ISBN: 0099410672
ISBN 13: 9780099410676
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

Neal Stephenson hacks into the secret histories of nations and the private obsessions of men, decrypting with dazzling virtuosity the forces that have shaped the past century. Weaving together the cracking of the Axis codes during WWII and the quest to establish a free South East Asian 'data haven' for digital information in the present, Cryptonomicon explores themes of power, information, secrecy and war in the twentieth century in a gripping and page-turning thriller.

Reader's Thoughts


** spoiler alert ** Arrgh! I don't remember a book that I both liked and didn't like this much!Alright, a quick intro snipped from Amazon:"Cryptonomicon zooms all over the world, careening conspiratorially back and forth between two time periods--World War II and the present. Our 1940s heroes are the brilliant mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse, cryptanalyst extraordinaire, and gung ho, morphine-addicted marine Bobby Shaftoe. They're part of Detachment 2702, an Allied group trying to break Axis communication codes while simultaneously preventing the enemy from figuring out that their codes have been broken. Their job boils down to layer upon layer of deception. Dr. Alan Turing is also a member of 2702, and he explains the unit's strange workings to Waterhouse. "When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first.... Of course, to observe is not its real duty--we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed.... Then, when we come round and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious."All of this secrecy resonates in the present-day story line, in which the grandchildren of the WWII heroes--inimitable programming geek Randy Waterhouse and the lovely and powerful Amy Shaftoe--team up to help create an offshore data haven in Southeast Asia and maybe uncover some gold once destined for Nazi coffers. To top off the paranoiac tone of the book, the mysterious Enoch Root, key member of Detachment 2702 and the Societas Eruditorum, pops up with an unbreakable encryption scheme left over from WWII to befuddle the 1990s protagonists with conspiratorial ties. "Whew!Stephenson takes 918 pages to spin his yarn and in the end I enjoyed most of the ride but I wondered what was the point. After 918 pages, that's not a good thing.Pros:1) It's a long book. If you like to settle down to a long book, this will do.2) There is a strong pro-libertarian theme running throughout.3) Some of his writing is quite good, entertaining, thoughtful, fun, thought provoking, well done.4) He puts out some ideas that are really sharp. His discussion on Athena between Root and Randy got my little hamster wheels turning inside my head. He does this a few times.5) Math. Not much but he uses actual math. And it fits with the story.6) Cryptography. He uses actual cryptography and it also fits with the story. Cons:1) It's a freaking long book. If you like your books to be in the 200 - 300 page range, give this one a pass.2) It just... ends. All the characters suddenly lose all the depth and charm Stephenson had imbued them with and it just stops. I think he should embarrassed that 900 pages weren't enough to end this in a satisfactory manner.3) Was there a character not obsessed with sex? No? Right, right, I come from a Puritan background where I was beaten for having impure thoughts, but still, sex was a constant theme for just about every single character. It got really tiresome.4) Potty mouths. The lot of them.5) Sometimes his writing just sucked. Flat out bad. I wondered if he eschewed an editor.6) Bobby Shaftoe's death. At the start of the scene where he dies, I thought "This would be the worst possible place to have him die after all the crap he went through" and, of course, he dies. Lamely.So do I recommend this book? No, not really. It has some stellar moments, mired in dross. If you still want to read it, well, caveat lector.

