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Cryptonomicon is a 1999 novel by American author Neal Stephenson. The novel follows the exploits of two groups of people in two different time periods. The first is World War II-era Allied codebreakers and tactical-deception operatives affiliated with the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. The second narrative is set in the present day with descendants of the first narrative's characters employing cryptologic, telecom and computer technology to build an underground data haven in the Sultanate of Kinakuta. Their goal is to facilitate anonymous Internet banking using electronic money and (later) digital gold currency, with a longer range objective to distribute Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod (HEAP) media for instructing genocide-target populations on defensive warfare.
Genre and subject matter
Cryptonomicon won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2000. That same year, the novel was nominated for both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
Cryptonomicon is closer to the genres of historical fiction and contemporary techno-thriller than to the science fiction setting of Stephenson's two previous novels, Snow Crash and Diamond Age, and features fictionalized characterizations of such historical figures as Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, Albert Einstein, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, and subjects ranging from prime numbers and modular arithmetic to Van Eck phreaking.
According to Stephenson: The title is a play on Necronomicon, the title of a book mentioned in the stories of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft:
I wanted to give it a title a 17th-century book by a scholar would be likely to have. And that's how I came up with Cryptonomicon. I've heard the word Necronomicon bounced around. I haven't actually read the Lovecraft books, but clearly it's formed by analogy to that.
The Cryptonomicon referred to in the novel, described as a "cryptographer's bible", is a fictional book summarizing mankind's knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis.
World War II storyline
- Robert "Bobby" Shaftoe, a gung-ho, haiku-writing United States Marine Raider.
- Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an American cryptographer/mathematician serving as an officer in the United States Navy.
- Günter Bischoff, a Kapitänleutnant in the Kriegsmarine, who commands a U-Boat for much of the story, and later takes command of a new, advanced submarine fueled with hydrogen peroxide.
- Rudolf "Rudy" von Hacklheber, a non-Nazi German mathematician and cryptographer, who spent time attending Princeton University, where he befriended Waterhouse and Turing.
- Earl Comstock, a former Electronic Till Corp. executive and US Army officer, who eventually founds the NSA and becomes a key policy maker for US involvement in the Second Indochina War.
- Julieta Kivistik, a Finnish woman who assists some of the World War II characters when they find themselves stranded in Sweden, and who later gives birth to a baby boy (Günter Enoch Bobby Kivistik) whose father is uncertain.
- “Uncle” Otto Kivistik, Julieta's Finnish uncle, who runs a successful smuggling ring between neutral Sweden, Finland, and the USSR during World War II.
- Mary cCmndhd (pronounced "Smith"), a member of a Qwghlmian immigrant community living in Australia, who catches the attention of Lawrence Waterhouse while he is stationed in Brisbane.
- Glory Altamira, a nursing student and Bobby Shaftoe's Filipina lover. She becomes a member of the Philippine resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. Mother of Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe.
Fictionalized versions of several historical figures appear in the World War II storyline:
- Alan Turing, the cryptographer and computer scientist, is a colleague and friend of Lawrence Waterhouse and sometime lover of Rudy von Hacklheber.
- Douglas MacArthur, the famed U.S. Army general, who takes a central role toward the end of the World War II timeline.
- Karl Dönitz, Großadmiral of the Kriegsmarine, is never actually seen as a character but issues orders to his U-Boats, including the one captained by Bischoff. Bischoff threatens to reveal information about hidden war gold unless Dönitz rescinds an order to sink his submarine.
- Hermann Göring, who appears extensively in the recollections of Rudy von Hacklheber as Rudy recounts how Göring tried recruiting him as a cryptographer for the Nazis: Rudy delivers an intentionally weakened system, reserving the full system for the use of the conspiracy among the characters to locate hidden gold.
- Future President Ronald Reagan is depicted during his wartime service as an officer in the US Army Air Corps Public Relations branch's 1st Motion Picture Unit. He attempts to film an interview with the recuperating and morphine-addled Bobby Shaftoe, who spoils the production with his account of a giant lizard attack and his harsh criticism of General MacArthur.
- Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's 1943 death at the hands of U.S. Army fighter aircraft during Operation Vengeance over Bougainville Island fills an entire chapter. During his fateful flight, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy's Combined Fleet reflects upon the failures and hubris of his Imperial Army counterparts, who persistently underestimate the cunning and ferocity of their Allied opponents in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. As his damaged transport plane completes its terminal descent, Yamamoto realizes that all of the Japanese military codes have been broken, which explains why he is "on fire and hurtling through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour in a chair, closely pursued by tons of flaming junk."
- Albert Einstein brushes off a young Lawrence Waterhouse's request for advice. During his year of undergraduate study at Princeton, Waterhouse periodically wanders the halls of the Institute for Advanced Study, randomly asking mathematicians (whose names he never remembers) for advice on how to make intricate calculations for his "sprocket question," which is how he eventually meets Turing.
- Harvest, an early supercomputer built by IBM (known as "ETC" or "Electronic Till Corp." in the novel) for the National Security Agency for cryptanalysis. The fictionalized Harvest became operational in the early 1950s, under the supervision of Earl Comstock, while the actual system was installed in 1962.
