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by Neal Stephenson

Overall: 10
Readability: 9
Intelligence: 10

The settings of Cryptonomicon are vaguely historic, augmented by a few fictional pseudo-nations. The supporting cast is populated with a few historic figures, including Alan Turing, General Douglas McArthur and Ronald Reagan, and it is partly set against the backdrop of World War II. Codebreaking and encryption played an increasinly important role in the war, and Lawrence Prichard Waterhouse finds that his propensity towards mathematics (and thus, code-breaking) makes him a valueable man. Bobby Shaftoe, a gung-ho US Marine raider, also plays a valuable role in the code-breaking effort, though he never really knew it (lets just say he was a man of action, not mathematics). The Allied code breaking abilities were largely successful, and played a large role in the Allied victory. Once the Germans and Nips (only those not on the front line referred to them as Japs) realized their fate, they began to hoard and hide their various resources, namely gold. Cut to the present day, and Lawrence's grandson, Randy, has begun a business venture intent on setting up a secure data haven in a fictional east-Asian state.

Cryptonomicon is a long book, so if my brief introduction seems lame, that's because it is. 900+ pages gives Stephenson ample time and space to flesh out the characters and the situations at a leisurely pace. When I started reading the book, I thought I would never finish. I got to page 200, and thought to myself 700 more pages! How the hell am I ever going to finish this damn thing?. At page 500 or so, I thought to myself, Jeez, only 400 pages to go. I better pick up another book in case I finish this one soon. Its probably not for everyone, though I find it hard to tell. Stephenson spends a fair amount of time explaining mathematical concepts and encryption, which, to the average person, may seem tedious or excessive. Again, I find it difficult to judge, as I have a reasonable understanding of mathematics and computers. Its most often characterized as a book about "hackers", and anyone who is immersed in the computer world would probably enjoy it.

The novel is driven by cryptography, but Stephenson goes beyond the literal confines of the subject and turns it into a full-fledged theme. More specifically, the act of decrypting seems to be a major focus, whether it be the literal decrypting of wartime messages, Bobby and Goto parsing their cultural differences, or Randy's attempts to decipher the mixed signals from Bobby's granddaughter Amy. This is essentially a novel about discovery, and the plot is driven as such.

My favourite thing about the book is the characters and their interactions with each other, sometimes across generations. As I mentioned before, Stephenson has given himself enough space so that he can flesh out the characters, but there is obviously no hurry. My favourite character is Lawrence Prichard Waterhouse. Perhaps the best description of him is given by Bobby Shaftoe:
"Shaftoe has had little direct contact with that Waterhouse fellow during their stay on Qwghlm, but he has noticed that men who have just finished talking to Waterhouse tend to walk away shaking their heads-and not in the slow way of a man saying "No," but in the sudden convulsive way of a dog who has a horsefly in his middle ear."
Waterhouse is something of an absent minded Genius, and it is a delight to read about events from his perspective (such as a complex mathimatical discussion of Concentration as a function of Horniness) . The quote above also illustrates an important idea: though many of the characters are aware of the other characters, their actual contact is limited. Shaftoe and Waterhouse are rarely in the same company, but they are usually aware of each other... Other relationships happen in a similar manner. Waterhouse's grandson Randy barely remebers his grandfather or his grandfather's relationship with Bobby Shaftoe, but Randy does know Doug Shaftoe (Bobby's son) and his daughter Amy Shaftoe. The familial relationships carry across generations, and are interestingly done.

Also worth noting is Stephenson's fast paced, techno-thriller style. Its part of what makes the book easy to read, despite its depth. Its also quite surprising that the book is actually funny. Its not a comedy, natch, but I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. Sometimes its a situation, and sometimes its just the way Stephenson words something:
Trapped in a window seat during a short and choppy flight, he had never made it out to the lavatory, so he goes to one now and pees so hard that the urinal emits a sort of yodeling noise.
That line had me laughing for weeks.

Like I said, the book is not for everyone, and I could probably go on and on rambling about things I really like about the book, and there are many things to like in this complex work. Its becoming one of my favourite books, I think, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with even a vague interest in the subjects of history or computers.


  • "That time in Seattle - during the lawsuit - was a fucking nightmare. I came out of it dead broke, without a house, without anything except a girlfriend and a knowledge of UNIX."
    "Well, that's something," Avi says. "Normally those two are mutually exclusive."
  • Page 107 - With any job, there's some creative work that needs to be done - new technology to be developed or whatever. Everything else - ninety-nine percent of it - is making deals, raising capital, going to meetings, marketing and sales. We call that stuff making license plates.
  • Page 113 - Having now experienced all the phases of military existence except for the terminal ones (violent death, court-martial, retirement), he has come to understand the culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process.
  • Page 120 - Of course, the underlying structure of everything in England is posh. There is no in-between with these people. You have to walk a mile to find a telephone booth, but when you find it, it is built as if the senseless dynamiting of pay phones had been a serious problem in the past. And a British mailbox can presumably stop a German tank.
  • Page 231 - Asdic is simply the British acronym for what Yanks refer to as sonar, but every time the word is mentioned in the presense of Alan, he gets a naughty look on his face and goes on an unstoppable punning tear.
  • Page 442 - The United States Military (Waterhouse has decided) is first and foremost an unfathomable network of typists and file clerks, secondarily a stupendous mechanism for moving stuff from one part of the world to another, and last and least a fighting organization.
  • Page 538 - Ask a Soviet engineer to design a pair of shoes and he'll come up with something that looks like the boxes that the shoes came in; ask him to make something that will massacre Germans, and he turns into Thomas Fucking Edison.
  • Page 646 - On of the most frightening things about your true nerd, for many people, is not that he's socially inept - because everybody's been there - but rather his complete lack of embarrassment about it.
  • Page 681 - In war, no matter how much you plan and prepare and practice, when the big day actually arrives, you still can't find your ass with both hands.
Further Discussion:
  • Who or what is the mysterious Enoch Root?
  • Does Stephenson go into too much depth when discussing technical issues, such as cryptography?

book cover

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