Book Review


Neal Stephenson
Avon Books, 1999.
918 Pages.
Hardcover $27.50 [Browse/Purchase]
Paperback $16.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Richard Behrens

Early in the novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a student of mathematics at Princeton University, is bicycling late at night through the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. To his surprise, he comes across a wall of fire that burns around the metallic framework of what looks to have been a giant pyramid. He sees Naval men struggling with the flames, the ground strewn with shattered suitcases, and a room that seems to have fallen from the sky whose wrecked walls are decorated with posters of Hermann Goering. Gradually, we realize that Waterhouse is witnessing the aftermath of the crash of the Nazi airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst, NJ in 1938.
It is Waterhouse's peculiar perceptions of the patterns of things (he is more fascinated by the burning framework of the ship and the scattered objects in the debris field than he is by the human tragedy) that makes him valuable to military intelligence when the world erupts into global war. This man, who started his love for cryptology by playing the chapel pipe organ at college and speculates upon how a complete map of London can be recreated from the patterns made by people stepping up and down upon the street curbs, somehow distills from the framework of the burning zeppelin the idea of preset symbols in machine language that gave Alan Turing (his friend at Princeton) the crucial element to design the modern computer. Once the war begins, he is rescued by his role as a Navy glockenspiel player and recruited into a special detachment of the Royal Air Force. There, he works with an intelligence corps so secret that vast resources are deployed throughout the world to cover the knowledge of its existence from the enemy.
Starting with the shocking historical image of the burning Hindenburg, Neal Stephenson steps off into uncharted territory, upping his own literary ante after a decade and a half of writing overt science fiction novels. His previous works, including Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, have painted portraits of technological futures that seemed more grounded in possibility than any of the cyberpunk literature preceding them. Quantum computers, nanotechnology, virtual reality, life as software, culture as hibernating virus, the brain as microprocessor... it has all been done before; but somehow Stephenson was different. His voice carried authority, as if he were personally inspecting the future through the telescope of a secret research lab, where everyday concerns might include nanobots circulating through the body in a hunt for cancer, generators mass-producing food on the molecular level, and strange new books rippling dynamic content across erasable paper. It's these technologies that Stephenson projected in our future, and not always in a benevolent manner. He made us believe that advertisers would soon plaster visual mind control on the inescapable interior of our eyelids, or chat rooms would become as sophisticated as Star Trek's holodeck. And unlike many other science fiction writers, we could hear Stephenson chuckling at his own comic inventions as he went along.
Now he has given us a vastly complex book that ranks the author in the same category as Kurt Vonnegut or Thomas Pynchon -- similarities to Gravity's Rainbow are immediately obvious -- in the way World War II and the modern day are interwoven around several generations of an American family and their interactions with history.
The Waterhouses, Lawrence and his grandson Randy, are at the core of a novel which constantly shifts between World War II and the present. Lawrence is a key player in the crypto project that broke the German and Japanese military codes. Not only are the Allies privy to General Rommel and Admiral Yamamoto's every directive, they are continually faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not to act upon their hacked knowledge, thereby risking disclosure. RAF Detachment 2702 is formed as a sort of paramilitary counterintelligence force to keep the secret of the cracked codes. We travel from the occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese, through Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, North Africa, the Battle of the Atlantic, the death of Yamamoto and the last stand of the Japanese on lonely Pacific redoubts, never once losing track of character or narrative purpose. Not only do we meet endearing men such as Lawrence Waterhouse -- who strolls on landscapes far from the enemy lines designing the cryptographic strategies of Detachment 2702 -- but also Corporal Bobby Shaftoe, a morphine-addicted Marine who carries out the physical grunt work in the jungles of the Pacific, the deserts of North Africa, and even the depths of the Atlantic ocean. Also present are Enoch Root, a larger-than-life Priest-Warrior; Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier who survives life amongst the cannibal tribes of New Guinea to carve out a mountain for mysterious military purposes; and Commander Schoen, a crypto-genius who is amassing the Cryptonomicon, the ultimate collection of documents about human ciphers, a man driven insane by the psychic effect of his own chosen profession.
The modern-day plot thread focuses on Randy Waterhouse, part owner of Epiphyte(2), a telecommunications start-up company that tries to build an international data haven in the caverns of an obscure sultanate-island off the coast of Borneo. His fiber optic cables are lain by the granddaughter of Bobbie Shaftoe and the router caves are being engineered by Goto Dengo himself. Also present are a surreal parade of characters including the Dentist, a sexually perverse dental surgeon turned venture capitalist; the Sultan of Kinakuta, whose mission is to allow the Internet to escape the hands of international governments; and Andrew Loeb, an former role-playing genius turned digital terrorist, and who may or may not be the Digibomber.
The scramble for a hidden cache of Nazi gold in an attempt to back the world's largest repository of digital currency is an epic, tragic and yet humorous story, and Stephenson vividly brings it to life in all its greed and glory. His portrayal of role-playing game designers (who graduate college with little more than a mountainous knowledge of the UNIX operating system) turned telecommunication tycoons, is a dead-on satire of the colossal gold rush that ensued in the wake of the Internet explosion in the mid-90s. He blends fact with fiction so beautifully that he makes it easy to believe that there is an open source operating system called Finux (read: Linux), a community of right-wing techno libertarians called Eutropians (read: Extropians) and that the Sultanate of Kinakuta is just as real as Bletchley Park or Guadalcanal. The fictional characters move against a background populated by men such as Admiral Yamamoto, Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur so seamlessly that you begin wondering if Lawrence Waterhouse really did invent Random Access Memory (RAM), or whether the wacky kingdom of Qwghlm (which has more words for wool than the Eskimos do for snow) does indeed float in the English Channel.
Stephenson's prose is clean and accessible, enjoyable and funny. Nearly every page contains a stunning metaphor or image that conveys volumes beyond the event it's been charged to describe:

