(I decided that I might as well publish the book reviews I write on my own blog. So here we go!)
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
Random House, 1999, ISBN 0099410672
1941: Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an eccentric mathematician, has been deemed by the US military to be too stupid to be put in the combat duty, and barely smart enough to operate a glockenspiel in a Navy band in Pearl Harbour. After a few Japanese fighters show up and force Waterhouse to abandon the glockenspiel (and the exploding ship he’s on), the Navy puts him to codebreaking class - which happens to work surprisingly well. Soon, Waterhouse is consorting with the upper echelons of the US and Allied forces. He ends up in Bletchley Park, the heart of Allied cryptanalysis efforts, where he works with his friend and colleague Alan Turing. But Waterhouse and Turing figure that one of their friends from Princeton, Rudy von Hacklheber, is working for the Germans. The enemies, obviously, should never be allowed to figure out that Bletchley Park’s geniuses have busted Enigma and various other Axis codes wide open. It befalls to Waterhouse to lead an effort to fool the Axis forces to thinking that every mysterious Allied victory due to broken codes could be explained by other kinds of leaks. Of course, not everything is smooth sailing for this detachment, and on top of that, Waterhouse is puzzled by a mysterious, rarely used cipher that looks like Rudy’s handwork - and which has something to do with gold, mining and Asia…
Near future (which is to say, early 2000s): Randy Waterhouse is on the verge of breaking through in his first actually successful business venture: with his colleagues, he’s creating the world’s first true data haven. With their help, the Sultanate of Kinakuta in Far East is building a Crypt, a place where any and all information can be stored without legal interventions or censorship from the state. Randy and his colleagues are about to turn profit from this by starting a digital currency based on strong cryptography and the security offered by the Crypt. But when there’s money to be made, dark clouds inevitably follow, and soon this business venture is surrounded by circling sharks of various descriptions. Stuff starts to get really tricky when the company assisting with the communications cabling runs into a strange WW2 submarine wreck full of gold in the Philippines, and when Randy runs into some rather curious cryptography stuff that his grandfather Lawrence left behind…
As a computer geek, I can say it’s very hard to even start thinking of how would anyone be able to write a historical novel about computing. Even when computers are irreplaceable today, they only were invented around the World War II. Of course, it helps a lot that it was the war time and the circumstances of the invention of computers were shrouded in explosions, secrecy, espionage and intrigue. Still, frankly, computers, cryptography and telecommunications are a bit dull subject. It takes a fairly masterful writer to add a few good spoonfulness of flavour to make the whole mess interesting.
And Neal Stephenson is just the kind of a writer who can turn the whole mess interesting. And, since the novel is as much science fiction as it is a historical novel, there’s quite a lot of artistic licence that helps a lot. What we have here is a whole bunch of interesting characters, interestingly potrayed historical figures, lovingly described real places, fancifully and amusingly crafted fictional places. Real events meshed with phenomenally interesting ideas on what could have happened, and what might be possible.
Of course, describing the novel as “science fiction” is kind of difficult now. Stephenson is a visionary whose ideas have been surprisingly plausible; his ideas for virtual worlds in Snow Crash have been extremely influential for makers of multiplayer videogames, for example. Over the past decade since Cryptonomicon was released, we’ve already seen attempts at establishing data havens and cryptocurrencies. The world has already been shaken by Wikileaks and its ilk, and research on cryptocurrencies is going strong. And no one can deny that IT business has become a rather dangerous place, what with the constant bubbling of intellectual property lawsuits.
The strength of Cryptonomicon is that it’s an amusing novel, with just enough humour to bring characters to life and that yet won’t distract from overall serious tone. It’s also a sprawling story with lots of interesting detours. The story occasionally shifts genres and focuses and it doesn’t distract from the overall tone of it all. The only real annoyance is in the end: one could say the storylines are wrapped up rather dutifully, without much attempts for further elaboration or hints on what might follow. It’s not a bad way to end a book, but it feels quite abrupt.
I’ve read the novel and the unabridged Audible audiobook - the latter is a quite competent production, though the regular price is pretty preposterous so Audible membership is a lot more plausible way of acquiring it. The Audible book also shuffles some early scenes, but as the book has several points of view at various points of time, this doesn’t really make things too much harder to follow.
If you’re not afraid of seeing some phenomenally geeky subjects treated in a very non-geeky manner, a war novel that absolutely doesn’t feel like a war novel, and a science fiction novel that doesn’t, in retrospect, wander too much in the fiction side, then Cryptonomicon is going to be an interesting read.