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Cryptonomicon (1999)

by Neal Stephenson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
17,063297303 (4.2)557
With this extraordinary first volume in an epoch-making masterpiece, Neal Stephenson hacks into the secret histories of nations and the private obsessions of men, decrypting with dazzling virtuosity the forces that shaped this century. In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse--mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy--is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702--commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe-is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy's fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces. Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse's crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a "data haven" in Southeast Asia--a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe's tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty...or to universal totalitarianism reborn. A breathtaking tour de force, and Neal Stephenson's most accomplished and affecting work to date, Cryptonomicon is profound and prophetic, hypnotic and hyper-driven, as it leaps forward and back between World War II and the World Wide Web, hinting all the while at a dark day-after-tomorrow. It is a work of great art, thought and creative daring; the product of a truly iconoclastic imagination working with white-hot intensity.… (more)
  1. 222
    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (moonstormer)
  2. 152
    Gödel, Escher, Bach : An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (Zaklog)
    Zaklog: Cryptonomicon strikes me as the kind of book that Hofstadter would write if he wrote fiction. Both books are complex, with discursive passages on mathematics and a positively weird sense of humor. If you enjoyed (rather than endured) the explanatory sections on cryptography and the charts of Waterhouse's love life (among other, rarely charted things) you should really like this book.… (more)
  3. 110
    The Codebreakers by David Kahn (grizzly.anderson)
    grizzly.anderson: A great and fairly easy to read history of much of the history and cryptography the novel is based on.
  4. 100
    Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (S_Meyerson)
  5. 90
    The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh (S_Meyerson)
  6. 112
    Anathem by Neal Stephenson (BriarE)
  7. 70
    Daemon by Daniel Suarez (simon_carr)
  8. 61
    Secrets and lies : digital security in a networked world by Bruce Schneier (bertilak)
  9. 40
    Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis (tomduck)
  10. 40
    The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (ahstrick)
  11. 30
    PopCo by Scarlett Thomas (daysailor, Widsith)
    daysailor: Same kind of edgy writing, intertwining cryptography history with good story-telling
    Widsith: More cryptography and conspiracy and earnest philosophical asides (though Thomas writes women characters a lot better than Stephenson)
  12. 41
    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (LamontCranston)
    LamontCranston: Weaving fact and speculation, history and fiction, mysteries within mysteries
  13. 41
    Reamde by Neal Stephenson (Anonymous user)
  14. 53
    The Alienist by Caleb Carr (igorken)
  15. 11
    Enigma by Robert Harris (ianturton)
    ianturton: Another fictionalized look at Bletchly Park, shorter and with fewer Americans.
  16. 00
    Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II by Stephen Budiansky (Busifer)
    Busifer: Many of the events featuring in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon have actually happened and while Budiansky isn't the most eloquent author his book is an interesting companion read.
  17. 1616
    Moby Dick by Herman Melville (lorax)
    lorax: Seriously. A big fat book immersing the reader in a bizarre and alien culture, with well-written infodumps on subjects of interest to the narrator interspersed throughout the story. It's a very Stephenson-esque book.
  18. 22
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (psybre)
  19. 00
    Decoded by Mai Jia (hairball)
  20. 00
    Join by Steve Toutonghi (jbizroe)

(see all 26 recommendations)

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» See also 557 mentions

English (286)  German (3)  Italian (2)  French (1)  Hungarian (1)  Swedish (1)  Romanian (1)  Finnish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (297)
Showing 1-5 of 286 (next | show all)
I had high expectations, and was reading it really slowly and just didn’t get that engaged ( )
  iamnader | Jul 6, 2024 |
se volevo leggere 1200 pagine di formule matematiche non sceglievo un romanzo ( )
  LLonaVahine | May 22, 2024 |
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I tend to be a somewhat sporadic Neal Stephenson reader in the sense that our magisteria--to borrow a term from Stephan Jay Gould--tends to continue to overlap.

It is somewhat surprising I had not hitherto stumbled on this work previous to now. Certainly, I had heard many references to this particular novel, but had never stumbled across it in my path. It was with some surprise then when I finally did in a used bookstore.

The novel starts out somewhat slowly and since the work is over a 1,000 pages you can expect that the plot will move more slowly than a book of smaller length. Stephenson's writing style is markedly different here than from his other works, but there are certain themes present here that are echoed in his future works. One could posit, in a sense, that each work is a continuation in a universe that Stephenson has concocted viewed at different angles. Indeed, certain characters, such as Enoch Root, appear--and certain themes like the desire to be immortal and Greek myth permeate the work throughout in patterned ways.

