Cryptonomicon (Cryptonomicon, #1)

ISBN: 0060512806
ISBN 13: 9780060512804
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

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, crypt analyst 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.

Reader's Thoughts


Neal Stephenson is brilliant. Quite obviously so. And one of his strengths lies in writing books that make abstruse, convoluted niche subjects feel approachable and exciting to the average reader. His attention to detail and his playful tangents, asides and divagations are charming, witty and often fascinating.Unfortunately this does not always translate into well-written and well-structured narratives. To put it mildly, Cryptonomicon drags. It meanders. Occasionally it stops completely dead. More than a hundred pages before the end all the surprises and brilliance had been squandered and I was gritting my teeth and just waiting for it to be over.This is a very male narrative. All of the main characters are straight males, and the book (and its characters) are obsessed with male ejaculations (yes, explicitly) and their effect on the male thought process. Furthermore, Stephenson includes some facile pop psychology about the interactions of the the sexes (which made this homosexual roll his eyes) and took a few embarrassing swipes at academia, atheism and gender equality. The fact that two of the male supporting characters are homosexual does not lessen this impression of male heteronormativity, especially when you realize that both of these characters are doomed to lonely, loveless deaths.Women are cast only in the most stereotypical roles and are never completely fleshed out. They are either sex objects, sex tyrants, frigid or helpless--nothing in between. Out of all the many, many orgasms in the book, only two belong to women (or rather, A woman) and they are presented in such a way as to make them sound unnatural and almost frightening.I'm not sure what Stephenson's point was in writing such a heavy-handed, gender-unbalanced narrative, but it alienated me almost completely. Maybe I'm missing the point--I'm sure there are people who would say I am--but it just didn't work for me.So! In conclusion, Cryptonomicon was a lengthy slog that could have used tighter editing and plotting, and far less fixation on reinforcing gender and sexual norms.

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.


I am FINIIIIIISHED! I thought it didn't have an ending! I thought Neal Stephenson kept sneaking to my house and inserting more pages in the back while I was asleep! I thought he would never be appeased until I begged him to stop with a deck of cards, morse code and a wide variety of pleading looks!This is a massive boy book. A MASSIVE boy book. It's got overwhelmingly male characters, and they do really boy things, like coding, and shooting things, and drawing logarithmic graphs about the last time they masturbated. I kept being surprised that I could open this book and it didn't immediately smell overpoweringly of old canvas and sweat. And I say this in the most endearing way, generally speaking - the characters in this book have no idea, none at all!, that I am not One Of Them, so I got to romp about with the best of them, messing about with submarines and mid-nineties hacker politics.I should probably tell you at this point, that two of my favourite things as a mid-teenager were vintage pen-and-paper codebreaking and rambly adventure stories, so I was in my element. This book is very exclusive in many ways and I am sure that in any other context I would get the rabbit in headlights look of someone who knows they're about to be accused of being a fake geek and who doesn't know *quiiite* enough what they're talking about to put those (wholly ridiculous) accusations to rest - but as it was, for most of the time I was reading this, it was me and my comfy chair and my knitting and the printed word of Neal Stephenson, and I could slot myself into that narrow band of intended audience and roam around at my leisure. This book is a boy book, and while I was reading it, I was a boy. Which is a cack-handed way of saying that I am a nerd and I don't get to talk about polyalphabetic ciphers you break with frequency analysis and a pad of graph paper very often, and Cryptonomicon made me feel as much at home as I could possibly have wished for. Which is nice.It's also a cack-handed way of saying I feel, in some way, like I shouldn't have felt at home? It was so chock-full of Tech Men and Soldier Men and Men Who Do Things Despite Slash For Their Womenfolk, that I genuinely felt like I was empathising on the wrong side of the divide at some points. Like I was having to sneak in and pretend I had a metaphorical moustache. Very odd. Ladies of Goodreads, is that a thing you understand? Men of Goodreads, when you read something very female led, like say Jane Eyre, or Rebecca, or whatever it is you emancipated chaps read these days, how do you feel? I've rarely felt that this strongly (*cough*Gorky Park) it was very odd. At any rate I am interested by how/how strongly this manifests itself in other people.Back to the book! It's an info-dump; there is almost more info-dump than plot. Some of it I knew already and that was comforting, some of it really fired me up for playing with numbers a bit more. While I've been reading this book, I've been occasionally meeting a friend who's teaching me the basics-and-then-some of statistics, and I get the same feeling from that of channeling my enthusiasm into something practical, something that someone else is excited about as well. I liked the info-dump.It starts off really slowly. There is basically no plot for probably the first two-fifths; certainly the first third. It is full of inside references and totally devoid of beginning, middle or end. If this bothers you, don't read it. It bothered me, for a while - that's why I put it down and came back a few months later. Or that's one of the reasons. The other reason is that it's NINE HUNDRED PAGES LONG AND NEAL STEPHENSON IS STILL TALKING.In the end, I put it aside often, but always came back. There are very few books I can say that about, and of the others they were almost entirely written by Frenchmen. This book is not like those books. If you ask me, it's worth having a go at, and if you get 60 pages in and go cross-eyed at the tiny font, don't worry. You won't have missed much, and it's a nice place to come back to. I might even read it again, but it probably won't be for a while. A long while.


