Cryptonomicon is a speculative fiction novel by the American author Neal Stephenson.
I've been a bit apprehensive about starting on Cryptonomicon. Neal Stephenson is a bit like Vernon Vinge – they both make wonderful books, and they both take their time about it. Also Cryptonomicon is about mathematics and it's about cryptography, and while I know math, I know nothing about cryptography, but I find the subject fascinating. What if I didn't “get it” or even worse didn't like the book?
The thing is, I tend to build up enormous expectations for, low output, but high quality, authors like Stephenson. It's would be so disappointing if one of his books where bad. Luckily for me, Cryptonomicon is a wonderful book that lived up to all my expectations. The problem is, I'm not sure that this book is for everybody, you have to have some kind of interest in mathematics, cryptography or computers for it to be interesting. A deep sense of paranoia might be a good enough substitute for one of these interests, but then again I think that it might be rather unhealthy, to read Cryptonomicon if you are paranoid.
Cryptonomicon is told as a small handful of stories, most of them takes place during WWII, but the main story takes place today. The WWII stories include the story of Bobby Shaftoe, an American Marine (is there any other kind?) who gets a special job in a special unit. Then there's the story of Lawrence Waterhouse, who's a good friend of Alan Turing, they both get to work on cracking German and Japanese codes during the war. Then there's Shaftoes Japanese friend Goto Dengo, he's good a digging tunnels, so he gets to dig a lot of tunnels for the Japanese during the war.
All these stories are, of cause, connected to the main story, which takes place in the present. Randy is good at cryptography, he's good at math and he's good at computers. He's even fairly good with people, but luckily he has a partner who's really good with people and fairly good, at running a business. Together they have a business plan. They want to create a data haven. A place where people can place their data, without fear of the local police coming by and confiscating their hard drives or taking them as evidence just because, they may contain something that might be illegal. A lot of this is straight forward business thriller stuff, except that it's linked to the above mentioned stories and then there's the paranoia.
And that's where the cryptography comes into the picture. If you are afraid that somebody will try to steal your business plan, it's a really good idea to encrypt them. If you want to know that you enemy is up to, it's a really good idea to try to decrypt their messages. There's a lot of encrypting and even more decrypting in this books. There's a lot about how to stop people from decrypting your stuff. There's even a guide, added in the back, that tells you how to encrypt a messages in a deck of cards. I loved it, but it might not be for all. It might be possible to read through those parts really fast and still get the most out of this book, without learning or understanding a single bit about cryptography.
There's lots of actions and lot's of things that are not about cryptography. And in a way, even the parts that are about cryptography, are really more about people and why we need to encrypt things. Well, except the parts that are really just about cryptography. Oh, and there's actually a couple of, quite unsobby, love stories and a bit about gold.
Besides the beginning of the book which I found to be a bit abrupt, it takes a while before you get up speed on who is who and what they are doing, Cryptonomicon is nine-hundred pages of intense, sweaty mind warping fun. Stephenson writes like the pro he is and the characters a interesting and most of them are even likeable. A couple of the secondary characters (mainly Avid) seems a bit cardboardy, but there are so many good characters that it doesn't matter much.
Cryptonomicon didn't make me a new man, but it did make me a more paranoid man.
Written on 28 January 2004 by TC.
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