As is expected with any novel, certain characters die off, and Stephenson does the job of telling the story well enough that you, as the reader, sort of hate to see it happen. He likewise does a good job of allowing chapter endings to dangle in a suspenseful sort of way only to reintroduce them later at a slightly different point in time. In a sense, the reader has to be brought up to speed so that one can understand where one is in the unfolding plot. This is good in the sense that it keeps the mind agile, but is a little confusing at times as a final statement about a previous suspenseful matter may reach resolution in a future chapter in about the middle of completion. One must be a little on the alert to be sure one has not missed the transition.

On the other hand, the work bends "Back on itself" in the sense that themes introduced are bent and turned back around later although not always explicitly stated. It is left to the reader to notice these small bends and permutations. A familiarity with Greek myth, as is true in most of Stephenson's other work, is helpful.

The book decries in the beginning that it is not attempting to reveal any secrets. However, the story Stephenson puts together offers a plausible alternative history to events that did actually occur. The characters are the same as ones that appear in history and have dialogs that are similar to the ones they truly had. One wonders if there is not a Roman a Clef that Stephenson is somewhere secreting, but of course, he assures us that his work is not trying to reveal any secrets. Of course, in the world of the Cryptonomicon, we, the reader, especially by the end of the book know that this is exactly what he wants us to believe and that, above all else, we should be very, very suspicious of. ( )
1 vote jbschirtrzinger | Apr 23, 2024 |
Very confusing with the multiple time and people threads. Each segment held my interest, but I couldn't remember what had been happening when I got to the same people/time later in the book. By the end I didn't really care what happened or to whom.
  ETribby | Mar 4, 2024 |
Cryptonomicon is mostly spent see-sawing across a half-century divide of two generations between World War II and the late 1990s. Its central topic is cryptology, and it was written written when one could still be idealistic about cryptocurrency. It is an enormously long novel made up of short, single-sitting chapters, and it includes such apparent digressions as a gratuitous Penthouse "reader's" letter (365) and a functional Perl script (480).

My favorite chapter was certainly "Organ" (569 ff.), which built on the running conceit that the electronic computer had been inspired by the programmability of a pipe organ. But it also punned on the organ of generation belonging to 1940s viewpoint character Lawrence Waterhouse, whose libido takes center stage for most of the chapter. It offers hilarious notions regarding a global Ejaculation Control Conspiracy, and supplements this theory with a walk-on character's paranoia about the Bavarian Illuminati's engineering of the well-tempered musical tuning system as a medium for subliminal corruption.

Cameos by historical figures, including Alan Turing, Ronald Reagan, and General MacArthur, are handled amusingly. Although Stephenson's acknowledgments page disclaims any supposition that the book is a roman à clef regarding his own family, there are certainly some other characters and businesses given new names to insulate our actual world from their fictional deployment. For reasons I can't quite fathom, for example, he calls the Linux operating system Finux.

The ubiquitous use of present tense, general narrative sprawl, and conspiracy theorizing all reminded me of the work of Thomas Pynchon, and in particular Gravity's Rainbow. (Pynchon later tried out a hacker yarn of his own in Bleeding Edge as well.) Although Stephenson is published as a genre author, I think the comparable Pynchon books are actually more science-fictional than Cryptonomicon.

I have read other reader reaction that took issue with the end of this book. I didn't find it weak or dismaying at all, but I think the last five chapters (after "Return") need to be read as denouement, or they will suffer the appearance of anticlimax.
4 vote paradoxosalpha | Feb 23, 2024 |
Showing 1-5 of 286 (next | show all)
You'd think such a web of narratives would be hard to follow. Certainly, it's difficult to summarize. But Stephenson, whose science-fiction novels Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) have been critical and commercial successes despite difficult plotting, has made a quantum jump here as a writer. In addition to his bravura style and interesting authorial choices (Stephenson tells each of his narratives in the present tense, regardless of when they occur chronologically), the book is so tightly plotted that you never lose the thread.

But Stephenson is not an author who's content just to tell good stories. Throughout the book, he takes on the task of explaining the relatively abstruse technical disciplines surrounding cryptology, almost always in ways that a reasonably intelligent educated adult can understand. As I read the book I marked in the margins where Stephenson found opportunities to explain the number theory that underlies modern cryptography; "traffic analysis" (deriving military intelligence from where and when messages are sent and received, without actually decoding them); steganography (hiding secret messages within other, non-secret communications); the electronics of computer monitors (and the security problems created by those monitors); the advantages to Unix-like operating systems compared to Windows or the Mac OS; the theory of monetary systems; and the strategies behind high-tech business litigation. Stephenson assumes that his readers are capable of learning the complex underpinnings of modern technological life.
added by SnootyBaronet | editReason, Mike Godwin (Feb 20, 1999)
 