Nicholas Karpuk

This is a failure on several levels.Firstly, I did that This American Life offer with Audible so I could try it for a few weeks and get a free book out of the deal.First off, Audible isn't particularly good. Though one credit generally will get you a book a month, their definition of a book can mean the first 4th of a Stephen King novel. You also lose all access to these DRM encrypted files when you drop the service, so I doubt I'll be keeping it.The second issue is that the version of "Cryptonomicon" has a disingenuous label that you might miss if you're not paying attention. It's not unabridged, it's "unabridged excerpts", where certain chapters are summarized in a few sentences. So yeah, it's basically abridged, and severely so. It's like saying something is non-toxically poisonous.I could forgive all of these things if the book were better.My interest in Neal Stephenson springs almost entirely from "The Diamond Age" which I thought was a great, ambitious novel. His knack with science fiction is amazing. The trouble is "Cryptonomicon" is more or less set in the real world.I like many books written by nerds. I like many books written about nerds. Until now I didn't really think about the fact that I don't like books written by nerds about what nerds are into.The book is split between nerds in World War Two and nerds in the 90's, between nerds discussing cryptology and Turing Machines and nerds discussing cryptology and computers. There's an entire chapter on a character using a library to program a realistic system to deal with how many calories people burn from eating within the main character's roleplaying game. Not an aside, not a paragraph, a chapter.Of course the discussion of fantasy roleplaying, unix programming, complex communications microwave towers and router systems all take a backseat to the mind numbing discussion of cryptology. I dislike solving word jumbles, so this almost erotically detailed discussion of code breaking and the math involved left me cold and alienated.I've accepted all of these elements in other forms before without minding at all. I read Neuromancer for god sakes, but most sci fi discusses these topics while exploring a bigger issue or for the sake of advancing the plot. In "Cryptonomicon" all this nerd fodder is just sitting there posing like a centerfold for the Asperger crowd.I got about halfway through the audiobook before an extended conversation about ethics and routers ultimately killed my patience. This book is some of the most masturbatory nerd porn I've ever read. I'll probably pick up other Neal Stephenson books, but I'm going to have to start reading the first chapter to make sure it in no way resembles this.

Kat Hooper

ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a lengthy historical fiction set during both World War II and the late 1990s with much of the action taking place in the Philippines. In the 1940s, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, colleague of Alan Turing, is hired by the U.S. Navy to help break Axis codes. Meanwhile, Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, who's too enthusiastic and courageous for his own good, doesn't realize that his troop's job is to make it look like the U.S. hasn't broken the codes, but just happens to always be in the right place at the right time.Waterhouse and Shaftoe know each other only superficially, but their descendants, who've noticeably inherited some of their traits, meet in the 1990s storyline. Randy Lawrence Waterhouse is a systems administrator who's trying to set up an electronic banking system in the Philippines. There he meets Doug and Amy Shaftoe, a father and daughter team who are doing the underwater surveying for Randy's Internet cables. Randy and the Shaftoes eventually realize that they share a secret heritage and together they set out on a massive code-breaking treasure hunt.The plot of Cryptonomicon is clever and elaborate, sometimes exciting (e.g., most scenes with Bobby Shaftoe), frequently funny (such as when Ronald Reagan interviews Bobby Shaftoe, and when the Waterhouse family uses a complicated mathematical algorithm to divide up the family heirlooms), and always informative.Neal Stephenson's fans know (and love) that you can't read one of his books without learning a lot. Predictably, Cryptonomicon is chock full of information. If a character walks past a bank in China, you can bet you're in for a lecture on Chinese banking. If he sees a spider web dripping with dew, you'll be taught how spiders catch their prey. Character backstories are used to teach us about the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe or the familial habits of the Filipinos. In Cryptonomicon there are many pages that think they should be in a textbook on computer circuitry (and some that actually admit they belong in Letters to Penthouse). There are three pages devoted to a doctoral dissertation on facial hair and shaving fetishes, and another three pages of instruction on the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch.These divergences interrupt the plot and make the book much longer than it needs to be, but you just can't help but forgive Stephenson (or to at least smile and shake your head knowingly as if he has some sort of uncontrollable yet endearing pathology), when you see him poking fun at himself for this very thing. In one scene, Bobby Shaftoe thinks he's in "HELL'S DEMO" when he's forced to listen to someone "explain the organization of the German intelligence hierarchy." Though the lecture causes Shaftoe to hallucinate, the reader still manages to learn something about the Wehrmacht Nachrichten Verbindungen while being thankful to realize that Stephenson knows he has this "issue."It's easy to tell that Neal Stephenson loves to do research and loves to impart the knowledge he's gleaned, or ideas he's thought up, and it's hard to criticize him for this, especially since it's all done in his clever, colorful, and entertaining style, even if it's not always relevant to the plot. And sometimes these infodumps can really set a scene. Here's a very short example:"The Bletchley girls surround him. They have celebrated the end of their shift by applying lipstick. Wartime lipstick is necessarily cobbled together from whatever tailings and gristle were left over once all of the good stuff was used to coat propeller shafts. A florid and cloying scent is needed to conceal its unspeakable mineral and animal origins. It is the smell of War."Stephenson also delights in creating quirky similes:"Like the client of one of your less reputable pufferfish sushi chefs, Randy Waterhouse does not move from his assigned seat for a full ninety minutes..."Though I skimmed a few of Stephenson's longer tangents, I was nevertheless entertained by the clever plot of Cryptonomicon. I read the novel in two formats. One was Subterranean Press's signed limited edition which was printed on thick glossy paper and embellished with new artwork by Patrick Arrasmith, several graphs, and even some perl script. My Advanced Review Copy of this book weighs 4 pounds (and it was only paperback -- the published version is hardback). I also listened to MacMillan's audiobook read by William Dufris. I'm sure Cryptonomicon was not an easy book to read out loud, but Dufris did an amazing job, even actually sounding like Ronald Reagan during the Reagan interview.Cryptonomicon won the Locus Award in 2000 and was nominated for both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards that year. Pretty big accomplishment for a book that's not even science fiction. For readers who haven't tried one of Neal Stephenson's books yet, Cryptonomicon is a good place to start.


