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by Neal Stephenson

Reviewed by Shawn FitzGerald

Cryptonomicon is by far Neal Stephenson's longest and far-reaching novel to date. Being a fan of Stephenson since Snow Crash, I was looking forward to this book for months. I was not disappointed.

I should begin with, I suppose, this disclaimer: Cryptonomicon is not Snow Crash! It isn't as gut-bustingly funny at every turn, though it has its moments. It is, however, a better piece of writing overall, with an engaging story, a twisting plot, conspiracies (gotta have those), and characters that are more developed and engaging than the residents of Stephenson's previous work.

The protagonist of Cryptonomicon, Randy Waterhouse, is a man after the heart of many geeks. He is a recovering role-playing-game addict, who fell into the world of computers more or less by accident. His background is typical of many hackers, who didn't really set out to have a career in computers. He just thought they were neat and fell into it naturally. I work in IS, and my degree is in English. My previous boss went to school to be a shop teacher, and the Novell administrator at our affiliate school has a degree in Psychology. These things happen.

Randy finds himself, with the aid of some old friends, involved with the construction of a data haven someplace near the Philippines. This is a place for legitimate, and some not-so-legitimate, corporations, governments, and assorted others to store information that is totally private and free from government intervention. As can be imagined, various powers in the world are not so sure they want this data haven existing. Or, if it must exist, they want to control it.

This is only part of the story, as the novel bounces back and forth between the adventures of Randy, and the adventures of various others way back in WWII. I'm not giving much away by saying that almost every character in the WWII thread of the novel is a relative of one of the characters in the present-day story. This WWII story deals with the early history of cryptography in a very speculative, yet plausible way. Once of the problems in WWII was that the Allies had broken the German Enigma codes. This was a good thing, but it presented a problem for the Allies: how do they use the information from those intercepted messages, without letting the Germans know they'd broken Enigma? The novel deals with this ways that provide much of its comedy.

Since Cryptonomicon deals with cryptography, and cryptography has lots of math and technology behind it, I was a little concerned going into the book that it would bog down at times as Stephenson tried to explain things in these areas. There was some talk of technology and math, and a description of what has to be one of the greatest uses for those little green lights in the upper right hand part of a computer keyboard (I'm not giving this one away, read the book). I have an above average knowledge of both computers and math, and was able to follow everything without any problems. I don't think most people would have trouble though. If you've read The Number of the Beast, by Heinlein, without incinerating the damn thing before getting halfway through, you're more than ready for Cryptonomicon. If you know what a prime number is, most of the math will make at least a little sense. If you don't know what a prime number is, well...

Prime Numbers in a Nutshell

A prime number is an integer. An integer is a number that has no fractions; they are sometimes called 'counting numbers.' A prime integer is a number that can't be divided evenly by another integer into two more integers. Prime numbers are pretty easy to think about because you don't have to mess with fractions at all. You might say, "Shawn, you can divide any number evenly by 1." This is true, young Skywalker, but when it comes to prime numbers, dividing by 1 is not allowed, that leads to the Dark Side.

As an example, 4 is not a prime number, because if you divide it by 2 you get 2 (4/2=2). However, 2 is a prime number, because you can't divide it by any integer (remember, integers are whole counting numbers) without getting a fraction. Go ahead, try it, I'll wait.

Other prime numbers are 5, 7, 11, 13, etc. The bigger the number gets, the harder it is to tell if it's prime without thinking real hard about it. In Cryptonomicon, Randy's grandfather can pretty much look at any number and know if it's prime, but he's not normal. Cryptography uses really, really, really big prime numbers. These are so big that only a computer can possibly deal with them.

Stephenson has frequently been compared to Thomas Pynchon, and these comparisons are perhaps more valid to me after reading Cryptonomicon. There are occasional descriptions of events and happenings that have no real place in the overall story, but are wonderful all the same. I am reminded of Randy Waterhouse reminiscing about a past event in his life, which Stephenson uses to take potshots at liberal arts academia. As a graduate of the liberal arts, I can relate to every little poke and jab. I also have a sense of humor, so I found this little piece of the novel to be one of its funniest parts. It is these wonderful little fragments that make me think of Pynchon while reading Stephenson's writing (I hesitate to call his writing 'work,' lest I be branded a liberal arts academic).

To be fair, Stephenson is not Pynchon. There are similarities, but Stephenson does not have Pynchon's capacity for turning prose into poetry. He doesn't have the knack for picking words that flow seamlessly from one to the next and sound like music. To expect him to would be silly, and faulting him for not being Pynchon would be rude. In his favor, Stephenson is vastly more readable than Pynchon, and just as funny.



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