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.


Though I'm giving this book four stars, I am a little disappointed in it. For the first time, Stephenson's wordiness got to me. At first, it is all fun and "character building" and enjoyable to read. But after working through 700 pages and still hitting long stretches about Randy's fascination with dust devils as a kid or how he had really bad wisdom teeth years earlier, I got a little frustrated. I had the feeling he was striving for length instead of letting the story dictate the number of pages.I am also what I assume to be a rarity in that I read Anathem before Crytonomicon. I actually liked Anathem a lot more. This is partly because everything felt necessary. I actually didn't want it to end, whereas I was ready for Cryptonomicon's ending.I don't mean to be too negative, because I believe this is a great book. The two WWII storylines were the highlight for me. Loved Lawrence and Bobby and pretty much everyone else from that era. Especially enjoyed the Admiral Yamamoto scene. I was less impressed by the main storyline set in the present. Simply didn't enjoy Randy and Avi and their group of geeks as much. I came around on Randy a bit, mainly due to his Captain Crunch habit, but Avi had no such saving grace. Still, it was a masterful blending of multiple storylines into a cohesive and enjoyable experience.

Nathan Jerpe

Since this book had been on my to-read pile for something like fifteen years I felt compelled to review it, in the hopes that people like me who were on the fence could determine if it was worth the time investment. Going in I wasn't sure what to expect. I have long admired the two novels Stephenson wrote prior to this one, but his more recent stuff edges over into bloat and rambling territory.By my own highly subjective criteria the answer is a qualified yes. Cryptonomicon is essentially a survey course on an array of subjects - cryptology, Linux, mining engineering, Riemann's Zeta function, the War in the Pacific - which happens to have several threads of a comic book action narrative running through it. It is a book of impressive width but disappointing depth. Though it covers much more ground it lacks the insights of The Diamond Age published four years before. Didactic 10-20 page infodumps strike without warning and serve no rhetorical purpose other than to arouse curiosity on the subject at hand. A snide humor pervades the novel which I found hit or miss.The narrative consists of 103 alternating POV chapters shared by late-90s hacker Randy Waterhouse (geek), his grandfather and WWII-era cryptologist Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse (also geek), and a marine and morphine-addict named Bobby Shaftoe (patent badass) who is fighting in the war. All three characters are the fun and entertaining sort of folks you find in good action films. Stephenson skilfully develops a fourth POV thread in the second half. These heroes traverse the globe and have loosely coupled adventures in numerous settings, some more vivid than others. Stephenson's love of geography here is contagious and this was one of the few lessons in the book that I did not find heavy-handed. The plot though clear enough is not all that critical, really - Randy's tech startup buddies invest in the Phillippines only to find themselves entangled in the affairs of tech moguls, sultans, billionaire dentists, etc. who alternately take turns trying to beat them, join them, or rob them blind. In response to events their business plan evolves from a clever telecom enterprise into a data haven into something else entirely. In the meantime Stephenson deals out a WWII narrative replete with Guadalcanal-veteran Shaftoe's rock-em sock-em and plenty of proto-geekery from Lawrence Waterhouse, who has been assigned the part of a wartime codebreaker by the British. Connections between the two timeframes are satisfying even though that ingenious a-ha! moment I was hoping for, and which Stephenson is certainly capable of, never quite arrives.What really dominates here though is Stephenson's voice and style - a wild chugging rhythm that can turn great prose and lazy paragraphs in equal measure. Occasionally I would happen upon a stunning nugget of insight and find myself agreeing with some of the exuberant acclaim splashed all over the back cover - genius of geniuses! wild roller coaster ride! buckle up! Stephenson understands technology and cares about how it affects the world. But most of the time I was just having fun and not taking the techspeak too seriously, which is what I think Stephenson intended. Rather I was content to observe not so much a visionary mind as a ravenous one, unafraid of tunneling head on into new subjects, endlessly curious even as it hesitates to unearth any real new questions.