My friend Stuart's reading this and I stupidly started spoiling one of the best lines in the book (it pops up as Shaftoe's motto) and he was mildly irritated with me. Fortunately for him, he is vastly smarter than me so while he was quite generously acting annoyed he was probably thinking to himself, "Maybe one day I will spoil math and engineering and the details of Riemann zeta functions for Conrad." Now I'm rereading it out of sympathy and it's even better than I remembered.Anyway, while I haven't yet approached the implosion that I know is coming toward the end, I am really even more impressed at the catholicity of Stephenson's concerns than I was the first time I read the book. He has insightful things to say about information theory, natch, but also Tolkein, postmodern literary criticism (OK, he's a little reactionary about this, but he's also right), the wisdom of joining the Marines, childrearing, Filipino architecture and urban planning, facial hair (can you tell I love Randy's diatribes about Charlene?), Ronald Reagan, the assassination of Yamamoto and associated dilemmas of cryptanalysis, Papuan eating habits, the 90s networking bubble...If you don't like writers who have something interesting to say about everything, I don't know why you read. If it bothers you that Neal Stephenson uses his characters as mouthpieces to voice his well-considered opinions on everything from the prospects of economic growth measured against the likelihood of revolution in the Philippines, for example, to the details of Japanese tunneldigging, then you might as well settle in with your Danielle Steele and be done with it. Stephenson knows a lot about everything, and that's unusual and should be treasured. As a stylist, he's no Hemingway. His stories have beginnings and middles but the ends are usually catastrophically bad. So what? He reveals enough about his subjects that you usually leave his books behind with the feeling that your brain is now fused in a slightly different way. And good for Neal Stephenson, and good for us.


This book took me over a month to read, with a couple of short books sandwiched in between. It is not a good sign for me when I need to take two breaks to finish a book. However, this is not a book that I can dismiss regardless of whether I like it. I have several friends who love Cryptonomicon to bits and they are smart, discerning readers. I remember when I finished reading Twilight I was kind of glad that I didn't think it was very good. Had I found it to be an amazing classic I would have no credibility left among my peers. With Cryptonomicon the problem is the opposite, I am kind of disappointed that even though I like some of it, on the whole I don't particularly care for it. Still, better to be accused of being a philistine than to write a dishonest review just to be up with the Joneses eh? Cryptonomicon is a hard book to synopsize, I feel nonplussed just thinking about how to describe the basic plot in a few sentences (so I won’t). The novel is set in two timelines 1942 and the present (or the 90s, the “present day” at the time the book was written). There are several narrative strands that gradually intertwine toward a single ending. The book is also hard to categorise, part historical fiction, part thriller, some element of cyberpunk, a bit of romance and (thankfully) a substantial amount of comedy. This novel seems to be more character driven than the other Stephenson books that I read*. The central characters are quite well developed and are generally interesting and likable but unfortunately I could not invest in their adventures. I think this has more to do with the plot they are embroiled in rather than any deficiency in their development. The structure of the book is quite complex and there does not seem to be much in the way of momentum in the pacing, it also seems to be somewhat incohesive. The frequent switches in narrative strands made it difficult for me to remember what each character is up to the previous time they appear. On the positive side the book is often very funny, the main saving grace as far as I am concerned. Lines like this just crack me up “You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. I laughed out loud quite a few times while reading the book. On the whole I find it to be well written, with some wonderful turns of phrase, another factor that prevent me from giving up on it. Some of the cryptography and hacking scenes are also fascinating.Of the four Neal Stephenson books that I have read Cryptonomicon is the hardest to get into, and even by the end of the book I still wasn't really into it. It is clearly too good to dismiss out of hand and I always admire Neal Stephenson for aiming his writing toward an intelligent readership; I am not sure I can claim to be a proud member of his target demographic but kudos to him for respecting his readers. Regrettably this book turned out to be one of those "good but not for me" books. I wouldn't like to dissuade anyone from reading it, but I can't honestly recommend it either. If you are interested but doubt I suggest you read a few more reviews and decide for yourself whether it seems likely to appeal to you. I suspect you never know until you actually try it though.*In order of preference: Snow Crash, Anathem, The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon.


