Monday, February 12, 2024

Review: Cryptonomicon

Finishing Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon feels like a literary accomplishment nearly 25 years in the making. For as long as I can remember, Cryptonomicon has been recommended as sort of the ultimate Unix geek novel. Finishing it feels like earning a critical nerd merit badge.

The audio version, weighing in at nearly 43 hours, is twice as long as Moby Dick and over three times the length of the last audiobook I listened to. In fairness, it's still shorter than War and Peace, which comes in at a whopping 59 hours.

So, what do you get for all this text? Well, quite a bit. Some of it exceedingly enjoyable, other parts less so. Below, I'll ramble on about what struck me most. But first, a warning.

Cryptonomicon started off strong for me, and for the first half of the text, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. In many respects, I felt like the novel was written just for me. The text contains both a modern storyline, as well as one that takes place in World War II. The modern storyline includes Randy, a socially awkward nerd who morphs into a Linux guru and becomes involved in various Internet startups. In 1999, when the book was published, this was--in a much, much tamer version--my story. So yeah, I had no problem relating to Randy and his character's growth.

The World War II storyline, because of its focus on obscure topics, is exactly the kind of historical fiction I relish. For example, being a book with a heavy emphasis on cryptography, one might expect it to focus primarily on, say, cracking Enigma. Instead, it focuses on Detachment 2702, an effort to allow the allies to act on intelligence while keeping the enemy oblivious to the fact that their codes have been broken. I haven't yet researched what parts of Cryptonomicon are truth and what parts are fiction, so I'm not entirely sure if there even was a Detachment 2702 in real life. But there must have been efforts like it, and learning about them is a treat.

It was halfway to two-thirds through the Cryptonomicon when I started to get impatient. I was fine with the long story arc, and I was all for the teachable moments throughout the text. But the incredibly detailed yet seemingly tangents to nowhere started to weigh on me.

The chapter titled Phreaking was a quintessential example of this. First, out of the blue, we meet a new character: Pekka. We naturally get Pekka's backstory. I mean, we'll never hear from Pekka again, but sure, why not? And then we get a detailed description of Van Eck phreaking. This is a bit clumsy because it's all seemingly for no reason, but OK, I can live with that. My guess is that Van Eck phreaking will play an important role in the future of the text, so we need to be educated about it (spoiler alert: it does). Then we get a lengthy, completely unrelated education on the topic of hive minds. Unlike Van Eck hacking, what we learn about hive minds doesn't appear to contribute to the story.

Ultimately, the chapter closes out with the setup that Van Eck phreaking is a sort of x-ray vision that allows Randy, Pekka, and Cantrell to see Tom's screen. By the rules of any teen comedy, Tom has to be doing something embarrassing while Randy and his cohorts are watching his screen. Most authors would have gone with porn as that awkward subject, and everyone would have had a good giggle. But Stephenson isn't most authors. He opts to have Randy, Pekka, and Cantrell observe Tom writing about his most secret sexual musings. Fair enough. But this goes on for what seems like 30 minutes of the audiobook. Looking at the ebook version, Stephenson devotes 10 pages to Tom's writing. The writing seems earnest and strives to be as thoughtful as a text on sexual fetishes can be. But why bother? Why subject your readers to this?

So as the second half of the book slowly unwound itself, I found myself trying to crack this puzzle of Stephenson's verbosity.

Did he simply love to write? Where one author would be satisfied by saying Randy was crushing on a girl unlike any he'd ever met, Stephenson gives us an intense 9-page essay on Randy's wisdom teeth. The entire story seems to exist so that Stephenson can write one paragraph about how bad Randy has it for a girl. I can just imagine Stephenson talking to his editor:

Stephenson: I'm thinking about adding

Editor (interrupting): Yes.

For a good chunk of the text, I decided that all this verbosity was a sort of Detachment 2702 style answer to the challenge of keeping the reader informed yet surprised. The approach: bury critical details under a mountain of text. Will Randy's success hinge on Van Eck phreaking, hive minds, Tom's sexual preferences, or the extraction of his wisdom teeth? Through information overload and camouflaging, it's possible to have told the reader the answer and yet still keep the twist a secret.

As the text closed out and gaps in the storyline were filled in, I found myself developing a new theory of Stephenson's insistence on complete detail. As a programmer, I'm vividly aware of the duality of computers. On one hand, they are amazingly powerful, completing complex tasks in milliseconds. On the other hand, without specific instructions—that is, code—they are little more than expensive doorstops. For example, when I type:

 wget -r

I'm essentially instructing my computer to download every web page on This task is both tedious (considering there could be thousands of pages to download) and complex (as it involves establishing a secure connection for each page). Nevertheless, the computer handles this task effortlessly. It accomplishes this feat thanks to the thousands, if not millions, of lines of code meticulously crafted to guide it through the process.

In this light, I can see Cryptonomicon as the polar opposite of a short story. With a short story, the author relies on the reader's imagination to fill in gaps in the text. It's a clever bit of mental judo that lets a few fragments of a story be shaped into an entire narrative. Cryptonomicon takes the opposite approach: not only does it describe the characters and circumstances of the text, but it also teaches the reader how all of the technology that these characters and circumstances call for works. In other words, Stephenson has strived to write a fully defined story. You can roll your eyes at the verbosity, but unlike many stories that involve technology, there's no magic being deployed here. Pull on any thread you want; it all holds together (at least the tech side of things does).

With this perspective, I found that I could answer a question that had been baffling me for a good portion of the text: what is Cryptonomicon about? Sure, it involves Detachment 2702, Epiphyte Corp., a data haven, the Battle of Manila, the search for gold, cryptocurrency, and many other topics. But using my computing example, I can see the narrative in a new light. Cryptonomicon is simply all of the supporting material for the final moment of the book: "Randy Waterhouse, sitting on a boulder above a stream flowing with molten gold, is happy." Like the wget command, this statement may look simple, but it calls for 40 hours of audiobook to allow this statement to make sense.

I can also see in Stephenson's verbosity a suggestion for why the book is called Cryptonomicon. The Cryptonomicon that's alluded to in the novel is a collection of resources to help would-be code breakers learn from each other and advance the art of cryptanalysis. Because I haven't researched what parts of the story are true or not, I don't yet know if the Cryptonomicon is a real thing or an idea invented by Stephenson. And while it comes up a few times in the story, it doesn't jump out to me as being pivotal enough to earn its place as the book's title.

However, if I consider Stephenson's side-trips into technology as not just an attempt at being uber-complete or wishing to obscure the plot but instead look at these passages as essential, then a new picture begins to develop. In that case, Cryptonomicon is a sort of Cryptonomicon itself. Instead of being focused solely on cryptography, it takes a wider view. But the result is the same: if you're interested in being a hacker*, then here's your handbook. Sure, it's got a storyline running through it, but don't let that fool you; this is far more guidebook than love story.

Perhaps these theories explain my primary frustration point with the text: the characters never seem to acknowledge how they are connected. For example, how does Goto Dengo never discover or acknowledge that he's connected up with his beloved friend's son and grandson? It's maddening. But, to explain Randy's state of happiness or to create a hacker's bible, this moment of mushiness isn't really needed. So, we don't get it. It kills me, but surely Stephenson had a good reason to not give us this moment of reunion. It certainly wasn't for lack of interest in writing; after all, he's given us vivid descriptions of so much else.

OK, so those are my thoughts and theories. Now it's time to run a few well-placed Google searches and see just how far off the mark they are. This should be fun!

*Hacker in this context refers to a positive definition; not the up-to-no-good definition that you may be thinking of.

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