Review: Decoding 'Cryptonomicon'

'Snow Crash' author's crypto novel a technically-correct -- yet entertaining -- ride.
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor
Whether he intends it or not, Neal Stephenson's new book, "Cryptonomicon," is a reminder that most other people writing fiction about technology don't really know what they are talking about.

Stephenson is best known as a science-fiction writer, and his two previous books took place in settings more or less familiar from the genre. "Cryptonomicon" is different: it turns the author's satirical eye, and his detailed, thoughtful knowledge of information technology, onto our own world, stripping away the layers of metaphor.

The result is, on the surface, a 910-page tome about cryptography. But Stephenson's real interest, as ever, is human beings' relationship with technology, and where that technology is taking us.

Since Stephenson is both conversant with the digital innards of the technology and a fantastic writer, the excursion turns out to be a technically correct, yet entertaining, ride.

Back to the future
The plot is constructed around two groups of characters, one engaging in a variety of dangerous pursuits in World War II, the other in setting up an Internet-connected data haven in the present day. The historical scenes let Stephenson explore the origins of digital computing and cryptography, and their ramifications in life-or-death situations; the contemporary scenes delve into the implications of today's information technology for geopolitics and cultural survival.

Along the way, we're treated to the ever-unfolding spectacle of Stephenson's imagination -- garish, wacky, vivid, even lyrical, and always unpredictable.

This is a writer just as comfortable discoursing on the banking system of war-era Shanghai or delving into information theory equations as delivering an essay on optimal Cap'n Crunch consumption.

Technically elegant
While "Cryptonomicon" is highly technical at times, these bits can be skimmed without losing much; this is no textbook. Stephenson's real goal is to place information technology, in all its bewildering complexity, into a mythic framework that makes intuitive sense.

The fact that the author has a practical knowledge of the technology he writes about -- Stephenson writes code as well as fiction -- only means that crypto geeks can get just as much out of the book as laypeople.

For the amusement of the former, there's even an appendix, written by crypto guru Bruce Schneier, explaining the workings of a cryptological system called Solitaire, which Schneier created for the novel.

Sequels to come
"Cryptonomicon" is a science-fiction book in the purest sense -- it searches for a definition of man and his status in the universe that will stand up to current ideas about science and technology, to paraphrase Brian Aldiss' definition.

As a science fiction book, it has certain weaknesses -- characters, for example, tend to be ciphers, and the tonal range of the prose is somewhat limited by the book's unwavering focus on ideas and plot.

Such niggling worries aside, Stephenson seems, once again, to have hit a rich thematic vein. In fact, the book is conceived of as the beginning of a series.

We won't have to wait long for the sequel, either; "Quicksilver," based on a plotline that was extracted from "Cryptonomicon," and set in the 18th century, is due out next May.

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