…The knife is at my throat… As Günter Bischoff, the best U-Boat skipper of the Kriegsmarine, lies dying, in 1945, in the hull of his submarine, off the shore of Manilla, he reflects on what could have been: “…It was a nice conspiracy while it lasted…”
Cryptonomicon, published in 1999, is Neal Stephenson‘s second triumphal novel, after Snow Crash (1992), and before Anathem (2008) and Reamde (2010) and a host of other fictional and non fictional work. The book is full of tightly woven conspiracies, revolving around the two main characters of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, organ player of genius, cryptography magician, friend of Alan Turing and Rudolph, “Rudy”, von Hacklheber, and Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe of the US Marine Corps, survivor of Pearl Harbour and Guadalcanal, war hero, and their respective grand children, Randall, “Randy”, Lawrence Waterhouse and America, “Amy”, Shaftoe. The conspiracies themselves center on the battle for deciphering the German and Japanese secret codes (Lawrence and Bobby) and recovering the gold hidden in the Philippines by the Japanese Imperial army (Randy and Amy). In between, the reader travels from Princeton, where, before the war breaks out, Lawrence, Alan Turing and Rudy discuss what will be known as the Turing machine, the proto digital computer, to the streets of Shanghai as the Japanese armies invade China, to the Pacific battles, the North African theater of war, England, Bletchley Park, the North Atlantic U-boat battles, Sweden, Manilla and the jungle of the Luzon peninsula. Those locations are the stages for the two projects that span the lives of the protagonists: the victorious conquest of the mysterious Arethusa code designed by Rudy for the sake of his WWII conspiracy, and the “Crypt”, an ambitious plan to create a data haven and the first all-electronic currency – Randy’s and his friend Avi’s project. In the midst of Arethusa-encoded messages lies the secret of the Japanese gold, hidden by Goto Dengo, mining engineer extraordinaire and scarred war veteran, protégé of General of the Army Douglas McArthur, last employer of Bobby Shaftoe.
At the end of the war Bobby dies a hero’s death, and is buried surrounded by his friends. Lawrence, loyal to his friends to the end, refuse to submit to a brilliant future as employee of the newly created NSA, and declines the offer of the sinister Colonel Earl Comstock, homophobe and rabid anti-communist. Of course Randy and Amy will get the gold, all those decades later, with Goto’s help.
Cryptonomicon is a complex, enchanting novel, whose characters live long in the reader’s mind once the book is closed. On one hand it is a monument to the genius of Alan Turing, and through Lawrence’s friendship with Alan – and Rudy – we sense all the absurdity of war and the sheer distortion of their genius, long after they are gone. On the other hand, as Snow Crash invented the “Metaverse” and predicted accurately the rise of virtual reality, the Cryptonomicon sets out the emerging picture of the rivalries between states and the new owners of infrastructures, the owners of navies and NSA’s, pitted against the new owners of the old telephone networks and their modern extensions: a subject for the 21st century.
On Solitaire and Bruce Schneier
Neal’s next venture!