I mean, FINE, okay, this is one of the most engrossing books I've ever read. I don't really mean "best" or "best-written", necessarily. I mean, it's a messy sprawling epic that's almost too clever by half and full of hilarious characters and history just-so tweaked to accommodate them and also pure unadulterated geekiness. So it's not really for everyone but boy did I lap it up and then eat my huge slices of humble pie for everyone in my life that's been bugging me to read it for about four years.I do have a couple small tiny niggling complaints, and one of them was the massively inbred dynastic mindfuck that was the generational split between mid-century and modern. I mean, are there only five families on the planet that had any effect whatsoever on the latter half of the 20th century? Neal Stephenson seems to think so! It's clever, I mean, in an Aureliano Buendia, Great Men History sort of way to see the same quirks and traits and consequences of history revealing themselves in the microcosm of a few generations of a few families. But I didn't necessarily need to be hit over the head with it, NEAL.That said, though, I can't think of a family I'd rather find myself marooned in the seas of literature with than the Waterhouses or the Shaftoes, so. Also I had a love/hate relationship with the lectures that Stephenson felt was his god-given right to slam smack in the middle of a scene because he just feels like you HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THIS NOW and you do, so I struggled against enjoying the lectures because I'm a nerd and I like learning things and hating the lectures because I love fiction and I hate great big long swathes of explanatory text slammed into a character's mouth. It's all very Giles. But I mean, if you know the book you know these are sort of tiny complaints in the face of the awesomeness of Stephenson's humor and imagination, his passion for these, let's call them archetypes of humanity that he's wrapped around history and technology and ideas. In a way, it's what I always hated about Rand that somehow works brilliantly when Stephenson does it. Huh.


I'm an English major. I've read a lot of books. This one, is -- hands down -- my favorite modern fiction novel. I've read it twice, recommended it to others, and I'm sure I'll read it again. There is so much to appreciate here.It is a semi-historical adventure, so there's something for fiction and non-fiction fans.The writing is justly verbose at times, and conversationally abrupt at other times. In essence, you find yourself wholly in the minds and bodies of the characters while reading every scene.The literary quality of the writing is top notch. Although, Stephenson's writing is a little easier to appreciate if you're a bit of a geek. There is a lot of mathematical / historical / technological jargon -- and some really fantastic war stories.Multiple timelines multiplied by multiple plot-lines make it a slow and tricky read, but I kind of cherished that. I hate feeling like I've read a good book too fast.If you can stay with it, the way that Stephenson ties up the stories in the end is exciting and brilliant.I think most would agree that this book sets itself apart from Stephenson's other works. I don't expect him to achieve this quality again (in my opinion, he hasn't), but I can always hope.


I read this book and I really liked it.I liked the book a lot, but things about it have made me develop a whole speil. The story was great, interesting historical/thrill fiction. But! He could have easily cut a good 1/3 out of the book and it would have been fine. Mr Stephenson loves taking a long way around to describe things, and to compound the problem, his characters like to take the long way around to say things too. So you have this recursive loop of masturbation.For example in one chapter the characters are trying van eyc phreaking, apparently this is using an antenae to read the signal off of monitor cables and such to get an image. This is fine, but rather than having the characters do it, see it works, and have it established as plot point later, he decides to give us 8 pages of what is on the computer. An interesting piece about the origins of fetish, but it has nothing to do with the book. The whole book was full of this stuff. I just wanted to yell shut the hell up and get on with the story!Also if there is a clever way of saying something he goes out of his way to do it, for example he calls sunburns, radiation burns. While true, it doesn't come off as clever, just one of those science geek things where they wink and whisper, "Most people don't know sunight is radiation! hehe we are smart!" Granted he assumes that the reader is in on the joke, but it still bugged me.Which is all too bad, I liked the storyline a lot, it was interesting, the way he went from WWII to the present was nicely done. His descriptions of how crypto and counter crypto both then an now were interesting as well.I was talking to another friend of mine about this and he agreed only about another one of his books, Snowcrash, i think, and he summed it up as, "I get it, nanotech is cool, now move on with the story."In game terms this is like playing a game of titan, it takes forever, you have fun while you are playing but you never want to play again.


