My buddy John had spoken more than once of this book, and on a Christmas eve (give or take) when we found ourselves in the same bookstore he bought it for me. (This is the same John I accidentally stole Dead Girls from, compounding his largesse, though without his knowledge.)
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, is a big book, filled with history, science, politics, and adventure. The title refers to an informal compilation of knowledge on the subject of making and breaking codes. Much of the story takes place during the second world war, when the same forces that accelerated the development of the atomic bomb also lead to enormous strides in computing machines. Much of that computing power is devoted to the breaking of codes.
I’m not sure how historically accurate some of this stuff is, but he makes a pretty compelling argument that allied code-breaking turned the war, not just in Europe (with the famous enigma crack), but in the pacific as well. To this day, events in the battle of Midway are ascribed to good fortune. Could signal intelligence have been the real hero?
At the center of the story is a karass — a name coined by Kurt Vonnegut to describe a group of people whose lives are inexplicably but undeniably intertwined. The karass is such an intrinsic part of storytelling that I’m surprised it has never been named before. “So, we meet again,” is something a karass-mate would say. (Although, to be honest, most of my stories are not grand enough to encompass a whole karass.) If you cannot accept the idea of a karass then there are parts of this story that are going to be difficult for you. In this case the karass is stretched across generations; it is an inheritable karass, and to my mind this pushes things a little too far. There really is no reason that some of the people involved needed to descend from the previous batch. I might have been more tolerant of the connections if, at the end, many of the characters weren’t so blasé about the enormous coincidence. “You taught my grandfather karate in Shanghai before the war? Holy crap! That’s staggering!” was not said.
Still, for all that this is one seriously powerful karass that all concerned seem to take for granted, the story works very well. One of the cool things about it is that cryptography is not just treated as a technology, not just as a weapon, but as a socially significant phenomenon. Cryptography is a cornerstone of privacy in our world, and privacy is a cornerstone of freedom. Somewhere in there Stephenson makes the leap to “a currency not controlled by a government could have averted the holocaust”, and that was a leap I didn’t manage to make, but overall the message worked.
What was really cool was how human the people making these giant advancements in technology and mathematics were. Paradoxically, the writer made them human by emphasizing their oddities, the ways they didn’t conform to the human norm. In this way the novel was populated with a host of interesting, dynamic, and believable people. Some of them were pretty damn clever as well. The story goes back and forth between people just starting to define what the nature of a programmable machine even is, to people with hacker as a middle name. That worked very well.
And now a brief time-out for the complaining: There were a couple of business ethics points that were contrived, simply incorrect, and since they were critical to the progress of the plot they bothered me. There was a sequence that involved a family of geeks dividing an inheritance that didn’t work on two axes – the solution they arrived at was flawed in a way all the geeks would have recognized, and there was a much simpler solution that would have accomplished the same thing. General Douglas MacArthur, a peripheral member of the karass, makes a jump of faith I just couldn’t handle. I was bothered at the end when a statue of Buddha was melted down in a scheme I don’t think would have worked anyway. Somehow the last two people alive in the submarine belonged to the karass.
OK then! Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say that I’ve never read a better story about the inner lives of geeks even as they go about rewriting all the rules. The geeks, both the documented historical ones like Turing and the add-ins, are all pretty cool. Did geeks win the second world war, or did factories, or did the marines? Does it even matter? In the years of war and the time following, secrecy was a national asset, and secrecy was increasingly dependent on mathematics and computation. Reading about the code-breakers of old, the guessing-games and rooms full of men using abacuses on one side versus a computing machine that may deafen you on the other, makes for some good reading. Add on top heroism, adventure, and prose written with a dry wit, and you’ve got yourself a good book.
And then there’s the open hatch on the submarine. Danm. Complaints I registered above acknowledged, you just know that a member of the karass went though that hatch. Somebody got out. Stephenson didn’t have to write this part; the story can live without it. But he did, and I’m glad. It hangs over a good span of the book. The answer to that mystery is as satisfying as it is tragic.
One last complaint, or perhaps a left-handed compliment. This book needs a bibliography, or at least a recommended reading list. There were dozens of times through the course of this story that I wanted to know more about the surrounding events. I can only assume Stephenson did some serious research, and I’d like to be able to follow in his footsteps. All historical fiction should at the end cite sources, but in a story about the dawn of the information age, that seems even more important. There is a great appendix about one particular code that you and I can use, written by someone who obviously thinks a lot about passing information in a hostile environment, but I really wanted more. It is unconscionable that a book that tickles my interest in so many subjects does not supply a reading list at the end.
I liked Bobby Shaftoe. I liked Goto Dengo. I liked the geeks. Stephenson created a whole zoo of people I liked. Right there, you know you’ve got a good story. Embrace the karass; find your own karass, and enjoy this book.
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