History: This novel was published in 1999. Portions of Cryptonomicon are notably complex and may be considered somewhat difficult by the non-technical reader. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking.
Stephenson also includes a precise description of (and even Perl script for) the Solitaire (or Pontifex) cipher, a cryptographic algorithm developed by Bruce Schneier for use with a deck of playing cards, as part of the plot.
He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by the Finnish native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.
Plot: The action takes place in two periods: the Second World War and the late 1990s, during the Internet boom.
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young U.S. Navy code breaker and mathematical genius, is assigned to the newly formed joint British and American Detachment 2702. This ultra-secret unit's role is to hide the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the German Enigma code. The detachment stages events, often behind enemy lines, that provide alternative explanations for the Allied intelligence successes. Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, a veteran of China and Guadalcanal, serves in unit 2702, carrying out Waterhouse's plans. At the same time, Japanese soldiers including mining engineer Goto Dengo, an old friend of Shaftoe's, are assigned to build a mysterious bunker in the mountains in the Philippines as part of what turns out to be a literal suicide mission.
Circa 1997, Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence's grandson) joins his old Dungeons and Dragons companion Avi Halaby in a new startup, providing Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos via new fiber-optic cables. The aptly named Epiphyte Corporation uses this income stream to fund the creation of a data haven in the nearby fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy do the undersea surveying for the cables and engineering work on the haven is overseen by Goto Furudenendu, heir-apparent to Goto Engineering. Complications arise as figures from the past reappear seeking gold or revenge.
Review: Neal Stephenson enjoys cult status among science fiction fans and techie types. According to critic Jay Clayton, the book is written for a technical or geek audience. Despite the technical detail, the book drew praise from both Stephenson's science fiction fan base and literary critics and buyers. In his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (2003), Jay Clayton calls Stephenson’s book the “ultimate geek novel” 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.
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.
Cryptonomicon is vintage Stephenson from start to finish: short on plot, but long on detail so precise it's exhausting. Every page has a math problem, a quotable in-joke, an amazing idea, or a bit of sharp prose. Cryptonomicon is also packed with truly weird characters, funky tech, and crypto--all the crypto you'll ever need, in fact, not to mention all the computer jargon of the moment. A word to the wise: if you read this book in one sitting, you may die of information overload (and starvation).
Opening Line: “… is the best that corporal Bobby Shaftoe can do on short notice – he’s standing on the running board, gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other, so counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question.”
Closing Line: “But after Golgotha has been burning for an hour or two, underneath the shallow water, indeed right around the isolated boulder where Randy is perched, is a bright thick river of gold.”
Quotes: “Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker's game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.”
Rating: Couldn’t read it.