Andrei Alupului

I usually roll my eyes at blurbs on books, especially when they're as reductive and simple as the ones I'm about to cite, but "electrifying" and "a hell of a read" seem like the two most fitting ways to summarize my opinion on this book. I had a tough time putting this down. It's not a challenging book, but it's also not a stupid book and I was surprised to find how "literary" it actually is. Outside of that, and really most importantly, it's an absolute blast to read.Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this and it's unbelievably thorough and generous in its presentation of all this information. Even when it gets into the mathematics and theory behind cryptography it never stops being comprehensible and it's very clear that Stephenson had a strong desire to not dumb anything down and to simultaneously not allow himself to get too obtuse or evasive. It's a really skillfully managed balancing act. I realize that accessibility is not a virtue unto itself, but it really is favorable for this particular story, because the majority of the labor done by the reader here shouldn't be to glean the meaning of the text so much as to keep up with it and figure out its applicability.This book reminds me of David Fincher's film "Zodiac" in a lot of ways. Both of them are, as a result of the obsessive nature of their topics, obsessively structured themselves, reflecting not just the obsession of the characters within the works but also the obsession of the creators themselves. Both of them are packed to the gills with detailed information. Both of them are unusually long, although they're both so absorbing that this is a non-factor, or at least it was for me. The major difference between this and "Zodiac," however, is the fact that while that particular film zeroes in on one singular person/mystery/topic, this book seems to jump and tear and grasp at everything in its wake. The fact that it doesn't feel unfocused despite this really blows me away.


I stake the claim that this novel is the "Catch 22" of the new millennium. Smacking of Heller and borrowing somewhat from Pynchon, this novel also stakes new ground and weaves an engaging yet intricate plot. There are also many asides which encompass basic cryptographic theory, History and mechanics of modern finance and economics, Hacking methods including "Van Eck Phreaking" and EMP pulses, Music Theory, and speculations upon the future and impact information will have.The novel weaves together 3 plots. 1 being the story of Bobby Shaftoe, a tough and guts marine during WWII who is assigned to be a security officer for the OSA, a forerunner of the CIA who handled US involvement with cryptography. The second plot is that of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a nerdy un-socialized individual whose innate skill at mathematics and pattern recognition landed him a job as a cryptographer during WWII for the OSA and jointly with Brittain's MI6, their counterpart to the OSA. The third plot is of Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence's grandson who with his business partner are trying to construct a worldwide vault of information storage and exchange which if successful will land them with untold fortunes of "fuck you money." The plot eventually weaves around the infamous missing "nazi gold" and how much decrypting enemy messages led to the outcome of the war. The author's voice is very sardonic yet, mirthful. There is literally a laugh-out-loud passage on every page. The opening passage is of Bobby Shaftoe composing a haiku about a truck wheeling around a corner on two wheels just about to tip over as Bobby himself is holding on for dear life to said truck as it careens around a corner on two wheels, just about to tip over. Another humorous passage involves Randy who is signing a disclaimer for a very delicate tooth extraction which only one or two orthodontic surgeons in the country would touch: "They gave Randy a bunch of forms which he signed saying something to the effect that they could put Randy into a wood chipper for all they cared and he would have no legal recourse."All in all, a ripping good read. Stephenson actually makes data storage and finance much more entertaining than any brain candy pot-boiler we could read. I highly recommend this novel.


