Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson

This is one of those books that’s been on my mental list of things I really need to read for, err, well, must be quite a few years. Everything I’d heard about it made me think it would be exactly the kind of thing I’d like, but somehow I never got round to getting hold of it. I’m not sure if it was general tuitness, or the size of the thing – over 900 pages in paperback, though that’s never put me off Peter F Hamilton’s doorstep-sized novels.

After a while, I decided that I’d hold out for the Kindle edition, as holding large books for long periods seems like a strange thing to do these days. But was it available? Was it heck as like. But at some point, I came across a digital copy, which I started to read, telling myself that I’d buy a real version (in dead tree if I had to) later.

Now there are long books where the pages fly by, and even though there may be multiple plot threads to follow, you don’t have to put in too much effort. Cryptonomicon is not one of those books. I’m usually a pretty quick reader, and even with limited reading time most days, I can get through most books in a matter of days, or maybe a week or two for something unusually long. This took me almost a month to finish, and it’s already on my mental list of things I’ll have to read again because I probably missed some stuff the first time. It took me so long to read it that while I wasn’t paying attention, the Kindle version came out, which I’ve just bought, so my informal copy can now be disposed of, and my book-buying conscience is clear. I’m just glad I didn’t have to salve my conscience by buying a printed version…

Anyway, what’s it about? Well, fundamentally, it’s about cryptography, cryptanalysis, war, greed, human nature, love and extreme geekiness. There are multiple threads, which can be split into two sections:

  1. An assortment of viewpoint characters interacting before and during World War II. Includes a guest appearance or two from your actual Alan Turing.
  2. A contemporary operation to set up a data haven in the far east, which involves some characters related to or descended from some of the characters in the wartime parts

Of course, it’s not that simple. The action switches back and forward in time within these threads, and only very gradually does the connection between the separate threads become apparent. And in both threads, people make use of, and even add to, the Cryptonomicon itself – not so much a book as a collection of writings on codes, cypers and the mathematics of cryptography.

There are digressions into more detail of cryptography than some people might like, but it’s worth sticking with it.

And there are signs that this story is not set in our version of history at all. Subtle ones like the place English speakers usually call “Japan” is always referred to as “Nippon”, and less subtle ones like the islands of Inner and Outer Qwghlm, set somewhere of the northwest of Britain.

Working out what’s going on is a huge part of the fun, and finding the critical link between the two historical periods is a moment of glorious revelation, until the other link, which has been hidden in plain sight comes out into the open.

I’m not going into a plot summary, as it would take far too long, and either my fingers or your eyes would wear out before I finished it, and I’m not going into details of the characters either. What I will give you is a couple of quotes, which give some flavour of the writing:

Waterhouse did not know until now that his head was damaged, which stands to reason, in that your head is where you know things, and if it’s damaged, how can you know it?

Good point, that, and well worth remembering. Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse (frequently referred to by his full name, for reasons that may or may not make sense) is one of the key characters in the World War II sections of the story. His grandson Randall Lawrence Waterhouse (usually referred to as Randy, but sometimes given his full name) is the focal character in the contemporary sections.

Waterhouse is thinking about cycles within cycles. He’s already made up his mind that human society is one of those cycles-within-cycles things and now he’s trying to figure out whether it is like Turing’s bicycle (works for a while, then suddenly the chain falls off, hence the occasional world war) or like an Enigma machine (grinds away incomprehensibly for along time then suddenly the wheels line up like a slot machine and everything is made plain in some sort of global epiphany, or if you prefer, apocalypse) or just like a rotary airplane engine (runs and runs and runs; nothing special happens; it just makes a lot of noise.

I love that. The bit about Turing’s bicycle refers to an interesting mathematical diversion that isn’t a long away away from Enigma.

I loved this book. Should have read it years ago. The only trouble is that now I’m going to have to tackle Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle – three books of similar size to this one which form an extended prequel, featuring ancestors of at least some of the principal characters.  Though I think I’ll give my brain a rest and read some less demanding books first. Having finished the Cryptonomicon early this morning, I’m already about a third through the next one on my list – admittedly it’s a much shorter book, but it’s taking less concentration…

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