Having covered Snow Crash and Diamond Age awhile back, I thought it was time to move on to the third installment in my Neal Stephenson series. Today, for consideration, the historic techno-thriller Cryptonomicon! This story took me close to a year to read, in part due to interruptions, but also because the book is pretty freaking dense! However, the read was not only enjoyable and informative, it was also pretty poignant. As a historian and a sci-fi buff, there was plenty there for me to enjoy and learn from. And for those who enjoy techno-thrillers and dissertations on mathematics, this book is also a page turner! Little wonder then why this novel was dubbed the “ultimate geek novel”.
The name is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious book that has been referenced numerous times in western literature and pop culture. The name is indicative of the book’s main theme, cryptology, as well as the unofficial manual used by cryptologists during and after World War II. In addition to featuring fictionalized versions of real events, it is also chock-full of fictionalized personalities drawn from history. They include Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, with discussions of prime numbers, modular arithmetic, and Van Eck phreaking.
Unlike his other novels, Cryptonomicon was much more akin to historical fiction and techno-thriller than actual sci-fi, mainly because its narratives take place in the past and present day. However, this is a bit of an arbitrary designation. As most fans of science fiction know, a story need not take place in the future in order to explore the kinds of themes common to the genre. And really, all science fiction is actually about the time period in which it is written, and actively draws on the past to create a picture of the future. So putting aside the question of where it falls in the literary spectrum for now, allow me to delve into this bad boy and what was good about it!
The story contains four intertwining plotlines, three of which are set in the Second World War, and a fourth which takes in the late 90’s. The first follows the exploits of a man named Bobby Shaftoe, a decorated Marine who has just survived the battle of Gaudacanal and is being transferred to the OSS’s counterintelligence division. The second follows Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician and cryptologist working for the joint American and British cryptology unit 2702. This work involves breaking German codes and leads him to several interesting encounters with famous people. including Albert Einstein and Alan Turing. The third involves a Japanese man named Goto Dengo, an Imperial Army officer and a mining engineer who becomes involved in a a secret Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. The fourth and final perspective which takes place in the 90’s centers on Randy Lawrence Waterhouse, an expert programmer working for an IT company (Epiphyte) that is been doing business in the Philippines.
As the story develops, we see Shaftoe become marooned in Finland where he meets up with some unlikely compatriots. The first is a Catholic priest and physician named Enoch Root, who is attached to 2702, while the second is a Kriegsmarine Captain named Günter Bischoff, who is the commanding officer of an experimental rocket-propelled U-Boat. We learn that an alliance has formed between these individuals, mainly because Bischoff, who became marooned in Finland with the rest of them, has learned that the Kriegsmarine has been given the task of smuggling gold to Japan in order to buy their continued cooperation in the war. He and the others decide to work together to get their hands on some, and soon find themselves back in the Philippines. Before the war, Shaftoe had a sweetheart there named Glory, who he has not seen since the Japanese invaded, and whom he is eager to get back to.
Meanwhile, Waterhouse is bounced around the globe in his efforts to break the Axis’ codes. First, he is sent to a fictional island in the English Channel known as Qwghlm (pronounced ???). On this island, the people wear incredibly thick wool sweaters and speak a language that is loosely related to Gaelic, and incredibly hard to understand. He is then sent off to Brisbane, Australia, to work on breaking the Japanese’s codes. While there, he finds a community of Qwghlmians, who he learns are serving as operators for the British. Whereas the US had their “Wind Talkers”, Navaho signal officers who used their native languages to confuse Japanese listeners, the British had Qwghlmians. Here, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, a young woman named Mary cCmndhd.
At the same time, Goto Dengo is nearly drowned when his troop ship is sunk in the South Pacific. He narrowly survives and drifts to an island where he is forced to survive amidst squalor, decay, and a group of Japanese soldiers who are pillaging and raping amongst the natives. In time, he is found by his fellow officers and is sent to the Philippines where he is put to work on the construction of a series of underground caverns. The purpose of these caves is to store the vast amounts of looted gold which is being shipped from Germany since the Germans are now losing the war and fear being overrun. After many years, the caves are completed and the Americans invade, during which time Dengo is reunited with Shaftoe. Having reenlisted with the Marines, Bobby was sent ahead to organize the resistance, and has learned that he has a son. After convincing Dengo to surrender and defect, he heads off for what turns out to be his final mission. Meanwhile, the sub carrying Gunter Bischoff and a hoarded supply of gold runs aground in the Philippines and the crew drown.