** 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.


*Re-reading this book, started early January 2009Note: This review is from my blog, circa 2005.I finished reading Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson about a week ago. It took me over a month to finish, not because it wasn't great and exciting, but because it was 937 fucking pages long! I have to say that Neal Stephenson is one of the most interesting and unique authors I have come across in some time now. The book had three main characters/story lines, and each of them had it's own strongly independent voice, yet strung together with a unifying, sardonic edge. I don't think I'll bother much with plot summary, as it was very complex and spanned the course of at least 60 years and about 10 different countries. What I really loved about it was that the three main storylines that all seem so separate at first, come together over the course of the novel through family ties, etc, but are unknown to the modern characters because of war time secrecy, among other things. I have never studied WWII in much depth, but this book brought it all to life extremely vividly and from perspectives I have never read about before. Although this book was in the science fiction section (probably because of the author's other novels) it is definitely more of a history novel. For instance, it had real historical figures as characters, such as Alan Turing in close relation to one of the main characters. Not only is it interesting from a historical war-time perspective, it is also extremely nerdy in its math and cryptographic details...not to mention computer programming and the history of how the modern computer came to be invented as a result of WWII cryptologists needing to break codes. Although the majority of the characters are fictional, I do think that most of the historical elements are well preserved and not too overly exaggerated. However, I am no expert. Basically, I couldn't put this book down, in spite of its weight. ;) The story was compelling, the characters multi-dimensional and interesting, and the locations and events intriguing. Also, in the original hard back edition that I got from the library, there are a large number of typographical/grammatical errors that many have speculated to be a hidden code! Not that anybody has broken it...I'd give my left toe to know what Mr. Stephenson is hiding in that book.

Arun Divakar

I couldn't do it ! 'It' here refers to the act of finishing the book. Beyond a certain number of pages, my mind felt like a glass full of muddy water in which the silt somehow refuses to settle down. The book is not to fault, maybe I just am not ready for this yet.Stephenson is an interesting kind of author for he knows quite a truck load about quite a lot of things. In the pages I went through, there were discourses ( through the character's mouths of course) about things as varied as the second world war, cryptoanalysis, the economic,social,political & historic statistics of Manila, gender biases and so forth. There are three different stories which Stephenson has mixed into one single cauldron to bring out this book.Maybe long after Snowcrash & Anathem , I will get back to this. For now, goodbye wrong book ! Goodbye Cryptonomicon ! (There..I knew something was wrong with the other name).


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.

