Book Review 34: Cryptonomicon

Waterhouse has not even been given the full tour of BP yet, but he knows the gist of it. He knows that these demure girls, obediently shuffling reams of gibberish through their machines, shift after shift, day after day, have killed more men than Napoleon.

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Ranging from Manila to Shanghai to England to California to the South Pacific Islands, Neil Stepenson's Cryptonomicon is 1,130 pages of modern-day high tech business, World War II epic, monetary policy, geek culture exploration, treasure hunting, legal skulduggery about a dozen other topics. It tells several great stories that come together at the end, with a solid plot, and plenty of surprises. It has moments where the tone is inconsistent, and they characters aren't quite as real as they could be, but the depth and detail of the story is reason enough to read it.

The sheer thickness of the book gave me pause before opening it, but I'm glad I did.

In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson tells the stories of 4 characters, in varying chapters. One chapter will focus on Bobby Shaftoe, then next on Randy Waterhouse, the next on Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, then maybe we go back to Bobby Shaftoe, or to a chapter on Goto Dengo. It that respect, Cryptonomicon is essentially four books shuffled together like a deck of cards. Stephenson tells each story in third person and through the imperfect and limited eyes of his characters, in an effort to put the reader in the characters' place.

This structure works surprisingly well. The different stories complement one another, but Stephenson tells each story in discrete sections. This means that even though Stephenson jumps around to different continents and and decades, the story does not get confusing. It also means he can just move a character's story forward by 6 months or more and doesn't need to bother with how to get the character there.

Stephenson writes with a dry wit that kept me chuckling through the book.

It's not all new ground. In the tradition of M*A*S*H he takes shots at the military bureaucracy.

Like any other military unit, Detachment 2702 is rich in some supplies and poor in others, but they do appear to control about 50% of last years total U.S. tarpage production.

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The United States Military (Waterhouse has decided) is first and foremost an unfathomable network of typists and fileclerks, secondarily a stupendous mechanism for moving stuff from one part ot the world to another, and last and least a fighting organization.

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The tone is also evident is passages such as:

Let's set the Existence-Of-God issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored.

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The cynical humor throughout the book, is embodied in a stand alone lines and in the antics of the characters. It makes reading it even more enjoyable.

Stephenson also follows few German characters, though he doesn't spend as much time on them. One of them is taken by the SS to meet with someone on a train. The holocaust was ostensibly a secret from the German people at the time, though such secrets can't really be contained:

A short train waits here. It does not contain any boxcars, a relief to Rudy, since he thinks that during the last few years he may have glimpsed boxcars that appear to be filled with human beings. These glimpses were brief and surreal, and he cannot really sort out whether they really happened, or were merely fragments of nightmares that got filed in the wrong cranial drawer.

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Stephenson excels with moving the plot along. He illustrates his key themes in a compelling manner. I found it hard to put the book down -- I wanted to see what was going to happen next.

While Stephenson does a great job with the plot and the comedic asides, he doesn't write his characters as well. They are interesting, but inconsistent, especially early on. The Waterhouses are the geek characters. He tries to write Goto as the Japanese soldier who knows Japan screwed up, and Shaftoe is the cool, tough guy who writes poetry.

Stephenson shows that the Geek is strong in Randy Waterhouse. He spends 3 pages on how Randy eats Captain Crunch. Randy also describes people in the industry using Lord of the Rings terminology. He is a Dwarf. Others are Elves, Men, or Wizards.

Of course he's a Unix guru that has trouble relating to women. But he goes through most of the novel as an observer. The geek in him comes out when Stephenson chooses to emphasize it, but most of the time, there's nothing in the book to make him stand out from any other character. Much of the time he seems fairly normal and unremarkable.

But this techie business traveler does have his moments.

Living in the States, you never see anything older than about 2 and a half centuries, and you have to visit the eastern fringe of the country to see that. The business traveler's world of airports and taxicabs looks the same everywhere. Randy never really believes he's in a different country until he sees something like the Intramuros, and then he has to stand there like an idiot for a long time, ruminating.

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If nine-year-old Randy Waterhouse had been able to look into the future and see himself in this career, he would have been delighted beyond measure: the primary tool of the Interlibrary Loan Department was the Staple Remover. Young Randy had seen one of these devices in the hands of his fourth grade teacher and been enthralled by its cunning and dangerous appearance, so like the jaws of some futuristic robot dragon. He had, in fact, gone out of his way to staple things incorrectly just so he could prevail on his teacher to unstaple them, giving him another glimpse of the blood-chilling mandibles in action. He had gone so far as to steal a staple remover from an untended desk at church and then incorporate it into an Erector-set robot hunter-killer device with which he terrorized much of the neighborhood; its pit-viper yawn separated many a cheap plastic toy from its parts and accessories before the theft was discovered and Randy made and example of before God and man.