Fast forward to 1997, we come to meet Lawrence Waterhouse as he begins his work in the Philippines. Ostensibly, this involves selling Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos, a sort of fiber-optic communication system that allows migrants to speak with family instantaneously. However, he soon learns that his friend and CEO of Epiphyte, Avi Halaby, is interested in using this stream of capital to fund the building of a data haven in the nearby (and fictional) island of Kinakuta. At this point, his job description changes to surveying the laying of the underwater fiber optic cables that will run from the Philippines to Kinakuta, a job which leads him to enlists the help of a Vietnam veteran and mariner named Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his daughter, America “Amy” Shaftoe. These people, we quickly learn, are the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. In addition, on the island of Kinakuta, the company that is contracted to build the underground facility that will house the haven is run by a Japanese man named Goto Furudenendu, who just happens to be the son of Goto Dengo.
Over time, there plans to create a haven free of repression and scrutiny comes under fire from various quarters. At this point, Amy and Doug begin to help Lawrence and his company find an alternative source of revenue – a hidden cache of gold rumored to be at the bottom of a Philippine harbor. They find the gold and have the money they need, but in the course of it, they also uncover the plot involving detachment 2702, the Japanese, the Nazis, and an unbreakable code named Arethusa. This discovery makes them more enemies, people who want the gold for themselves, or just revenge, and things start to get dicey! However, through this they also get to meet an aged Goto Dengo, CEO of the construction company and man who buried the gold. He agrees to show them where the cache is hidden so that it can be repatriated; and with his help, they find it, Randy and Amy get together, the haven is built, and just about everyone lives happily ever after!
From the description alone, I’m thinking people will assume that this story was dense, well-conceived and came together quite nicely. And they would be right! One thing that is immediately clear about it is how well Stephenson weaves past and present together to create a grand narrative that is chock-full of suspense, intrigue and history. This last element is especially prevalent. I can’t tell you how many historical cameos made it into the novel. Through the character of Randy Waterhouse, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing make an appearance. Through his German counterpart, Rudy von Hacklheber, Hermann Goering makes several. Gunter Bischoff, though he never meets Karl Doenitz in the story, repeatedly references him since it he whom he is blackmailing and gets all his orders from! And through Bobby Shaftoe and Goto Dengo, Douglas MacArthur and Isoroku Yamamoto are also woven into the story.
In addition, the way he brings past and present together is done masterfully through his main characters, all of whom are apparently related. Lawrence Waterhouse is the son of Randy Waterhouse and Mary cCmndhd, Doug and Amy are the and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe respectively, and Furudenendu is the son of Goto. Hell, even Lawrence ex-girlfriend ends up shacking up with the son of a character in the story! In this way, the sense of connection between past and present is made more clear, as is the sense that destiny or some kind of long-term plan is being fulfilled. The evolution between cryptology and modern computing, how one grew out of the other, is also made abundantly clear.
As more than one critic observed, this book tends to appeal to the techno geeks in the crowd. In fact, that aspect of the novel can be quite oppressive at times. In several parts, the descriptions of mathematical concepts as they apply to various things (even the everyday), can go on and on and on. Two examples come to mind: the equation Randy comes up with to describe the rotation of a bicycle wheel, and the section where Lawrence and his peers are conducting some Van-Eck phreaking email surveillance. I mean really, page after page after page of inane detail! I got that the intent was to be comical in the sheer geekiness of it all, but for the non-geeky, the only way to survive these sections was to skip ahead or just keep reading and pray there was a point in there somewhere. Other than that, the sheer length of the book can feel somewhat stifling, which is why it took me a few months to finish it.
However, this book goes far beyond the mere technical. History buffs, fans of sci-fi and people who just plain like a good, complex and interwoven story will find something to enjoy here. Not only was it a good read, it previewed Stephenson’s ability to combine historical fiction and sci-fi, something he would reprise with the Baroque Cycle trilogy and the more recent Mongoliad, all of which I have yet to read! However, one thing at a time. I have yet to finish Anathem, and I’ve been eyeing Readme with keen interest lately…