Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

(Avon, 1999)

The story is of two plotlines, one about Allied intelligence agents trying to keep the Axis from finding out that we had broken their codes (especially Enigma); the other set about sixty years later (now + n, where n is a suitably small number), about hackers setting up a telecom venture (so it at first appears) in the Phillipines. Of course the plots are connected in many ways, and the reader gradually figures out the hows. The writing is well-done, without the stylistic tricks that characterized Stephenson's earlier work Snow Crash. The period (World War II) dialog is accurate as far as I can tell, but he makes no particular attempt to write the narration in a period style (which is fine by me).

The pacing is fast, but allows ample time for thinking - a good compromise between the techno-thriller pacing of Snow Crash and the plodding pace of some other authors' less successful idea stories.

The characters are mostly cool people to hang out with for 900+ pages. Slowly figuring out how the characters in the World War II section are related to the now characters (though some are immediately revealed) is fun.

Mostly the story is about ideas and how they affect people. The ideas (cryptanalysis, information theory, privacy rights and how to protect them, commodity-backed versus fiat money, the prevention of future Holocausts, true love, the right way to eat Captain Crunch) are important and interesting, and Stephenson handles his instruction and philosophising about them deftly, as the infrastructure holding the story up, not obstacles to its flow.

The dust jacket blurb implies that this is the first of a multi-volume story or series, but the ending is conclusive enough that I don't recommend waiting till you've other volumes handy to read this one. There is room for a sequel, but not a gaping hole that demands one.

Summary: I recommend it to anybody who enjoys thinking.


The acknowledgements contains a minor spoiler for some stuff in the middle of the story. Save it for after you finish the book. (Ditto for the afterword by Bruce Schneier, which goes without saying.)

The story is mostly "secret history", apparently set in our real world minus fifty-odd years and plus a small number of years -- there are real countries and organizations as players, and real historical persons (Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur), but for some reason Stephenson fakes the name of the Linux operating system and apparently some of its history as well - it becomes Finux. This has no bearing on the story except as an irritant. I can see no reason for this -- all the other software entities are correctly mentioned by name (Perl, Unix, emacs, Windows NT, etc.). PGP becomes Novus Ordo Seclorum, which makes sense because its author is a major character and Phil Zimmerman, unlike Alan Turing, isn't dead. (Don't read this to imply that I think the John Cantrell character == Phil Zimmerman, except for the obvious resemblance that both are very competent hackers and care a lot about privacy.)

A Perl script which appears in the text is unreadably formatted. If properly formatted it would be a couple of full pages, so I can see why the publisher balked at that.

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of Cryptonomicon by Avon Books, but I don't work for Avon, own stock, etc., or have a personal stake in Avon's or Neal Stephenson's success - besides the fact that he's a fine writer and I'd like to see him able to sell lots of books so he can write more.

Stephenson's other works

The Diamond Age (1995) and Snow Crash (1992) are excellent novels which I'll recommend now though I'm not going to review them until I read them again. "Mother Earth, Motherboard" was a very informative and fun article in Wired 4.12 about laying optical cable in the Indian Ocean.

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