I'm shocked by the critical acclaim this book received in the sci-fi category but I suppose even a turd can float. Two stars is really pushing it. Maybe a star for the number of laughs I got per 100 pages. This is the work of a technically inept egomaniac. He does have some technical background (he drops Unix hints and anagrams the name of a supposed deity who dies and then later comes back w/ no explanation??) However, it's not enough “savoir faire” for any of the content to make sense. It might sound dangerous to some but just plain stupid to computer geeks such as myself. It's obvious that this is not his first book by the way that the author is allowed to recklessly abandon the main plot (or any of the 4 sporadic narratives) for 70-100 page tangents. If he hired a first yr EE student to clarify some basic principles, snipped about 500 pages and got some ritalin, this book might be tolerable. Like many technical books or movies, I was utterly disappointed. Why did I continue? First, it was a gift and I would feel ungrateful if I didn't give it a fair chance. Secondly, there are many alternating plots that the reader would naturally be led to believe that the lives of these men parallel each other in a different time and place. If you like mysteries, you can almost imagine how these people are related. This would have made the book entirely more interesting. But then nothing. I finished the book and whipped it across the room. Later, I skimmed the last half of this 900+ PAGE SLEEPER to see if there was an overlooked morsel of evidence that made all these separate lives connected which would have made all of the silent pain and suffering from that book worth something. Nothing. Exactly what I got from the book: nothing.


---------------Previously read Aug 2003It's been a while since I've had to work so hard on a book, but Cryptonomicon was well worth it.Randy Waterhouse, a computer whiz and all around nebbish, is the grandson of Lawrence Waterhouse, a math whiz and all around nebbish; the book follows their semi-separate stories. Lawrence is recruited by the US Armed Forces to break various crypto codes during WWII, while Randy works for a company that is developing a secure data storage facility in the South Seas.Their lives intersect at various points with members of the Shaftoe family - Bobby, the WWII marine who is either very good or damn lucky (or both!), and Amy, a marine recovery diver - as well as other characters, one of whom I'm slightly embarrassed I didn't see coming. I also wish I knew more about the activities in the Pacific theater during WWII - although I didn't feel it was required.The two storylines are rollercoasters - looping, curving and soaring through somewhat parallel timelines, and somehow ending in more or less the same place. This book expects you to be smart, and rewards you accordingly. There is history, humour, horror and even a couple of love stories along the way. A definite recommendation to anyone who is looking for a challenging read and is willing to get lost in its 900+ pages for a while. I'll be putting this on my ReReads shelf....


Cryptonomicon is one of those plotty books, where things happen and then other things happen, which isn't really a knock: some of the best books ever are plotty. Lookin' at you, The Count of Monte Cristo. But when you write a book about a bunch of stuff happening, it succeeds based on whether all the things that happen feel like part of a whole - whether all the threads come together. Again, Count of Monte Cristo is forever the gold standard for books like this. At their best, these books are tremendous jigsaw puzzles: a successful one is a masterpiece of planning ahead, and authors like Dumas - or George Eliot, whose Middlemarch combines the best of plottiness and the best of character analysis - take your breath away when you realize how carefully they've set up each strand of plot.Cryptonomicon succeeds at this. Stephenson throws a lot of balls in the air; the story spans sixty years, from World War II to the late 90s, and spans the globe from some made-up country near England to the Phillipines, with plenty of stops in between, and he totally pulls it off. It's an impressive feat, and I can't poke a single hole in it. Nice work, Neal!Of course, while insight into human nature isn't necessarily necessary in a plotty book, it helps to have some. Count of Monte Cristo includes some wicked heavy and smart thinking about fate and control; Middlemarch is one of the most psychologically astute books ever written. And Cryptonomicon isn't really a smash success on that front. There are some cool characters, like uber-Marine Bobby Shaftoe, but basically these are just people who do things. And it has to be said that Stephenson appears to have little or no grasp on how women operate. He clearly likes women - this isn't a misogynist book - I'm just not sure he's met very many of them.Which kinda ties into why I didn't totally love this book. It's impressively put together, but it's...well, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace very often; same conversational tone, same exceptional technical intelligence - but Stephenson is - how do I say this? - he's just not very cool. Which I know, you're like "Wait, you're comparing someone's coolness unfavorably to DFW? DFW wasn't exactly the coolest kid on the block, y'know." But he was! He wouldn't have said so, but he totally was cool. Maybe I can say it like this: DFW was a geek; Stephenson is a nerd.So this is a nerd epic. It succeeds at what it wants to be. I enjoyed it. I didn't love it.


