November 15th, 1999

Cryptonomicon

by Woody Brown • in Books

wired coverIn the summer of 1996, on assignment for WIRED magazine, Neal Stephenson, a hacker/tourist, wandered through the less travelled subterrain of three continents, tracing the ports of call of FLAG — the Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe. After filing an epic 39-page article (Wired 4.12, December 1996), he began work on another epic, a 950-page novel of which the Obusiness and technology of undersea fiber-optic cables are the backbone. With data havens and deep sea cable-laying serving as backbone; conspiracies and paranoia as nervous system; and billions in Nazi gold as motivation, Stephenson’s final product is more involved — and interesting — than the geek fodder of fiber-optic cables might seem capable of supplying.

Randy Waterhouse, computer hacker and entrepreneur, is the grandson of Lawrence Waterhouse, a genius World War II cryptographer. Grand-dad Waterhouse, when he isn’t working on or playing pipe organs, is actually working for the London Secret Service as a code keeper. His job is to ensure that the Nazi’s don’t discover that the Allies have broken the Enigma code. Together with the eccentrically brilliant Alan Turing, Waterhouse connives to convince the Axis that the rampant sinking of their supply ships is due only to statistical probability. The head of Detachment 2702 — the group dedicated to executing Waterhouse’s plan — is Sgt. Bobby Shaftoe, a hard-nosed, morphine-addicted Marine, aided by the mysterious Enoch Root, a sort of chaplain cum mercenary.

cryptonomiconCompleting the circle is Amy Shaftoe, Bobby’s grand- daughter, who captains the cable-laying vessel that Randy has contracted for construction of a web that will funnel information, and a large amount of money, through a planned data haven in Southeast Asia. With the discovery of a stockpile of war gold sufficient to supply a small country, Randy Waterhouse and his consortium quickly change gears to develop a novel structure for what could become the real future of finance — one that makes Swiss bank accounts seem about as secure as piggy banks.

Stephenson makes a fascinating, if long read out of number theory and global telecom networking, by presenting a cast of whacked out characters, and by feeding the notion that the fiction you’re reading might not be so fictional. Cryptonomicon is the novel that most geeks will wish they had written themselves, a story that turns hackers and mathematicians into extremely wealthy adventure heros who always get the girl. And by the end of the novel, you may just find yourself scribbling out coded messages to your partner.

Note: The WIRED article is required reading for anyone who uses a modem, the internet, or a telephone. Much like knowing how food ends up on your plate, we should all have at least a basic idea of how articles like this review end up on your computer screen.

$27.50 Avon Books, 1999

Mother Earth, Motherboard, WIRED 4.12 (12/96) 95%

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