Clif Hostetler

Aspire for fluency in geek speak? Is "Big Bang Theory" your idea of reality TV? Then I recommend this Moby Dick of nerd novels. Jay Clayton in his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace calls this book the “ultimate geek novel” (pg. 204-211) and draws attention to the “literary-scientific-engineering-military-industrial-intelligence alliance” that produced discoveries in two eras separated by fifty years, World War II and the Internet age. That's a good concise summary of the book. Stephenson writes with a fascinating droll humor that lets the reader forgive him for explaining cryptography and mathematical problems in excruciating detail. This book offers an insight into the world view seen through the eyes of a genius. Everything that might be a beautiful sight or interesting view to others will appear to be an example of hidden intervals or patterns to the mind of a genius.This is a turn of the century (20th to 21st) book that strives to pattern itself after a 19th Century novel in that the author uses hundreds of words in those locations where a dozen words would be adequate to carry the plot forward. However, the writing is so entertaining that the reader wishes that even more words would have been used. Stephenson repeatedly branches out on multiple subjects in independent essays that could easily be lifted from the book and used with slight editing for a standup comedy routine. However, the comedy routines would probably go over best in a college town where some physicists or mathematicians are present in the audience.My tech-geek friends read this book over ten years ago, and they all recommended it to me. It wasn't available in audio format at the time, and I didn't want to invest the time required to read a book this big (928 pages, 42 hours audio). So I never got around to reading it. Then about a year ago it became available on So as usual, I've made it through a famous book about ten years after it's been read by everyone else.I highly recommend readers of this book refer to the Wikipedia article on this book. It explains which characters are fictional and which are historical, and it helps explain the nature of the various story lines within the book.I can see how this book was even better when read at the height of the dot-com and fiber optic cable bubble. Techie geekie things were newer then, and it appeared that we were entering the utopian age of Aquarius that would lead to perpetual prosperity. Does anyone remember the promises made that the new information age would be free of recessions and business cycles? Since ten years have elapsed since it was published, the reader can detect some signs of the book's age by noticing that there are no smart phones, iPads or iPods (it was the zenith of the CD Walkman era). Windows NT was new then. It was pre 9-11 so the emphasis in the book is on the inconvenience of customs inspections over that of security checks prior to getting on board.Most of the book can pass as plausible historical fiction. But there are a few Stephensonian inventions that definitely belong in a science fiction novel. Below are some of the imaginative examples:Qwghlmian -- is a fictional language that allegedly hails from some fictional British islands in the North Sea. It has 16 consonants and no vowels making it nearly impossible to pronounce. To complicate things further, there are two mutually non-comprehendible dialects of the language, Inner Qwghlimian and Outer Qwghlimian. Confusing the mid-glottal with the frontal glottal can, in one instance, completely change the meaning a sentence.Rocket propelled submarine -- This book has the WWII era Germans advancing in submarine technology parallel with their development of jet engines in airplanes. Supposedly this quiet and new generation of hydrogen peroxide propelled submarines could stay below water for days.RAM made from plumbing -- A character in this book constructs a digital computer with addressable random access memory (RAM), and it was made from plumbing parts and other primitive stuff. It happens during WWII which was the pre-transistor era, thus he used drain pipes filled with mercury with electrical level sensors that created the binary signals necessary for a functioning digital computer. (If a computer like that were made today, EPA would declare it to be a Federal Superfund Site for toxic cleanup.)Some quotations I found interesting:A comparison of atheists and church attendees:"… the post-modern, politically correct atheists were like people who had suddenly found themselves in charge of a big and unfathomably complex computer system (viz. society) with no documentation or instructions of any kind, and so whose only way to keep the thing running was to invent and enforce certain rules with a kind of neo-Puritanical rigor…. Whereas people who were wired into a church were like UNIX system administrators who, while they might not understand everything, at least had some documentation…. They were, in other words, capable of displaying adaptability."A paraphrase of the fine print on a typical investment prospectus:"Unless you are as smart as Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss, savvy as a half-blind Calcutta bootblack, tough as General William Tecumseh Sherman, rich as the Queen of England, emotionally resilient as a Red Sox fan, and as generally able to take care of yourself as the average nuclear missile submarine commander, you should never have been allowed near this document. Please dispose of it as you would any piece of high-level radioactive waste and then arrange with a qualified surgeon to amputate your arms at the elbows and gouge your eyes from their sockets. This warning is necessary because once, a hundred years ago, a little old lady in Kentucky put a hundred dollars into a dry goods company which went belly-up and only returned her ninety-nine dollars. Ever since then the government has been on our asses. If you ignore this warning, read on at your peril — you are dead certain to lose everything you've got and live out your final decades beating back waves of termites in a Mississippi Delta leper colony.Still reading? Great. Now that we've scared off the lightweights, let's get down to business."The difference between physicists and engineers:"There is a kind of unspoken collusion going on in mainstream science education: you get your competent but bored, insecure and hence stodgy teacher talking to an audience divided between engineering students, who are going to be responsible for making bridges that won’t fall down or airplanes that won’t suddenly plunge vertically into the ground at six hundred miles an hour, and who by definition get sweaty palms and vindictive attitudes when their teacher suddenly veers off track and begins raving about wild and completely nonintuitive phenomena; and physics students, who derive much of their self-esteem from knowing that they are smarter and morally purer than the engineering students, and who by definition don’t want to hear about anything that makes no … sense. … The engineers love … their issues dead and crucified like butterflies under glass. The physicists … want to think they understand everything."


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.


Neal Stephenson likes to throw weird shit together and see if it sticks. The more recent his book, the more likely it is to resemble a schizophrenic's curio cabinet. Your average Phillip Pullman will add a little wacky trepanning to his fantasy trilogy for that refined edge of esoteria. Meanwhile, Stephenson will have an exiled member of Italian royalty who works in 'demolition real estate' and knows Escrima thanks to an intense trepanning session with Horace Walpole, Duke Orford. Which I believe is an accurate summary of the next William Gibson book.One man's premise is another man's plot.I liked it better when Stephenson used the bizarre as a spice to flavor a driven, exciting story. Though spices may make a dish delectable, they aren't palatable on their own; you need some meat. I guess what I'm saying is: who the fuck wrote Snowcrash and when will he write something else?

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