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.