on the contents of a computer display by detecting its electromagnetic emissions (Van Eck phreaking);
  • Using character classes from the Lord of The Ring as a way to categorize people;
  • Genocides and mass murders;
  • The logistics of digging a hidden treasure hoard in a mountain using slave labor;
  • Libertarian paranoia and gun culture;
  • And more, more, more!!!

Relevancy

When Stephenson published Cryptonomicon in 1999, the Web had reached mainstream status and was just starting to impact the life of everyone. Windows NT and 95 were still widely used and cell-phones with worldwide coverage were an oddity. How well has this novel aged and is it still relevant today?

Most of the forward-looking tech stuff has since become old news. However, the adventure is still thrilling, the jokes still gut-splitting and its insight are still significant.

Overall, I would still recommend it to anyone passionate about WWII, computers and Big Ideas as well as to anyone interested in learning more about the puzzling psychology of geeks and nerds.

Prequels

Following Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote a prequel of a sort to this story. Published in three back-breaking 1,500+ pages volumes, this “Baroque Trilogy” (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is set in the 17th century and deals with the same dominant themes of Cryptonomicon (currency, computers, treasure hunts, etc.). Its main protagonists include famous Historical figures, such as Isaac Newton and Louis XIV, as well as ancestors of many Cryptonomicon characters and a mysterious, long-lived Alchemist.

While its tone doesn’t attempts to be as consistently comic as Cryptonomicon, the Baroque trilogy is a hugely entertaining follow-up. If you enjoy diving deep into witty, meandering, though-provoking stories, these ones are for you!

Links

Photo sources: Flickr and uboatarchive.net

“Jipi and the Paranoid Chip” is a science fiction short story by Neal Stephenson that appeared in Forbes Magazine’s July 7, 1997 issue. It is part of the Baroque Cycle/ Cryptonomicon universe.

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