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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Monday, August 16, 2004

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. New York: Avon Books, 1999. ISBN: 0-380-97346-4

Cryptonomicon is one of the most entertaining books I've read in quite a while, all 910 pages of it. A much better read, I must say, than Stephenson's more recent work, QuickSilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle, which I read and blogged a few months ago. Which, incidentally, has been followed into print by the second volume, The Confusion, which I have yet to obtain and read. The third and final volume, The System of the World, is due out later this year.

There are some crossovers between Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, the most obvious of which are the names Waterhouse and Shaftoe—the main characters of both cycles share this name, and presumably are multi-generationally related—and the fictional island and language and people of Qwghlm which appears in both sagas. The Waterhouses are the scientific thinking types, and the Shaftoes supply the action-oriented heroic types.

Is Cryptonomicon science fiction? I'm sure there are definitions of the sci-fi genre that would encompass Cryptonomicon, but I wouldn't really describe it as such, since it takes place in the more-or-less present and in the past, not the future, nor is it any kind of alternate reality, that is, it takes place in essentially the same world that you and I live in. There are actually two increasingly intertwined stories here: one is historical, taking place during World War II, while the other one, more or less contemporary, takes place in the Silicon Valley hacker dot.com milieu.

The current story revolves around one Randy Waterhouse, a Unix hacker type, who becomes involved in a scheme to set up an offshore data haven. In so doing, he is heavily into cryptography, as both a standard business operating procedure, and as an intrinsic and highly necessary part of the business model for said haven.

The historical story is about Randy's grandfather, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a brilliant mathematician who becomes intimately involved in the successful Allied efforts to break the German and Japanese codes during WWII, not to mention helping invent the first practical computers. Another major WWII character is Marine corporal Bobbie Shaftoe, whose varied wartime exploits are nothing short of legendary. Throw in some German submarines and their officers, a Nipponese soldier who survives against all odds, a bizarre cleric who belongs to a secret order, plus tons and tons of misbegotten gold piled up by the Axis powers, and buried in the Philippines, and you have plenty of elements for a mind-bending and highly entertaining story.

But what really makes the book is Stephenson's writing, the characters he creates, and the stories he tells through and about them. There isn't a boring page in this entire book (except maybe one or two diversions into mathematical derivations or cryptological theory) which is more than I can say about his Baroque Cycle, at least so far as the first volume goes. Stephenson has a way of telling a story that is seriously comic (there's a good oxymoron for you) which keeps you entertained even when he IS going off on a sideline, of which there are inevitably many in a book of this length. I'll just cite one example, the story of Randy's wisdom teeth, which begins on p. 776. Totally irrelevant to the rest of the book, but quite amusing on its own.

There are a few loose ends that never quite get tied up to my complete satisfaction. Enoch Root, the crypto-priest, for example. Maybe if I read the book a second time, I'd figure them out, but that's not too likely to happen. Nevertheless, the bottom line, for anyone with the patience to plow through a 900-page tome, is that this book is highly recommended as a very entertaining read.


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