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Cryptonomicon (N. Stephenson)

2006-04-15 3 min read Books marco

First things first: don’t read the paperback edition. The print is tiny, and the book huge โ€“ the perfect recipe for a painful headache.

I heard about Cryptonomicon first in a personal ad, in the category last read. The title sounded interesting, so I bought the book and read it on my last trip to Hawai`i. Which ensured that I had plenty time to read with no distraction or better things to do.

Measured against that backdrop, the book was an utter failure. I was bored with entire sections, and skipped liberally without ever having to go back, never missing the plot.

Cryptonomicon is a book that combines four different plot lines that are largely independent, but that weave together into a coherent story.

  1. During WWII, a group of cryptographers starts defining the rules of engagement for ciphers. Alan Turing the Great is involved, along with a minor American cryptographer and a German love interest turned enemy. The movements of these cryptographers are narrated in all their complexity, derived from the need to follow encrypted messages and the vicissitudes of war.

  2. A rough-and-ready Marine is assigned to a unit that travels around the war theaters, trying to prevent by misinformation that the enemy understands their ciphers have been compromised. The Marine has several love interests that all remain very superficial.

  3. A Japanese soldier witnesses the downfall of his ancestral empire, and is assigned the duty to create a tunnel system to protect the country’s reserve gold in the Philippines.

  4. A bunch of startup dorks gets together to create (what else) a new startup that deal with telecommunication in the Philippines.

Of course, the book is superficially about how the startup dorks find out about the gold and try to get to it. And of course they’ll find the gold. The only twist (and one that is expected from the first time one encounters the protagonists) is that the modern-day scenario is mostly comprised of descendants of the original cast during WWII.

Being from the field (computer security), all novels necessarily look weak on technical grounds. The discussions of encryption and ciphers is mostly correct, but too simplistic to be relevant. In this regard, Cryptonomicon is probably as good an introduction to the field of cryptography as one will find.

The weakness of the book is though entirely in its plot and writing โ€“ the classical components of a novel. Some of the subplots are more intrigueing than others, which brings an odd tension to the table. I found Goto Dengo’s quest to survive much more interesting than the other (fairly implausible) plots. As a result, I tended to skip most of the other story to get to the interesting bit.

The least interesting bit was the startup story that forms the modern day epicenter of the plot. Full of bad guys of epic proportions, the story could have been fast paced and exciting. Instead it morphs continuously into an introspective parade of the main male character whose inner life, I am afraid to say, is just not that interesting.

The writing supports this, as well. Neal Stephenson seems not to have much sense of pace, and will follow up a cliff hanger with a slow movement, like a mad Mozart that splices together a movement in a minor key with one in a major key. Accuracy in the cryptographic discussion is followed with gross inaccuracy in the description of emotional states. Cliches abound in the description of people and attitudes.

There is one last item to mention: Mr. Stephenson is surely very preoccupied with male masturbation. Throughout the book, the characters think about the frequency of it, the need for it, and seem to have an awful problem doing it. Maybe it’s a touch of realism, given that geeks form a large chunk of the book’s characters?