The Barnes & Noble Review
Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Cryptonomicon, is an immense and extraordinary tale that unwinds with all the stylistic grandeur his fans have come to expect. With Cryptonomicon, the reader is quickly plunged into a bizarre, breakneck-paced story that interweaves World War II code making and code breaking with computerized global corporate takeovers, one that melds elements of Catch-22, A Man Called Intrepid, and a hefty dose of cyberpunk reality. Stephenson leaves behind the science fiction worlds of his previous novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age to depict the madness involved in many of World War II's top-secret missions and to offer a view of how 1940s cryptography eventually led to technological developments in the world of computers.
Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a brilliant mathematician at Princeton, is eventually lured away from luminous fellow students Alan Turing and Rudy von Hacklheber and enters the U.S. Navy. There he is considered so dim that he's only given the task of playing the glockenspiel in the Navy band. After the disaster of Pearl Harbor, however, Waterhouse's skills as a cryptoanalyst are finally noticed, and he's immediately sent to Bletchley Park, England, the base of the Allied code-busting operations. The "unbreakable" German code, Enigma, has been cracked, and the Allies want to use their newfound information without alerting the Germans and Japanese to the fact that their plans are no longer secret. It's Waterhouse's job, as a member of the ultra-secret Detachment 2702, to make all oftheAllied actions from this point on look "randomized," so that the Axis powers won't realize Enigma has been broken.
Paired up again with Turing, who is on his way to developing the first computer, Waterhouse learns that their old friend Rudy is now the chief German cryptographer. Waterhouse's insight into the peculiarities of fellow mathematicians might allow him to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Meanwhile, U.S. Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe, a survivor of Guadalcanal and a generally unstable personality, is brought in to make contrived events appear to be genuine. His missions include putting corpses into wet suits with fake documentation and flying into the heart of enemy territory. He's left in the dark as to the details of Detachment 2702's work, but that's what he's come to expect from his superiors.
When the novel shifts to the present, Waterhouse's grandson, Randy, an Internet commando and computer genius, is trying to make a bundle of money by setting up a so-called data haven in the Philippines, along with his paranoid partner, Avi. They envision a place where all data is safe from government interference, corporate attack, or hacker assault. Randy eventually hooks up with Bobby Shaftoe's granddaughter, Amy (short for America), who is interested in helping Randy lay deep-sea cable between the islands and make whatever she can from this new enterprise. In this area of the ocean floor, there is a sunken German submarine that carries the still undeciphered Axis code named Arethusa; investigated in the past by Waterhouse and Shaftoe, the code is eventually nabbed by Randy and America. The pair must outwit their nemesis, a wealthy, calculating criminal called the Dentist, and do whatever they can to decipher Arethusa and stay alive in the meantime.
Told in present-tense narratives from three points of view those of Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, and Randy the overall story arcs, bops, and weaves in an engrossing and challenging way. The shifts between plots and timelines are abrupt but engaging, and the style is flashy, cool, and sharp. The author's stylistic pyrotechnics are never so blinding or distracting that the reader can't appreciate the skill of his craftsmanship. The characters are credible, if extreme, and are often placed in situations that are funny, exciting, outrageous, but believable. Here we see how mathematics can consume our brightest scholars to the point where they can barely function in the world and how, for them, even a look out the window at the city of London isn't a real view but a chance to graph and chart the ratios of building heights. Stephenson's juxtaposition of the real world with a virtual world of unseen numbers and equations adds a sense of near-fantasy to the work.
Despite his many forays into deeply technical jargon, Stephenson never takes on a lecturing tone more often than not, such romps are meant to underscore the mathematician's character traits to humorous effect. Case in point: Waterhouse and Turing go into several pages' worth of equations to figure out the probability of when the chain will fall from Turing's bike. Stephenson's snappy, hip delivery adds new bombastics to the World War II scenery, and as past and present are blended into a single story thread, the reader discovers a genuinely diverting and wholly entertaining experience. Cryptonomicon is a must-read, don't-miss extravaganza that the world will be talking about for years to come.
Tom Piccirilli is the author of eight novels, including Hexes, Shards, and his Felicity Grove mystery series, consisting of The Dead Past and Sorrow's Crown. Tom divides his time between New York City and Estes Park, Colorado.
Read an Excerpt
Let's set the existence-of-God issues 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. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo-which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead.
