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Cryptonomicon (1999)

by Neal Stephenson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
16,032277276 (4.2)534
An American computer hacker operating in Southeast Asia attempts to break a World War II cypher to find the location of a missing shipment of gold. The gold was stolen by the Japanese during the war. By the author of The Diamond Age.
  1. 222
    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (moonstormer)
  2. 152
    Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. 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: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet 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. 112
    Anathem by Neal Stephenson (BriarE)
  6. 90
    The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh (S_Meyerson)
  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
    The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (ahstrick)
  10. 40
    Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis (tomduck)
  11. 41
    Reamde by Neal Stephenson (Anonymous user)
  12. 41
    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (LamontCranston)
    LamontCranston: Weaving fact and speculation, history and fiction, mysteries within mysteries
  13. 63
    The Alienist by Caleb Carr (igorken)
  14. 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)
  15. 1716
    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.
  16. 22
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (psybre)
  17. 00
    Decoded by Mai Jia (hairball)
  18. 00
    In Code: A Mathematical Journey by Sarah Flannery (bertilak)
  19. 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.
  20. 11
    Enigma by Robert Harris (ianturton)
    ianturton: Another fictionalized look at Bletchly Park, shorter and with fewer Americans.

(see all 26 recommendations)


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» See also 534 mentions

English (265)  German (3)  Italian (2)  Finnish (1)  Dutch (1)  Romanian (1)  Hungarian (1)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (276)
Showing 1-5 of 265 (next | show all)
“Good ideas are just there all of a sudden, like angels in the Bible.” (page 878) ( )
  smays | Jul 2, 2022 |
Written in 1999, it did a nice job of predicting advances in the near future. But reading it in 2022, it just comes across as dated and overly indulgent. The prose is extremely desultory, and the book should have been at least 150, if not 250 pages shorter. Add to it, the fact that some parts of the story are held together by summoning extremely coincidental events, it was not an enjoyable read at all. Quite disappointed. ( )
  prefrontaller | Jun 6, 2022 |
Extremely enjoyable reading, cool story with both German U-boats AND hackers. Stepenson always pulls off this sort of thing. Love him. ( )
  jdegagne | Apr 23, 2022 |
Welp, I was about halfway thru writing the review of this when a storm caused a power outage & since I can't afford a battery for my computer, instant review disappearance. Like you need to know that, right? Let that be my excuse for the following review's being unenthusiastically (re)written.

It's a good thing that I read Stephenson's "Quicksilver" 1st b/c that convinced me that he's a major writer. It was astonishingly well-researched. Alas, after that I read his collaborative "Interface" wch was conventionally well-written but nothing to write home in code about. "Zodiac" followed. That reminded me a bit of Thomas Pynchon. Given that Pynchon's one of my favorite writers this similarity cd lead to my thinking that Stephenson's a cheap imitator (it didn't) or that he's living up to high standards (he is).

"Cryptonomicon" also reminds me of Pynchon, specifically of his "Gravity's Rainbow". Like "Quicksilver" it's very well-researched but the WWII subject puts it a little precariously close to an overdone subject. As such, I'm not as impressed by the research as I was w/ "Quicksilver".

"Cryptonomicon" is an epic w/ a wealth of impressive detail & a panache of novelistic connective tissue imagination. Alas, though, it came a little too close to being an intellectual's Dean Koontz novel at times. That sd, what the fuck, it's way better than any novel I'm ever likely to write (esp considering that I'm not likely to write one in the 1st place) so kudos to Stephenson!

Stephenson names one of the characters Marcus Aurelius Shaftoe - presumably after the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Given that I've actually read the writings of sd Emperor (in translation) when I was in my early 20s, this was an interesting bit of trivia for me. According to the introductory note in the Harvard Classics edition I read, it's claimed that Marcus Aurelius was one of the only 2 "Roman emperors who can be said to have ruled with a single eye to the welfare of their subjects."

On pp 611-612 he describes a character getting hypothermia as a result of being transported in the ball turret of a fighter plane. Given that my father was a gunner in one of those & that he got frostbite &, later, gout as a result of the heater going out in the ball turret, I appreciated Stephenson's attn to detail here once again.

Starting at p 624, there's a humorous section about dividing the furniture between relatives after someone's death. I figure Stephenson must've had a similar personal experience in order for this to've been written w/ the humor & insight that it was. Once again, I was reminded of family matters: my stepbrother robbing the rest of us of my dad's inheritance. Ha ha!

Stephenson's references to music on p 820 were sadly mediocre. It's always an extra thrill for me when a writer refers to music in a way that shows some substantial knowledge but, here, it was a no-go.

But these latter 4 bits of trivia are just that - things too far afield from the main narrative to be important to it. More importantly, perhaps, were the commentaries on gold made by his Nipponese character, Goto Dengo:

p 858: "Gold is the corpse of value"

p 861: "Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made everyday by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds."

This reminds me of the reasoning behind my own: "Rare Idea Money backed by Rare Ideas rather than by gold".

In the encryption Appendix, it's noted that Stephenson novels might very well be read by secret police as well as by anyone. &, indeed, I can believe this easily enuf. Stephenson appears to be incredibly popular. Even in lousy bkstores like Barnes & Noble his bks are present in large quantities.

In fact, "Cryptonomicon" is listed on the cover of the edition that I read as a "New York Times Bestseller". The story I've been told is that bks that attain this status do so b/c they're heavily shipped by distributors to chain bkstores. In other words, it's my understanding (& I cd be wrong) that "New York Times Bestseller"s are prefabricated as such. It's decided to heavily promote the bks, large quantities are sent out, these quantities become the statistics supporting the "bestseller" status - regardless of whether that many readers actually buy the bk & read it.

Hence Stephenson joins the honorable ranks of Douglas Hofstader's "Gödel, Escher, Bach" & George Perec's "Life A User's Manual". What I mean is is that I seriously doubt that any of these bks are really 'bestsellers' b/c, if they were, the intellectual state of humanity wd be far better off than it seems to be to me. ( )
1 vote tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
Just a BRILLIANT book. Very geeky as there is a strong crypto element, a bit bizarre in places.. But altogether a great story, very well told. ( )
  jvgravy | Mar 7, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 265 (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
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"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
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.
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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An American computer hacker operating in Southeast Asia attempts to break a World War II cypher to find the location of a missing shipment of gold. The gold was stolen by the Japanese during the war. By the author of The Diamond Age.

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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

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