Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – Review

Cover- Cryptonomicon

Rating: 4.0/5.0


With this extraordinary first volume in what promises to be an epoch-making masterpiece, Neal Stephenson hacks into the secret histories of nations and the private obsessions of men, decrypting with dazzling virtuosity the forces that shaped this century.

In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse—mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy—is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702—commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe-is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy’s fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces.

Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse’s crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a “data haven” in Southeast Asia—a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe’s tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty…or to universal totalitarianism reborn.

A breathtaking tour de force, and Neal Stephenson’s most accomplished and affecting work to date, Cryptonomicon is profound and prophetic, hypnotic and hyper-driven, as it leaps forward and back between World War II and the World Wide Web, hinting all the while at a dark day-after-tomorrow. It is a work of great art, thought and creative daring; the product of a truly iconoclastic imagination working with white-hot intensity.

Cryptonomicon is the second book by Neal Stephenson that I’ve read/listened to and my technical vocabulary has increased by tenfold. These books are chock full of technical jargon and its only explained most of the time, so you can expect a bit of confusion if you aren’t familiar with, say, the origins of the internet or upper level mathematics. The story also switches between two time periods and sets of characters. The first, set during World War II, starts out being solely focused on Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a brilliant mathematician who works as a cryptanalyst, but then switches between Bobby Shaftoe (a Marine) and Goto Dengo (a Japanese officer). The second time period is in the 1990’s and follows the narrative of Randy Waterhouse, the grandson of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, who is part of a new and exciting business venture.

At first glance, there is very little relation between the two narratives other than the fact than Randy is Lawrence Waterhouse’s grandson. It takes some time for other relationships to show themselves, but once they do it becomes apparent that Stephenson did a masterful job of weaving these tales together. Cryptonomicon is also a fantastic introduction to code-breaking and information theory in the 1940’s, and by introduction I mean that cryptography and mathematics suddenly sound like very interesting subjects that require more study. As I was reading along I would Google terminology, places, and people just to learn more about them and if the portrayal in the book seemed fairly accurate. Alan Turing, Ronald Reagan and Douglas MacArthur all make characterized appearances in the book, though MacArthur was my absolute favorite because he was so underwhelmed by all the events and had fantastic deadpan humor. There were also several locations mentioned in the book that were completely fictional, but were written so well that I thought they were just ridiculously obscure hunks of rock in the ocean that I had never heard of, but yet again Google corrected me.

Cryptonomicon is not a read for the faint of heart or those who don’t appreciate historical fiction, or books heavy on tech lingo. I will say that at first I was not really interested in Randy Waterhouse’s sections of the narrative, but his chapters became significantly more interesting and meaningful as the book progressed. The WWII era chapters were incredibly action-packed at times and spanned over the course of the entire war, which was really cool. The only other book I’ve read that was this detailed was Seveneves, which is also by Neal Stephenson. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he must put in incredible amounts of research time before he writes his books and that is a great thing. Reading both Seveneves and Cryptonomicon has gotten me interested in subjects that I didn’t find particularly fascinating or worthwhile before, and I have a newfound respect for them.


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