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His grandfather, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is a more alien character. He is a mathematician. The military appreciates his skill.

The message states that after thoroughly destroying this message, he -- Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse -- is to proceed to London, England, by the fastest available means. All ships, trains, and airplanes, even submarines, will be made available to him. Though a member of the U. S. Navy, he is even to be provided with an extra uniform -- an Army uniform -- in case it simplifies matters for him.

The only thing he must never, ever do is place himself in a situation where he could be captured by the enemy. In this sense, the war is suddenly over for Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse.

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His superiors were well aware of his skills and his limitations. While it was important to keep Waterhouse safe and keep him working on encryption issues, they were well knew he might not be the best person to present things to others. It might take him a while to get started while speaking to a group, but once he gets started on a thought he would be away and rapidly get so deep into a topic the others would have no idea what he was talking about, but would know he was brilliant.

"...Colonel Chatten always shows up, and before the meeting starts, always find some frightfully cheerful and oblique way to tell Waterhouse to keep his trap shut unless someone asks a math question. Waterhouse is not offended. He prefers it, actually, because it leaves his mind free to work on important things. During their last meeting at the Broadway Buildings, Waterhouse proved a theorem.

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Math genius and organist Waterhouse struck others as odd. When other characters refer to him, they describe him as some kind of freak. Waterhouse's brilliance does come out in the text, and Stephenson more strongly defines Lawrence's character than Randy Waterhouse's, but it's not as crisp as it could be. When we see Lawrence through his own eyes, he clearly has trouble relating to women, and he forms his strongest bonds with other mathematicians.

Turing figured out something entirely different, something unspeakably strange and radical.

He figured out that mathematicians, unlike carpenters, only needed to have one tool in their tool box, if it were the right sort of tool. Turing realized that is should be possible to build a meta-machine that could be reconfigured in such a way that it would so any task you could conceivably do with information. It would be a protean device that could that could turn into any tool you would ever need. Like a pipe organ changing into a different instrument every time you hit a preset button.

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But there is little sense of the personal isolation Waterhouse feels. And that disconnect in the characterization loses something.

Some might argue that because we see Waterhouse's world through his own eyes, everything is idealized. He doesn't see himself that way. Therefore, the reader shouldn't notice that either. And there may be some truth to that, but in my experience an alienated geek still knows they are socially "different." They may not care; they may not seek a different lifestyle. And the may truly be comfortable with who they are, but they are still aware of it. And I don't see that self awareness come through in Waterhouse's character.

Bobby Shaftoe has most of the big adventures in the book. He is the tough guy. He may not get all the math, but he his street smart. He is a tactical whiz and can adapt to anything that happens on the battlefield. Especially if it gets him closer to his next morphine hit. He even gets to meet the future 40th President of the US during a morphine addled hospital bed interview after a brutal experience on Guadalcanal where he claims giant lizards were eating his comrades.

"You did great," Lieutenant Reagan says without looking him in the eye. "A real morale booster. He light a cigarette. "You can go back to sleep now."

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As a soldier, he knows how to talk to officers -- when to feign ignorance and exactly when to belt out a, "Sir! Yes, Sir!" But he is mostly a two dimensional character. In the very beginning of the book, we learn he writes poetry.

The modern world's hell on Haiku writers.

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And this gets mentioned again towards the end of the book. But throughout the middle of the book Stephenson doesn't mention it. It's almost an after thought. It seems as though Stephenson was trying to write his perfect marine, rather than a marine with a particular character.

Goto Dengo is a Japanese soldier who meets Shaftoe in the months preceding Pearl Harbor. We pick up his adventures following the bombing of a transport ship he is on. Of all the main characters, he has the roughest WWII experience, being marooned, captured, and dealing with the tough environment in the South Pacific.

He has a different world view than most of the other Japanese soldiers we encounter. He understands that the Emperor is not infallible and that the war is not going well for Japan.

Like the Waterhouses, he is an engineer. His engineering is not about data, however. It's about tunneling and mining. He grew up in a mining community and learned how to construct tunnels and mines. He also displays and adaptability that sets him apart from his Japanese colleagues. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Stephenson has also been criticized for the way he draws his female characters in this book. They can come across as canned and not as real people. I'm willing to give him a pass on this, however. I'm not sure if it's intended this way, but we are not seeing the women in this book through their own eyes, like we do with Shaftoe, Goto, and the Waterhouses. We are seeing them through the eyes of imperfect, immature narrators. Since Shaftoe and the Waterhouses don't necessarily understand women the way they understand their jobs, then their perceptions would naturally be skewed.

In this book, there are two reason the Allies won the war -- Adaptability and Encryption.

Shaftoe often calls on the Marine credo of "Adapt and Overcome." When something isn't working, he has no problem changing it. He is always looking at alternative ways to get the mission done when he hits a wall. Goto makes also makes this observation about the Americans.

