(Avon 1999 $27.50 pp918)
CRYPTONOMICON, and its black cover, may suggest some reworking of that ancient grimoire of the mad Arab Abdul Al-Hazred, the Necronomicon, but the title refers to a manual. That manual is or was a codebook used at Bletchley Park during the Second World War in the "Huts". And two thirds of this novel grows out of and around the affairs of Bletchley Park. Lawrence Waterhouse was a pre-war friend of Alan Turing, meeting the genius while he was at Princeton. After the USA joins the war Waterhouse again goes to Bletchley Park on a secret mission. Waterhouse is not to be a codebreaker, but someone who makes sense of the information gained. He is, though, only a cog in a big machine. His information drives a Allied unit, Detachment 2072, including a marine, Bobby Shaftoe, around the world, as they try to find sources to break codes such as "Ultra" and "Purple", and simultaneously hide from the Axis the fact that "Ultra" itself has been partially broken.
Meanwhile, in the far east, Japanese units are digging, though not necessarily digging to the exact plan. And there were German cryptographers at Princeton before the war: they are working for their government, too, having some idea of the minds of their peacetime colleagues while they encrypt U-boat messages, and try to identify whether U-boats have been located by the Allied forces through code-breaking or chance.
In the near future, the challenges on the warriors of the past become efforts just as great for the inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Waterhouse's grandson and Shaftoe's granddaughter, by chance, find themselves back on the Pacific edge, this time cabling the ocean floor and running high-tech communications around the world, coding and de-coding signals now an everyday part of the computer industry, though still industrial secrets; but, just as the marines believed their generals were trying to get them killed, so the new Waterhouse and Shaftoe find their business rivals equally ruthless. Their forebears were cracking codes, now the business partners' task becomes to hide their plans, and to hide their goals.
There are six major characters to follow, as Stephenson takes them into action, retrieving log books, locating radio signals, triangulating sources, laying cables, opening offices. That is before human motives come into play, such as family, sex, pride, and the biggest drive: intellectual curiosity. As code-breakers will realise six characters pairing-up give the opportunity for 720 combinations. Should any of them have a business partner, that's 1440; should they have one business rival, that's 2880. But Randy Waterhouse discovers he and his partner face opposition from two separate rivals. That takes us up to 5760. It's no wonder so little of this book drags.
Equally, there are passages like that previous paragraph which stop and explain how codes work, or how tunnels are dug and their syphons sectioned. And towards the end of the book, the Waterhouse business starts getting confused with California business law, and then more confusing issues such as the constitutional right to bear arms. I read that hoping it was intended as satire, especially as Po Bronson's recent THE NUDIST ON THE BEACH (Secker and Warburg) on the silicon valley start-ups shows how switch-back and helter-skelter the business can be today. Nevertheless, I read on.
Neal Stephenson has brought masses of fact into his fantasy. In a sense it is a tapestry that reaches out and includes non-fictional work about the code-breakers, such as F. H. Hinsley's THE CODEBREAKERS (O.U.P), or the code-writers, such as Leo Marx's BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE (HarperCollins) (Marx was the poet who wrote poems to use as one-time encryption codes for the agents of the S.O.E), because to know about them is to see Stephenson's characters walking through a realer world. Sometimes, it seems as if Stephenson has managed to slip in details of fiction, just to add a little cross-bracing. For example, at one point, Shaftoe the marine is a prisoner of the Japanese, and sees a bouncing bomb attack on their fleet. These were never used in the Pacific (although 618 squadron was formed to serve there), nor did 617 Squadron ("The Dam Busters") use bouncing bombs when they sank the Tirpitz. The connection is that on May 17th 1943 both the Dam Busters Raid took place and Britain and the USA agreed to work jointly on cracking the German Ultra and Japanese Purple codes at Bletchley Park. Shaftoe sees an outward sign of an inward grace.
And what have I held back? What I have held back is the main fantasy: that there was a secret even greater than "Ultra". And that it was broken. And that it was not part of the war effort. What else you have not been told remains a secret still.
Big as it is, I could imagine an annotated edition of this book, but a note on the sleeve suggests this is a first volume. The thought of more ...
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