The precise date of this storyline is not established, but the ages of characters and the technologies described suggest that it is set in the late 1990s, at approximately the same time as the publication of the novel.
- Randall "Randy" Lawrence Waterhouse, eldest grandson of Lawrence and Mary Waterhouse (née cCmndhd) and an expert systems and network administrator with the Epiphyte(2) corporation.
- Avi Halaby, Randy's business partner in Epiphyte(2), of which he is the CEO.
- America "Amy" Shaftoe, Doug Shaftoe's daughter who has moved from the U.S. to live with Doug in the Philippines, who becomes Randy's love interest.
- Dr. Hubert Kepler, aka "The Dentist," predatory billionaire investment fund manager, Randy and Avi's business rival.
- Eberhard Föhr, a member of Epiphyte(2) and an expert in biometrics.
- John Cantrell, a member of Epiphyte(2), a libertarian who is an expert in cryptography and who wrote the fictional cryptography program Ordo.
- Tom Howard, a member of Epiphyte(2), a libertarian and firearms enthusiast who is an expert in large computer installations.
- Beryl Hagen, Chief Financial Officer of Epiphyte(2) and veteran of a dozen startups.
- Charlene, a liberal arts academic and Randy's girlfriend at the beginning of the novel, who later moves to New Haven, Connecticut, to live and work with Dr. G.E.B. (Günter Enoch Bobby) Kivistik.
- Andrew Loeb, a former friend and now enemy of Randy's, a survivalist and neo-Luddite whose lawsuits destroyed Randy and Avi's first start-up, and who at the time of the novel works as a lawyer for Hubert Kepler.
- Goto Dengo, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, subsequently an engineer in the Japanese Army and involved in a Japanese wartime project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. Later (in the modern-day storyline) a successful businessman in the Japanese construction sector who becomes an ally of Epiphyte(2).
- Enoch Root, a mysterious, seemingly ageless priest serving as a chaplain with the ANZACs during World War II, and an important figure in the Societas Eruditorum. Also present in Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle.
- Wing, a wartime Chinese slave of the Japanese in the Philippines and later a general in the present-day Chinese army. Wing is the only other survivor besides Goto Dengo of the Japanese gold burial project, and he competes with Goto and Epiphyte(2) to recover the buried treasure.
- Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe (named after General Douglas MacArthur), Robert Shaftoe's and Glory Altamira's half-Filipino, half-American son. He is introduced near the end of the World War II storyline where his father briefly meets him as a toddler. In the modern-day storyline he is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL, who lives in the Philippines and operates an underwater survey business with his daughter Amy, conducting treasure hunts on the side.
- Dr. Günter Enoch Bobby "G.E.B." Kivistik is introduced in the modern storyline as a smug, Oxford-educated liberal-arts professor from Yale who recruits, and later seduces, Randy Waterhouse's girlfriend, Charlene. In the World War II storyline he is the unborn son of Julieta Kivistik and one of three possible fathers (hence his unusual name). His is a minor character in Cryptonomicon, but both his [impending] birth and his participation in Charlene's "War as Text" conference catalyze major plot developments.
Portions of Cryptonomicon are notably complex and may be considered somewhat difficult by the non-technical reader. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking, as an example.
Stephenson also includes a precise description of (and indeed a Perl script for) the Solitaire cipher (called Pontifex in the book), a cryptographic algorithm developed by Bruce Schneier for use with a deck of playing cards, as part of the plot.
He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly-veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by Finland native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.
Allusions/references from other works
Stephenson's subsequent work, The Baroque Cycle, provides part of the backstory to the characters and events featured in Cryptonomicon. An excerpt of Quicksilver, Volume One of The Baroque Cycle, is included in later prints of the Mass Market Paperback edition.
The Baroque Cycle, set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, features ancestors of several characters in Cryptonomicon, as well as events and items which affect the action of the later-set book. The subtext implies the existence of secret societies or conspiracies, and familial tendencies and groupings found within those darker worlds.
The short story "Jipi and the Paranoid Chip" appears to take place some time after the events of Cryptonomicon. In the story, the construction of the Crypt has triggered economic growth in Manila and Kinakuta, in which Goto Engineering, and Homa /Homer Goto, a Goto family heir, are involved. The IDTRO ("Black Chamber") is also mentioned.
Literary significance and criticism
Despite the technical detail, the book drew praise from both Stephenson's science fiction fan base and literary critics and buyers. In his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (2003), Jay Clayton calls Stephenson’s book the “ultimate geek novel” and draws attention to the “literary-scientific-engineering-military-industrial-intelligence alliance” that produced discoveries in two eras separated by fifty years, World War II and the internet age.
- ISBN 0-380-97346-4 : Hardcover (1999)
- ISBN 0-380-78862-4 : Paperback (2000)
- ISBN 1-57453-470-X : Audio Cassette (abridged) (2001)
- ISBN 0-06-051280-6 : Mass Market Paperback (2002)
- E-book editions for Adobe Reader, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, and Microsoft Reader
- Unabridged audio download from iTunes and Audible.com
- Translations into other languages: Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish. The French and Spanish translations divide the book into three volumes. The Japanese translation divides the book into four volumes.