The Americans have invented a totally new bombing tactic in the middle of a war and implemented it flawlessly. His mind staggers like a drunk in aisle of a careening train. They saw that they were wrong, they admitted their mistake, they came up with a new idea. The new idea was accepted and embraced all the way up the chain of command. Now they are using it to kill their enemies.


The American Marines in Shanghai weren't proper warriors either. Constantly changing their ways. Like Shaftoe. Shaftoe tried to fight Nipponese soldiers in the street and failed. Having failed, he decided to learn new tactics -- from Goto Dengo. "The Americans are not warriors," everyone kept saying. "Businessmen perhaps. Not Warriors."

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The fact that the Americans were not afraid to admit a mistake and take corrective action boggles the mind of the Goto and the other Japanese soldiers he works with. The way Goto explains it, a Japanese soldier would be too ashamed to do something like that. It would admit a fallibility that was simply not acceptable.

But the Allies continued to adapt. That adaptability extends to cosmetics.

Wartime lipstick is necessarily cobbled together from whatever tailings and gristle were left over once all of the good stuff was used to coat propeller shafts. A florid and cloying scent is needed to conceal its unspeakable mineral and animal origins.

It is the smell of war.

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It's not just the soldiers who adapt. In the 90s story Randy Waterhouse and Epiphyte Corporation continue to evolve their business model. The initial reason Randy goes to the Philippines changes. The company goes through about 30 different versions of its business plan in a year and a half. The business environment keeps changing around them as the face new opportunities and legal challenges. The directions Epiphyte goes in demonstrate the importance of being nimble to a small company. It gives them an advantage.

Encryption, though, is the main theme in the book. In WWWII, Waterhouse had two jobs -- breaking enemy code systems and hiding the fact that they were broken from the enemy. The latter is an aspect of encryption I never gave much though to. But it is critical. Breaking a code system is only useful if the enemy does not know its codes have been compromised. If they are aware of it, they can take appropriate countermeasures and having broken the code becomes useless.

That also means the Allies can't act on every bit of intelligence they gleam from the now compromised communiques. Doing so would lead to the inevitable conclusion that the communiques have been compromised. Waterhouse's job becomes, in part, to come up with "alternative" ways the Allies uncovered the information they acted. It's also part of his job to try to anticipate what former mathematician colleagues are doing in Germany and to try to think like they think.

While Waterhouse represents the intellectual arm of this effort, Shaftoe is they physical. He participates in missions to help ensure the secrecy of Waterhouse's efforts. But generally he doesn't know that. Keeping all these secrets is imperative to the war effort.

Date encryption is also critical to Epiphyte Corporation in the 90s. Their efforts surrounding secure data transmission and storage are critical to their view of the world. One of the interesting aspects of the books is the way Stephenson expounds on the importance of encryption for the Internet and modern monetary systems.

Encryption in WWII was mainly used to hide information. In the modern story, encryption is used not just to hide data, but also to prove identity. Those who follow encryption on the Internet are likely familiar with Public Key Encryption (PGP is one of the best know examples). In an environement where communications can be accessed illicitly and spoofed, and where people who do business with one another may not have even been in the same room, proving identity is important. Users can accomplish this using encryption.

So while adaptability is a main theme in the books, Stephenson uses it primarily as a platform to explore the issues of data security.

Reading Cryptonomicon takes some time. And if you primarily want vividly drawn characters, this book is not for you. If you want a geeky WWII adventure story, or find the topic of Encryption interesting this is a great read. The plot and the story kept me entertained for hours. The way Stephenson jumps from one character to the next in alternating chapters and decades works. It helps establish a broader framework and context for what is going on. Cryptonomicon is also a good primer if you plan to read Stephenson's 3000+ page Baroque Cycle.

Stephenson writes fascinating books about the impact of data on people's lives. If you would like a shorter Stephenson book to start with, I can recommend Snow Crash. My review of that one is here. It's not short, by most standards, but is definitely briefer than Cryptonomicon. Regardless of which one you read first, they are both great ways to pass the hours.

For more of my book reviews, click here.


CS McClellan/Catana said...

You almost make me want to read Cryptonomicon again. Up till then, I was a huge Stephenson fan. I don't mind long, hard slogs in literature, but he may have lost me with his series of door stops. Still--I'm going to have a go at Anathem--some day.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I've been a Stephenson fan since his underrated first novel The Big U back in the 1980's. Currently reading Anathem and so far (I'm only about 175 pages into it) it's a winner.

Stanley! said...

I liked the absurd culture of Qwghlm in the book.

Really the scene that sticks most vividly in my mind is the sequence where Waterhouse suddenly decides that he will court Mary cCmndhd (inventing his own "code" for the operation) and plays the organ as a way of impressing her. That was very well done.

What did you think about the ending, though? It seemed to me like Stevenson just dropped everything he had been working on and focused on glorifying an unsatisfactory solution to a minor problem.

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