Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson

Cryptonomicon is a giant of a book - most people I know,have either abandoned it midway or balk at the prospect of reading such a major small typed book! My recommendation - read it. Cryptonomicon weaves multiple stories flashing back and forward to the present to create a pretty compelling read.

The book starts off in the present time with a set of silicon valley geeks looking to get a slice of the communications pie in Asia, specifically in the Phillipines which serves as the backbone for all communication lines in the area. A secret goal of these people is to recover a stash of hidden German gold lost during the dying days of WW II when the Germans were retreating with whatever they could lay their hands on.The common link is the grandson of a famed code breaker who played a major role in cracking German codes and helping to win the war. Stashed amongst the stuff of his grandfather is information about this big stash of gold.

Starting with this basic premise Neal Stephenson weaves in stories of how WW II was won not only by the personnel on the ground but to a large extent by the mathematicians and scientists who broke German codes and dealt with the delicate cat and mouse game of letting the other party believe that their conversations were still unknown while infact the reverse was true. It was fascinating to be exposed to that side of the war which is so easily hidden, one watches documentaries and hears stories of major battles and victories, but to think that so many of these might have been orchestrated just to hide the fact that the other side might already know how to read your communication, e.g. there is the bit of allowing German U-Boats to sink some vessels to let the Germans continue to think that their codes were safe and at the same time restraining the generals from simply going all out and making it obvious to the Germans that their codes were broken. This, ofcourse, occcurred on both sides - its cool to think about how math was used to distribute events in order but to appear random enough so that the other side wouldnt guess that their codes were broken.

The highlight of the book for me was the characters (The Elder Waterhouse / Enoch Root / Bobby Shaftoe notably) and how their characters shape knowingly or unknowingly a series of events that has repurcussions outside their own lifetimes. If you are not a details junkie, you can avoid this book - for me - the author sets a nice balance on explaining the cryptology concepts involved while at the same time not making it too geeky - then weaving in the birth of computing as a necessity to overcome the Germans, the mathematicians that were once friends and now are on separate sides because of their nationality - the weaving of the code creators personality into the codes which eventually helps the other side to break it.

With Cryptonomicon, its the journey and not the destination, the gold which like a cliched Hindi movie reaches its inevitable climax with multiple parties (Germans/Americans/Japanese) with snippets of data - and only one party with access to information (the disctinction being significant) - which ultimately sets the tone of the book for me. It took me a long time to get through this book, but I always got sucked back into it because the setting of the story in a historical perspective and the ineherent geekiness of the story tract was very compelling. The GEEKS will inherit the world!


chica said...

Ooo.. how I wish I had managed to go beyond 10 pages in this book! I'm so keen on reading this book, but its really geeky, all the crypto terms keep muddling my brain :).

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