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Reading: Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spread across two different time periods, the second world war and a present-day setting in line with the book’s release in the late nineties, Cryptonomicon is a fictionalised history of cryptography and also a modern techno-thriller. It’s told primarily from the viewpoints of four characters:

1) Lawrence Waterhouse – A genius cryptographer with a knack for spotting patterns, who attended university with Alan Turing shortly before the second world war. When the Enigma code is cracked Lawrence’s main occupation is creating plausible reasons for why the British are able to anticipate the Nazi’s every move without revealing that they’ve cracked the code. He is almost incapable of viewing anything without breaking it down into patterns and systems, a unique approach that makes for some excellent chapters, with Lawrence’s decision that he needs to seduce and marry a specific woman based on how thoughts of her are impacting his work being a particular highlight.

2) Bobby Shaftoe – A former Marine in the second world war, left psychologically damaged by a major traumatic incident that leaves him unhinged enough to be the perfect man to carry out Lawrence’s plans. He is sent on bizarre missions deep into enemy territory that seemingly undermine the Allies or otherwise make no sense at all, but carries them all out without question. At one point his team smuggles barrels and crates full of waste – used cigarettes, old newspapers and even faecal matter – to an isolated building in Italy, so they can give the impression that spies have been there for months. The sheer insanity of the tasks he is assigned make for some of the more hilarious moments in the book.

3) Goto Dengo – An Imperial Soldier in the Japanese army during the second world war, who befriends Bobby after they get into a fight. He undergoes a major crisis of faith when he realises the undefeatable imperial army is losing the war, and his shock that the Americans would identify their weaknesses and find solutions is a wonderful moment. His is mostly a sad story due to his belief that his lack of faith in the Empire is a personal flaw, and after his unit is defeated he becomes so lost as he tries to find purpose again, before being assigned to a secret project that he doesn’t expect to survive.

4) Randy Waterhouse – The sole present-day main character, a talented programmer in several communications and internet projects around the Phillipines. His storyline draws upon all the others, connected through their descendants (Randy himself being Lawrence’s grandson), their friends and colleagues, or building upon their work. Aside from Goto he is the one who was most sure about his place in the world and his potential, only to have most of those preconceptions demonstrated to be spectacularly wrong. Where Goto is almost destroyed by this change Randy embraces it, finding he didn’t care about those things as much as he thought it did and welcoming the new choices available to him.

With multiple characters there’s always a danger that some will be considerably better than others, making a switch away from them frustrating, or creating a sense that the plot is dragging from the need to tell four largely separate stories at once. I never had that sense with Cryptonomicon. There was a little disappointment most times a character’s chapter came to an end, but that would be prove true with the next character, and on and on. All four characters are excellent, and those are only the viewpoint ones, as each is supported by an abundance of great characters.

It’s a surprisingly funny book and made me laugh out loud plenty of times. It’s also incredibly well written at points, as there were many times where I was genuinely impressed with what I’d just read and wanted to save those excerpts. Paragraphs like a description of the human body or the depression of the natives of Finland are either just marvellously written or also very funny. Even when Stephenson moves into detailed technical explanations of cryptographic concepts it’s still interesting. Cryptonomicon is a long book but is never dull, telling a fascinating story (or even multiple fascinating stories) with lots of excellent characters. I really enjoyed it.

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  1. January 28, 2012 at 19:09

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