OK I finally read Cryptonomicon by N. Stephenson, a book that is as far removed from most other books as King-Kong is to your average orangutan. Not simply that it’s good. Good is too narrow a word for this book, and too subjective. Some may loath it, some may love it (as did I), but it’s undeniably true that this book is as unique as a winged tomato. It’s a blast through the Phillipine jungles, a lesson in math, two love stories that span frozen tundra to occupied Luzon, a WWII thriller, and modern day internet saga. It is told through the eyes of a cantankerous Marine Sergeant, a repentant Japanese officer, 21st century internet entrepreneurs hung up on preventing genocide, Nazi U-boat commandants, and three math geniuses scattered in three parts of the globe. It’s characters are drily humorous, suicidally courageous, and incomprehensibly smart. All of that is rolled into a single incredible book.
A wild ride, on par with doing handstands on a rollercoaster.
If you’ve read my blogs, you know I’m a fan of Neal Stephenson already (you can see my review of Seveneves here:
https://www.steverodgersauthor.com/blog/sense-of-awe-in-science-fiction-seveneves). And being that I work in security and cryptography, the subject of this book is my green traffic light into geek street, where I am firmly encamped. On top of that, this is considered NS’s seminal work. So it’s amazing that it took me this long to read it.
The story follows three families—the Waterhouses, the Gotos, and the Shaftoes—who first become entangled during WWII, then again fifty years later, through their descendants. Lawrence Waterhouse is a crypto genius around the time of WWII, someone who spends his formative years hanging out with the likes of Alan Turing and another brilliant mathemetician named Rudy, a German cryptologist of the same caliber. Lawrence and Alan find themselves on the opposite side of the war from Rudy, and all of them do their best to outguess each other. Meanwhile (50 years later), two internet entrepreneurs named Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson) and Avi found Epiphyte corporation, with the goal of setting up a data haven in the South Pacific. I can’t say much more without spoilers, but let’s just say there is Nazi gold, mysterious cryptographic messages, treks through steamy jungle, foiled love and heroics, and much more, all which serve to bring this mammoth book to a head.
My description above doesn’t do this book justice. The power of this book is really in the characters, and in the writing in general. It’s not science fiction (despite my expectations), though it is futuristic, and it contains Neal’s typical menagerie of fascinating ideas. Neal Stephenson seems to have anticipated some version of bitcoin mining before it was a thing, and his knowledge of cryptography is top notch. I realize others who aren’t crypto geeks might gloss over this stuff, but I encourage you to stay for the ride. The writing is superb, and even if you don’t understand every word of the crypto passages, just being immersed in Neal’s brilliance is an experience unto itself.
Lots of people say that so-and-so book has great writing. They haven’t read Cryptonomicon. The writing in this book is truly remarkable. OK, below I’m just going to give one snippet (the book is filled with stuff like this). To set up this scene, Randy Waterhouse is riding in a jeep behind a pig truck in the middle of the Phillipines jungle. He is noting the events therein into his journal, so this is in the form of a semi-official report:
… After some time Bong-Bong made his move, using one hand to manipulate the steering wheel and other to time-share equally important responsibilities of shifting gears and depressing the horn button. As we drew alongside the Pig Truck (which was on my side of the jeepney) the Truck slalomed toward us as if perhaps swerving around some real or imagined roadside hazard. The primary horn of THE GRACE OF GOD was apparently going unheard, possibly because it was competing for audio bandwidth against large numbers of swine voicing their displeasure in same frequency range. With aplomb normally seen only among senescent English butlers, Bong-Bong reached up with his horn/gearshift hand and gripped a brilliant stainless-steel chain flailing from ceiling of cab with a stainless-steel crucifix on the end of it and jerked downwards, energizing the secondary, tertiary, and quaternary honking systems: a trio of tuba-sized stainless-steel horns mounted to the roof of THE GRACE OF GOD and collectively drawing so much power that our vehicle’s speed dropped by (I would estimate) ten km/hour as its energies were diverted into decible production. A demi-hyperbolic swath of agricultural crops twenty miles long was flattened to the ground by the blast, and, hundreds of miles north, the Taiwanese government, its collective ears still ringing, filed a diplomatic protest with the Philippine ambassador. Dead whales and dolphins washed ashore on the beaches of Luzon for days, and sonar operators in passing U.S. Navy submarines were sent into early retirement with blood streaming from their ears.
Terrified by this sound, all of the pigs (I would suppose) voided their bowels just as the driver of Pig Truck swerved violently away from us. Certain first-year-physics conservation-of-momentum issues dictated that I be showered with former pig bowel contents in order to enhance shareholder value. This was evidently the funniest thing that the two Asian-looking gentlemen had ever seen, and rendered them helpless for several minutes….
This style of writing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it, and the book is filled with details like this: wry observations and events that tweak your expectations. As I said above—you may love this book or you may loath it, but it’s 100% unique.
Thanks for reading. Till next time.