Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Ode to Code

A fictionalized history of cryptology that's short on substance but long on style

By Andrew Weiner

JULY 26, 1999: 

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (Avon Books), 918 pages, $27.50

Neal Stephenson's breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, came on with all the subtlety of a hammerlock. Its breakneck pace, deadpan humor, and edgy, allusive prose established Stephenson as the Next Big Thing in science fiction. His latest effort, Cryptonomicon, offers more of the same as it frenetically ricochets between three related stories: the Allied attempt to crack Axis ciphers during World War II; various conspiracies to cache wartime plunder; and the efforts of present-day hackers to establish a "data haven" in the Philippines where electronic commerce and communication are free from surveillance.

As might be expected, Stephenson serves up heaping portions of both cloak and dagger. The intellectual heroics are handled largely by Lawrence Waterhouse, Allied code-breaker and klutzy savant, and his grandson Randy, a cynical thirtysomething hacker. Supplying the brawn is the Shaftoe family: Bobby, a Marine, storms foxholes, and granddaughter Amy is a salvage diver. Villains abound: comic-book Nazis, shadowy multinationals, and crew-cut CIA types. The story straddles more than a dozen settings, alternating between shoot-'em-ups, clandestine scheming, and the occasional romance or equation. Despite some ham-fisted crucifixion references, the finale does not disappoint, combining a memorable hacking sequence with the compulsory gunfight.

Although Cryptonomicon isn't exactly a novel of ideas, it insightfully handles its main theme: the study of code. Stephenson capably traces the history of cryptology, showing how this esoteric discipline both transformed the war and catalyzed the development of computer technology. Despite the profound changes wrought by the digital revolution, programming today still boils down to making and breaking codes. Hackers, like their cryptologist forebears, depend on the ability to tell pattern from "noise" and to distinguish different kinds of randomness.

Narrative also depends on the tidal oscillation between order and entropy. The consequences of this cycle are manifest in the novel's more dysfunctional characters, whose compulsive attention to detail is matched only by their quasi-religious paranoia. We meet a connoisseur of nightmares, a millenarian lawyer-turned-survivalist, and a collector of obsolete technology who reassembles a crashed 747 in his warehouse home. Conspiracy-theory buffs will find plenty of Masonic emblems, black helicopters, and surveillance cameras.

Among writers of his own generation, Stephenson bears the closest resemblance to David Foster Wallace. Both combine prodigious raw talent with an ironic self-awareness, sharing an obsession with all things postmodern. But, like Infinite Jest, Cryptonomicon swells to the bloated proportions normally reserved for a James Michener tome. And, much like Wallace, Stephenson subscribes to an aesthetic of overstimulation: his writing is jumpy, digressive, and almost compulsively referential. Certain passages are too much like watching someone channel-surf in split-second increments.

Cryptonomicon, like Stephenson's earlier work, operates within the central conventions of cyberpunk fiction. Computers and weapons are described sotto voce, in the tones usually reserved for religious relics. Violence is gratuitous, gory, and glib. Though its characters manage more humanity than the hard-boiled androids of a William Gibson novel, not a lot of emoting goes on. For a cyberpunk, weeping is something done only by open sores, and the only thing more anxiety-provoking than sharing one's feelings is letting another man handle your computer.

Whenever the mind-body dilemma crops up, Stephenson reminds the reader that DNA is just another form of code, and that the opposite of virtual reality is "meatspace." Witness his take on the human body:

This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by the many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length.

But this corrosive strain of irony does have its lighter moments, like a Scandinavian designer with "twin Ph.D.s in semiotics and civil engineering," and a protracted analysis of how to manipulate the molar-shaped kernels of Cap'n Crunch so that the cereal effectively eats itself.

Cryptonomicon's manic prose derives much of its energy from the forced fusion of multiple argots. Sentences veer between GI slang, corporate euphemism, hackerese, and pop-cultural flotsam. Programming terms like "hush functions" and "hive minds" are made to assume a more sinister meaning. Unexpected details -- a hornet flying a Lissajous pattern across a ceiling -- evoke the intricate fractal order underlying everyday events. And there's no denying that Stephenson has a good turn of phrase, describing the pitfalls of "technomadic lifestyles" and referring to a certain male organ as "Little Man 'tate."

Like a code-breaker or a hacker, the reader occasionally must struggle to find patterns of meaning in apparent randomness. But despite its outsized proportions and gratuitous indulgences, Cryptonomicon compels with its unique combination of paranoia, sarcasm, and insight. n

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