it took me a month to get through this book. amazing, considering my usual speed with the written word, but quite true. this behemoth refused to be devoured in my usual hours-at-a-time fashion, nope. more like very high quality cheesecake, in that it's so rich you can only take a few bites before you need to assimilate.part of the story is about a WWII GI, who happens to be so gung-ho and talented at both completing difficult missions successfully and staying alive at their completion that he gets the dubious honor of being assigned to a squad so top-secret he has no idea what he's doing there. part of the story is about a brilliant but oblivious mathematician (clearly an asperger's syndrome kind of guy) who becomes a codebreaker during the same war. and part of the story is about the computer-programmer grandson of the latter and his infatuation with the tough-as-nails granddaughter of the former. part of it is about codes (both for war messages and for computer programs) and part of it is about war (both physical and digital). all of which makes it sound very dry when it's anything but.Stephenson's typical doses of randomly-applied hilarity are out in full force here. he does an incredible job of painting the world through the individual voices of his characters...and quite often, those guys are thinking very odd things about very odd situations. the hefty book could have been trimmed by, say, 30% if it left out these random observations, sometimes comical, other times simply beautiful examples of what letters can do in the hands of a gifted wordsmith, but then we'd miss out on things like:"a red dragonfly hovers above the backwater of the stream, its wings moving so fast that the eye sees not wings in movement but a probability distribution of where the wings might be, like electron orbitals: a quantum-mechanical effect that maybe explains why the insect can apparently teleport from one place to another, disappearing from one point and reappearing a couple of meters away, without seeming to pass through the space in between. there sure is a lot of bright stuff in the jungle. randy figures that, in the natural world, anything that is colored so brightly must be some kind of serious evolutionary badass."no, i'm not recommending it to everybody. it's long and meandering and insanely technical in many places. but yes, i am gushing about it. it's lovely.


3.5/4.0This is a brilliant book.Not science fiction, really. More like history-of-science fiction. A World War II cryptography/adventure/treasure hunting story, with an overlarge dose of modern international computer corporation politics thrown in for good measure. Full of digressions, which are part of the feel of the story. If you don't like getting sidetracked, then avoid it. Unfortunately, even with all its brilliance, it has notable problems.1) The ending is poor, which is a huge disappointment from a 1,000 page novel.2) There are no good women characters. None. This is a boys-and-their-toys story, and the females have the same personality depth as cheap cardboard. Not super surprising from a war story, but still frustrating, especially given the modern day scenes.Still, it's fascinating, and absolutely worth reading. But it's not as worth reading as Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, which is (basically) the same genre but without the flaws.

Chris McLane

One day I went out shopping for a book. My list of unread, prepurchased titles sat neatly in a stack by my disused fire-place and none of them set me alive with anticipation. I don't know what I wanted really, but I had a vague idea that there was a black book with numbers on the front that was a New York Times bestseller, and I quite fancied something clever related to code breaking or numbers. So I hopped on the subway, rode into Union Square and strolled over to B&N on 17th street and found what I was looking for on a Paperback Favourites table. I read the description, and the first few pages and decided it was good and worthy of purchase. That book was Cryponomicon. I read the first chapter or so back home on my bed, with tea and toast, and I decided the writing style was tricky, and hard to get used to in terms of rhythm, but I quite liked this tough as nails army guy in the first chapter so I stuck with it.Stephenson has a sprawling, divergent, off on a tangent way of writing, but there is such pleasure in every aspect of the subjects he explores, and his narrative ambles back over to the central plot points enough that you never feel annoyed or frustrated. If anything you feel a sense of gratitude for his skill and for his curiosity, and the manner in which he imparts complex ideas.Of all the authors I've ever read, I feel most strongly about Neal Stephenson because he has genuinely enriched my life and broadened my understanding and appreciation for history and ideas.One of the best scenes in this book follows the story of a Japanese man whose boat is blown up. His comrades are eaten by sharks and he endures hell before the end of his story. It is so vivid and alive and such a wonderful piece of writing. He took a character who could have been a foot-note in the story if he chose it to be so, and made something beautiful. That's why this is a truly great book.