As nightmarishly lethal, memetically programmed death-machines went, these were the nicest you could ever hope to meet. In the tradition of his namesake (the Puritan writer John Bunyan, who spent much of his life in jail, or trying to avoid it) the Rev. Waterhouse did not preach in any one place for long. The church moved him from one small town in the Dakotas to another every year or two. It is possible that Godfreyfound the lifestyle more than a little alienating, for, sometime during the course of his studies at Fargo Congregational College, he bolted from the fold and, to the enduring agony of his parents, fell into worldy pursuits, and ended up, somehow, getting a Ph.D. in Classics from a small private university in Ohio. Academics being no less nomadic than Congregational preachers, he took work where he could find it. He became a Professor of Greek and Latin at Bolger Christian College (enrollment 322) in West Point, Virginia, where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers came together to form the estuarial. James, and the loathsome fumes of the big paper mill permeated every drawer, every closet, even the interior pages of books. Godfrey's young bride, nee Alice Pritchard, who had grown up following her itinerant-preacher father across the vastnesses of eastern Montana-where air smelt of snow and sage threw up for three months. Six months later she gave birth to Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse.
The boy had a peculiar relationship with sound. When a fire engine passed, he was not troubled by the siren's howl or the bell's clang. But when a hornet got into the house and swung across the ceiling in a broad Lissajous, droning almost inaudibly, he cried in pain at the noise. And if he saw or smelled something that scared him, he would clap his hands over his ears.
One noise that troubled him not at all was the pipe organ in the chapel at Bolger Christian College. The chapel itself was nothing worth mentioning, but the organ had been endowed by the paper mill family and would have sufficed for a church four times the size. It nicely complemented the organist, a retired high school math teacher who felt that certain attributes of the Lord (violence and capriciousness in the Old Testament, majesty and triumph in the New) could be directly conveyed into the souls of the enpewed sinners through a kind of frontal sonic impregnation. That he ran the risk of blowing out the stained-glass windows was of no consequence since no one liked them anyway, and the paper mill fumes were gnawing at the interstitial lead. But after one little old lady too many staggered down the aisle after a service, reeling from tinnitus, and made a barbed comment to the minister about the exceedingly dramatic music, the organist was replaced.
Nevertheless, he continued to give lessons on the instrument. Students were not allowed to touch the organ until they were proficient at the piano, and when this was explained to Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, he taught himself, in three weeks, how to play a Bach fugue, and signed up for organ lessons. Since he was only five years old at the time, he was unable to reach both the manuals and the pedals, and had to play standing-or rather strolling, from pedal to pedal.
When Lawrence was twelve, the organ broke down. That paper mill family had not left any endowment for maintenance, so the math teacher decided to have a crack at it. He was in poor health and required a nimble assistant: Lawrence, who helped him open up the hood of the thing. For the first time in all those years, the boy saw what had been happening when he had been pressing those keys.
For each stop-each timbre, or type of sound, that the organ could make (viz. blockflöte, trumpet, piccolo)-there was a separate row of pipes, arranged in a line from long to short. Long pipes made low notes, short high. The tops of the pipes defined a graph: not a straight line but an upward-tending curve. The organist/math teacher sat down with a few loose pipes, a pencil, and paper, and helped Lawrence figure out why. When Lawrence understood, it was as if the math teacher had suddenly played the good part of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor on a pipe organ the size of the Spiral Nebula in Andromeda-the part where Uncle Johann dissects the architecture of the Universe in one merciless descending ever-mutating chord, as if his foot is thrusting through skidding layers of garbage until it finally strikes bedrock. In particular, the final steps of the organist's explanation were like a falcon's dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity.
The pipes sprouted in parallel ranks from a broad flat box of compressed air. All of the pipes for a given note-but belonging to different stops-lined up with each other along one axis. All of the pipes for a given stop-but tuned at different pitches-lined up with each other along the other, perpendicular axis. Down there in the flat box of air, then, was a mechanism that got air to the right pipes at the right times. When a key or pedal was depressed, all of the pipes capable of sounding the corresponding note would speak, as long as their stops were pulled out.
Mechanically, all of this was handled in a fashion that was perfectly clear, simple, and logical. Lawrence had supposed that the machine must be at least as complicated as the most intricate fugue that could be played on it. Now he had learned that a machine, simple in its design, could produce results of infinite complexity.
Stops were rarely used alone. They tended to be piled on top of each other in combinations that were designed to take advantage of the available harmonics (more tasty mathematics here!). Certain combinations in particular were used over and over again. Lots of blockflötes, in varying lengths, for the quiet Offertory, for example. The organ included an ingenious mechanism called the preset, which enabled the organist to select a particular combination of stops-stops he himself had chosen-instantly. He would punch a button and several stops would bolt out from the console, driven by pneumatic pressure, and in that instant the organ would become a different instrument with entirely new timbres.
The next summer both Lawrence and Alice, his mother, were colonized by a distant cousin-a stupendous badass of a virus. Lawrence escaped from it with an almost imperceptible tendency to drag one of his feet. Alice wound up in an iron lung. Later, unable to cough effectively, she got pneumonia and died.
Lawrence's father Godfrey freely confessed that he was not... Cryptonomicon. Copyright © by Neal Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.