Worth Reading: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

By: William Jackson
February 9, 2018

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Neal Stephenson’s masterpiece, Cryptonomicon, is near the top of a lot of favorite books lists. I suspect it also is at the bottom of a lot of lists. Readers either love it or hate it. But if you are interested in World War II, cryptology or math of any kind, and have a high tolerance for lengthy tangents, you would probably enjoy it.

It has been called the “ultimate geek novel” and defies easy categorization.* Stephenson has written some great cyberpunk and science fiction, but this isn’t really either of those. It’s part historical novel and part entrepreneurial adventures in a digital economy. Mostly it’s about the value of information—extracting it, protecting it and using it. Stephenson pulls off a very difficult feat in this book: Writing about contemporary technology in a way that does not sound quaint 20 years later. In fact, the plot about creation of a digital cryptocurrency makes the book more relevant today than when written.

Now and then

Cryptonomicon toggles back and forth between two interrelated plotlines. One, set in World War II, focuses on Allied code-breaking efforts and the dilemma of successful cryptanalysis: How to use the information you’ve gathered without revealing its source. Math prodigy Lawrence Waterhouse is assigned to apply information theory to keep the Germans and Japanese in the dark about Allied success in breaking their codes. Marine Corporal Bobby Shaftoe is part of the team that executes his schemes. Along the way, historical figures including Alan Turing, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and a young Ronald Reagan put in appearances.

The contemporary timeline—circa late 1990s—focuses on the efforts of a tech startup that includes hacker (in the good sense) Randall Waterhouse to create a digital cryptocurrency that will free the world from traditional government-regulated currencies. One of the contractors he works with is America “Amy” Shaftoe. Randall and Amy are, of course, grandchildren of Lawrence and Bobby, although they are not aware of the historical family connections.

Linking the two plotlines is a cache of Japanese and German gold hidden away in the closing days of the war. There are large and interconnected casts of characters in each era. A handful of characters, including a mysterious monk, bridge the two. The action ranges from Shanghai and Oregon to Bletchley Park, the Philippines and Finland.

Along the way

What sets Cryptonomicon apart from the typical techno thriller with lots of action and international intrigue is Stephenson’s style. There is a lot of wry humor, and no matter how deep the plots get into technical subjects you don’t have to worry about losing your way, because Stephenson is there to lead you. His leisurely explanatory tangents put off some impatient readers, but I love them. He explains the basics of cryptography and cryptanalysis; includes some computer science, music and number theory; and uses a heavy-duty bandsaw as an analogy to explain the superiority of a water-cooled machine gun over more puny weapons.

Some readers have complained that these explanatory sections are overly technical. They aren’t. Some of the tangents are about technical subjects, but they are written to bring readers with no technical background up to speed. It’s a leisurely, interesting and informative style that in the end will probably leave you better informed. Although you might have trouble separating the fact from the fiction. Stephenson combines the two so smoothly that it can be hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Which is exactly what a good speculative historical techno-thriller writer should do.

Cryptonomicon is a big, entertaining book that should be a lot of fun for anyone interested in World War II, cryptology or digital currency. It will teach you something about submarines, writing a business plan and the dangers of venture capital funding. A good one for your summer fat book reading list. There are a variety of editions available and your local library or bookstore is bound to have one.

*It has often been compared to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Please do not confuse the two. Cryptonomicon is a readable book.