Cryptonomicon

robert bobby shaftoe by ben towle

Cryptonomicon is a 1999 novel by American author Neal Stephenson depicting the exploits of two groups of people in two different time periods, presented in alternating chapters. The first group is World War II-era Allied codebreakers and tactical-deception operatives affiliated with the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in the UK and disillusioned Axis military and intelligence figures whom they encounter.

The second narrative is set in the late 1990s with descendants of the first narrative’s characters employing cryptologic, telecom, and computer technology to build an underground data haven in the fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Their goal is to facilitate anonymous Internet banking using electronic money and (later) digital gold currency, with a longer range objective to distribute Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod (HEAP) media for instructing genocide-target populations on defensive warfare.

‘Cryptonomicon’ is closer to the genres of historical fiction and contemporary techno-thriller than to the science fiction of Stephenson’s two previous novels, ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘Diamond Age.’ It features fictionalized characterizations of such historical figures as Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, American general Douglas MacArthur, Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, German naval commander Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, with discussions of prime numbers, modular arithmetic, and Van Eck phreaking.

According to Stephenson, the title is a play on ‘Necronomicon,’ the title of a book mentioned in the stories of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft: ‘I wanted to give it a title a 17th-century book by a scholar would be likely to have. And that’s how I came up with ‘Cryptonomicon.’ I’ve heard the word Necronomicon bounced around. I haven’t actually read the Lovecraft books, but clearly it’s formed by analogy to that.’

The novel’s ‘Cryptonomicon,’ described as a ‘cryptographer’s bible,’ is a fictional book summarizing America’s knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis. Begun by 17th century Anglican philosopher John Wilkins (the Cryptonomicon is mentioned in ‘Quicksilver,’ Stephenson’s 2003 novel) and amended over time by US Army cryptographer William Friedman in the 1930s, and others, the Cryptonomicon is described by postmodern literary critic Katherine Hayles as ‘a kind of Kabala created by a Brotherhood of Code that stretches across centuries. To know its contents is to qualify as a Morlock among the Eloi, and the elite among the elite are those gifted enough actually to contribute to it.’

The novel opens in 1942 as Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young United States Navy code breaker and mathematical genius, is assigned to the newly formed joint British and American Detachment 2702. This ultra-secret unit’s role is to hide the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the German Enigma code. The detachment stages events, often behind enemy lines, that provide alternative explanations for the Allied intelligence successes. Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, a veteran of China and Guadalcanal, serves in unit 2702, carrying out Waterhouse’s plans. At the same time, Japanese soldiers, including mining engineer Goto Dengo, an old friend of Shaftoe’s, are assigned to build a mysterious bunker in the mountains in the Philippines as part of what turns out to be a literal suicide mission.

Circa 1997, Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson) joins his old Dungeons and Dragons companion Avi Halaby in a new startup, providing Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos via new fiber-optic cables. The Epiphyte Corporation uses this income stream to fund the creation of a data haven in the nearby fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy do the undersea surveying for the cables and engineering work on the haven is overseen by Goto Furudenendu, heir-apparent to Goto Engineering. Complications arise as figures from the past reappear seeking gold or revenge.

Portions of Cryptonomicon are notably complex and may be considered somewhat difficult by the non-technical reader. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking. Stephenson also includes a precise description of (and even Perl script for) the Solitaire (or Pontifex) cipher, a cryptographic algorithm developed by American security expert Bruce Schneier for use with a deck of playing cards, as part of the plot. He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by the Finnish native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.

Stephenson’s subsequent work, ‘The Baroque Cycle,’ set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, features ancestors of several characters in ‘Cryptonomicon,’ as well as events and items which affect the action of the later-set book. The subtext implies the existence of secret societies or conspiracies, and familial tendencies and groupings found within those darker worlds.

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