This is a book about cryptography, among other things. Lawrence Waterhouse Price is a brilliant mathematician whose peculiar talents are discovered on a routine military test. He is assigned to a very secret project known initially as Detachment 2071 until Price remarks about the unrandom nature of the group’s name, “2071 is the product of two primes. And those numbers, 37 and 73, when expressed in decimal notation, are, as you can plainly see, the reverse of each other.” Randomness is important because their job is to manipulate the decoded information they have received from the Enigma and Ultra machines in such a way so that they can achieve maximum benefit from the use of that information without giving away to the Germans and Japanese that their code has been broken. They must make sure that Allied actions maintain the appearance of randomness and ignorance. A Marine raider sergeant Shaftoe is given the task of implementing Detachment 2072 (as it became). For example, Price is stationed in Britain and there they have created machines—forerunners of the modern computer – that electrically examine the different possibilities of wheel combinations in the Enigma machine. These required large pegboards to connect the various circuits, so an inordinately large number of tall women needed to be hired as the pegboards were very high. If the Germans got copies of the personnel records, they would immediately notice a bell curve with an odd peak at one end and wonder why people working in this area were not chosen randomly, the bell curve being a random distribution. So Detachment 2072’s job would be to plant false personnel records to make sure the height distribution would be random so as not to give away any possible clues as to what they might be up to. The unit’s job is to create another layer of deception: “When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first…. Of course, to observe is not its real duty — we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed…. Then, when we come around and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious.” Price’s grandson and Shaftoe’s niece, unwittingly paired in the present, are working on a project to create a huge data haven in Southeast Asia when they discover that a sunken submarine may hold the secret of an unbreakable code that is tied in with a massive conspiracy that originated in Detachment 2072. For those who might be interested, there is a great description of how the Enigma machine worked. It was a periodic polyalphabetic system consisting of three – later four – interconnected wheels that embodied cycles within cycles. Three wheels have a period of 17576, i.e., the substitution alphabet that codes the first letter of the message will not appear again until the 17577th cycle. When the Germans added the fourth wheel, the period became 456,976. To use the same substitution letter the message would have to be longer T than 456,976 characters, a virtual uncertainty. The Germans believed their four-wheel Enigma to be undecipherable. Stephenson has a delightful sense of irony that permeates the book. Price, because of his cryptological skills, has the highest security clearance possible: Ultra Mega. The only problem is that it’s such a high security clearance the fact that it exists must be kept secret from everyone except another person with Ultra Mega clearance so he always has to be issued a lower security clearance in order to get into secure areas none of the guards or other officers are permitted to learn about Ultra Mega. Stephenson’s perception of the war is curious. The winner would be the one who succeeded in breaking the other side’s codes and then manipulated his troops’ actions so as not to reveal those codes had been broken. The plots converge on an enormous gold reserve hidden in a mine, and the ciphers hold the key. It’s a great story. Be forewarned, it’s the first of a trilogy. Stephenson has these wonderful little comments throughout the book that bring a broad grin to the face. For example, “See, you are being a little paranoid here and focusing on the negative. It’s not about how women are deficient. It’s more about how men are deficient. Our social deficiencies, lack of perspective, or whatever you want to call it, is what enables us to study one species of dragonfly for twenty years, or sit in front of a computer for a hundred hours a week writing code. This is not the behavior of a well-balanced and healthy person, but it can obviously lead to great advances in synthetic fibers. Or whatever.” Or Randy’s father dumps the contents out on a ping-pong table that inexplicably sits in the center of the rec room at Grandma’s managed care facility, whose residents are about as likely to play pingpong as they are to get their nipples pierced.” Do NOT be intimidated by the length (1000 pages) of this book. It’s loaded with fascinating detail and reads faster than 100 ten-page books.

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