Shaftoe has had little direct contact with that Waterhouse fellow during their stay on Qwghlm, but he has noticed that men who have just finished talking to Waterhouse tend to walk away shaking their heads -- and not in the slow way of a man saying "no", but in the sudden convulsive way of a dog who has a horsefly in his middle ear. [page 374]

Additionally, the novel abounds in comic moments and humorous ironies, carefully balanced so as not to detract from the epic tone. The life history of Randy Waterhouse and his failed start-up companies is a small comic gem in itself, his girlfriend Charlene's deconstructive analysis of the racist use of facial hair is a perfect send-up of myopic postmodern academia, and the devouring of a box of Cap'n Crunch by a computer software genius resonates hilariously with the novel's other plot threads of sunken treasure and the cryptological search for patterns within nature:

[T]he cereal engineers at General Mills had to find a shape that would minimize surface area, and, as some sort of compromise between the sphere that is dictated by Euclidean geometry and whatever sunken-treasure-related shapes that the cereal-aestheticians were probably clamoring for, they came up with this hard-to-pin-down striated pillow formation. [page 479]

Shuttling back and forth between the men of mind (the cryptographers, mathematicians, strategists and politicians) and the men of action (Marines, sailors, pilots, treasure divers, U-boat captains), Stephenson weaves a series of narrative threads that span decades, eventually harmonizing into a narrative unity that leaves the reader with a euphoric sense of epic pleasure. As may be obvious, it's difficult to summarize just exactly what this book is about -- computer technology, cryptography, the Internet, the controversy over digital privacy, the legacy of World War II, death, global politics and computer operating systems; all are essential elements in a complex but sumptuous feast of ideas. Indeed, Cryptonomicon seems to be about Everything, or at the very least, the use of symbol systems and decryption to discover the true nature of Everything.
Though they have never before been given such a thorough workout as here, the synthesis of these themes is nothing new for Stephenson. In a long essay about computers and our techno-cultural landscape called In The Beginning Was The Command Line, he touches upon the relationship between religion, cosmogony, quantum physics and technology. In a paragraph that again recalls Pynchon (but without the giddy sense of paranoia), Stephenson writes that:

...somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics...and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then down it comes -- and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

This idea of the universe as a coded operating system is a powerful image that is central to Cryptonomicon. In its own way, Stephenson's essay on operating systems provides a philosophical companion to his novel. Lawrence Waterhouse, obsessed with the patterns of nature, searches in his own way for the signatures of the "hacker-demiurge":

The sand at the surf line has been washed flat. A small child's footprints wander across it, splaying like gardenia blossoms on thin shafts. The sand looks like a geometric plane until a sheet of ocean grazes it. Then small imperfections are betrayed by swirls in the water. Those swirls in turn carve the sand. The ocean is a Turing machine, the sand is its tape; the water reads the marks in the sand and sometimes erases them and sometimes carves new ones with tiny currents that are themselves a response to the marks. Plodding through the surf, Waterhouse strikes deep craters in the wet sand that are read by the ocean. Eventually the ocean erases them, but in the process its state has been changed, the pattern of its swirls have been altered. Waterhouse images that the disturbance might somehow propagate across the Pacific and into some super-secret Nipponese surveillance device made of bamboo tubes and chrysanthemum leaves. Nip listeners would know that Waterhouse had walked that way. In turn, the water swirling around Waterhouse's feet carries information about Nip propeller design and the deployment of their fleets -- if only he had the wit to read it. The chaos of the waves, gravid with encrypted data, mocks him. [page 445]

Cryptonomicon is an immense but fascinating work, effortlessly pulled off by an author accustomed to mining the veins of pop culture as much as his own technical background. (In a recent interview, he confessed that he gathered much of the World War II Marine material from his wife's uncle, and that he researched German U-Boats by watching Das Boot!) But don't let Stephenson's casual manner fool you: this complex novel is carefully textured with a blend of historical reality and fictional invention, stitching together the origins of the modern computer in the chaos of World War II with the globe-spanning Internet and its hard currency of information. With Cryptonomicon, a science fiction writer has cast his trained, visionary eye on our technological past, and has created a work of literature that sheds some light on our cultural present.

--Richard Behrens
25 April 2001

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.