Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon,(Avon Books, 1999)

Not your average technothriller, Cryptonomicon has nothing to do with the eldritch gods of H. P. Lovecraft. Instead, it is the best treatment of cryptography since Edgar Allen Poe's "The Gold Bug," and a hundred times longer. The Cryptonomicon of the book's title is first introduced to us as a stack of poorly organized papers that Private Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse begins studying shortly after he survives Pearl Harbor. His grandson, Randy Waterhouse, also finds his life bound up with this same text, now stored online and lovingly annotated and appended by a group of cypherpunks called the Secret Admirers.

The novel Cryptonomicon follows the Waterhouses in a multigenerational epic that explores the intricate workings of the minds of these two introverted geeks, and the lives of their friends. Lawrence Waterhouse is one of the few close friends of Alan Turing, his British codebreaking counterpart. Stephenson addresses Alan's homosexuality somewhat underhandedly, introducing Lawrence, Alan and Alan's lover Rudy, a German exchange student, to each other early in the book, while they are studying together at Princeton.

In today's world, a seemingly unrelated plot develops, following Randy as his extremely paranoid boss sends him to the Phillipines to develop a business plan. Randy meets, and falls in love with, America Shaftoe, granddaughter of Marine Bobby Shaftoe. Bobby Shaftoe fought under the direction of Dept. 2702, using the intelligence that Lawrence Waterhouse's encryption-breaking techniques gathered from Axis communications.

From there, Neal Stephenson plays a deft game, fictionalizing elements while incorporating enough factual information to wet the appetite of any history buff, a clever skill for a man previously known for his jaw-dropping cyberpunk action sequences.

His writing style has always been replete with analogy and metaphor, developing the idea of avatars in cyberspace as a metaphor for one's identity in Snow Crash (1992) and a brilliant exploration of AI and nanotechnology in The Diamond Age (1996), and with this book he pulls no punches. He explores basic fundamentals of information theory through analogy to bicycle chains, tears through a brilliant and amusing synopsis of how Athena is the Greek goddess of hacking, and in between serves up a script of PERL that produces a nice little encryption program, which can also be duplicated with a pack of playing cards. Then end result is that this book reads like something Thomas Pynchon and Stephen J. Wolfram might have co-authored, were they to have vacationed together on Midway Island.

Not everything is wrapped up at the end of Cryptonomicon. In fact, one of the most amazing things about this book is that you can finish it, set it down, and realize a week later that it actually was science fiction. There is something going on underneath the surface, and most of that enigma is bound up in the character Enoch Root. Enoch Root is the visible member of a secret society, and his appearance in Bobby Shaftoe's life during WWII and in Randy's life in the nineties leaves both of them paranoid and perplexed. Between the mysteries that Enoch Root represents, and the alchemical symbol for gold that graces the cover of most editions of this book, I found myself wondering if this entire book wasn't actually a dissertation on the alchemical process.

Ultimately though, this was essentially a fun read, filled with very funny sequences, and an impressive mastery of verb tenses. The first printing was filled with typographical errors, so much so that one friend of mine tried to determine if the typos formed a secret message, and spent quite some time trying to crack this sequence of letters he had accrued through paging over the text for most of a summer. Fortunately, the paperback edition I've just read had only one flaw. Here's the phrase as it should read: "As with all gut feelings, only time will tell whether this is pathetic self-delusion."

My gut feeling is that this is a great book, and that Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, will be even better.

[Wes Unruh]

Visit Neal Stephenson's page on the Well. Also check out the Official Site for Cryptonomicon.