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stephenson, Nealprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bonnefoy, JeanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dufris, WilliamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gräbener-Müller, JulianeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pannofino, GianniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peck, KellanDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stingl, NikolausTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
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Epigraph
"There is a remarkably close parallel between the problems of the physicist and those of the cryptographer. The system on which a message is enciphered corresponds to the laws of the universe, the intercepted messages to the evidence available, the keys for a day or a message to important constants which have to be determined. The correspondence is very close, but the subject matter of cryptography is very easily dealt with by discrete machinery, physics not so easily." —Alan Turing
This morning [Imelda Marcos] offered the latest in a series of explanations of the billions of dollars that she and her husband, who died in 1989, are believed to have stolen during his presidency.
"It so coincided that Marcos had money," she said. "After the Bretton Woods agreement he started buying gold from Fort Knox. Three thousand tons, then 4,000 tons. I have documents for these: 7,000 tons. Marcos was so smart. He had it all. It's funny; America didn't understand him." —The New York Times, Monday, 4 March, 1996
Dedication
To S. Town Stephenson,
who flew kites from battleships
First words
Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down.
From it, warring sounds.
Quotations
He is disappointed because he has solved the problem, and has gone back to the baseline state of boredom and low-level irritation that always comes over him when he's not doing something that inherently needs to be done, like picking a lock or breaking a code.
The ineffable talent for finding patterns in chaos cannot do its thing unless he immerses himself in the chaos first.
This conspiracy thing is going to be a real pain in the ass if it means backing down from casual fistfights.
LET’S SET THE existence-of-God issue 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.
Randy is a little bit turned around, but eventually homes in on a dimly heard electronic cacophony—digitized voices prophesying war—and emerges into the mall’s food court.
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With this extraordinary first volume in an epoch-making masterpiece, Neal Stephenson hacks into the secret histories of nations and the private obsessions of men, decrypting with dazzling virtuosity the forces that shaped this century. In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse--mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy--is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702--commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe-is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy's fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces. Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse's crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a "data haven" in Southeast Asia--a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe's tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty...or to universal totalitarianism reborn. A breathtaking tour de force, and Neal Stephenson's most accomplished and affecting work to date, Cryptonomicon is profound and prophetic, hypnotic and hyper-driven, as it leaps forward and back between World War II and the World Wide Web, hinting all the while at a dark day-after-tomorrow. It is a work of great art, thought and creative daring; the product of a truly iconoclastic imagination working with white-hot intensity.

No library descriptions found.

Book description
Neal Stephenson enjoys cult status among science fiction fans and techie types thanks to Snow Crash, which so completely redefined conventional notions of the high-tech future that it became a self- fulfilling prophecy. But if his cyberpunk classic was big, Cryptonomicon is huge, gargantuan, massive-- not just in size but in scope and appeal. It's the hip, readable heir to Gravity's Rainbow and the Illuminatus trilogy. And it's only the first of a proposed series--for more information, read our interview with Stephenson.

Cryptonomicon zooms all over the world, careening conspiratorially back and forth between two time periods- -World War II and the present. Our 1940s heroes are the brilliant mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse, cryptanalyst extraordinaire, and gung ho, morphine-addicted marine Bobby Shaftoe. They're part of Detachment 2702, an Allied group trying to break Axis communication codes while simultaneously preventing the enemy from figuring out that their codes have been broken. Their job boils down to layer upon layer of deception. Dr. Alan Turing is also a member of 2702, and he explains the unit's strange workings to Waterhouse. "When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first. Of course, to observe is not its real duty--we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed. Then, when we come round and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious."

All of this secrecy resonates in the present-day story line, in which the grandchildren of the WWII heroes--inimitable programming geek Randy Waterhouse and the lovely and powerful Amy Shaftoe--team up to help create an offshore data haven in Southeast Asia and maybe uncover some gold once destined for Nazi coffers. To top off the paranoiac tone of the book, the mysterious Enoch Root, key member of Detachment 2702 and the Societas Eruditorum, pops up with an unbreakable encryption scheme left over from WWII to befuddle the 1990s protagonists with conspiratorial ties.

Cryptonomicon is vintage Stephenson from start to finish: short on plot, but long on detail and so precise it's exhausting. Every page has a math problem, a quotable in-joke, an amazing idea or a bit of sharp prose. Cryptonomicon is also packed with truly weird characters, funky tech, and crypto--all the crypto you'll ever need, in fact, not to mention all the computer jargon of the moment. A word to the wise: if you read this book in one sitting, you may die of information overload (and starvation). --Therese Littleton, Amazon.com
Haiku summary
Encrypted message
Like an inaccessible
Mountain of gold bars
(swensonj)

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