Cryptonomicon

It took some effort, but the joy was worth it in reading the tome Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I’m kind of peeved with myself for postponing reading Stephenson for so long. The man seems to be a legend and his name and works keep popping up in anything that’s related to the cyberpunk and sci-fi genres. A little more than a month ago, his name came up (yet again) when my friends were discussing his essay In The Beginning … Was The Command Line. I was a silent bystander in the debate and promised myself to read the first Stephenson book I could lay my hands on in the library.

Cryptonomicon is not a science-fiction novel. It has 2 parallel storylines divided in time — one happens in World War II and the other is present day. Due to the detail it dives into while describing WWII, it’s a historical/techno-thriller. The book is too huge and the plot is too long and complicated to faithfully describe here. The WWII storyline revolves around 3 mathematicians, Turing (yes, the real Alan Turing!), Waterhouse (an American) and Rudy (a German). When Pearl Harbour happens, Waterhouse is pulled into London’s Bletchley Park to help the Allied powers break the cryptographic Enigma (and other) codes of the Axis powers. While doing this, Waterhouse and Turing help build some of the earliest computing devices in human history. A large part of the story takes place in Asia, where Shaftoe (an American soldier) is fighting the Japanese. This takes him from China to Philippines. In the parallel current-day storyline (which is told in alternating chapters), the descendants of the above WWII characters are part of a Silicon Valley startup named Epiphyte that specializes in cryptography. They’re setting up secure data havens in Philippines and Kinakuta (a fictional name, but it’s nothing but Brunei) to act as new Internet backbones and also for Internet banking. These hackers soon run into some WWII artefacts which as they slowly decrypt leads them them to a treasure of unimaginable proportions hoarded by the Japanese towards the end of WWII. They also discover some startling revelations about their grandparents and their roles in WWII.

[ Neal Stephenson on the cover of Wired (October 1994) ]

With one book, I’m a convert. At 918 pages and 108 chapters, it’s long, but ah so delicious! Cryptonomicon is satisfying at all levels, what’s not to like! The WWII storyline starts from Pearl Harbour and goes on upto the defeat of the Japanese, thus ending the war. My WWII knowledge jumped by several magnitudes due to the detailed descriptions of the German and Japanese cryptosystems, their war strategies and how they failed. Especially enlightening was the tons of information about the Japanese-American conflict that happened in Asia. The other current-day storyline can’t compare to this, but is still engaging enough to be a page turner. This is a real techno-thriller since Stephenson doesn’t hold back from smattering his pages with formulas, graphs and details of cryptosystems when they’re needed. Linux, UNIX, Windows NT, actual Perl scripts, Turing machines and the wickedly cool Van Eck phreaking all play a part! Also, Bruce Schneier contributed a new encryption algorithm named Solitaire for this book, which can be used to encrypt messages using a deck of playing cards. This is used as a major plot device in the book and Schneier describes the system in the Appendix at the end of the book. Cryptonomicon is badass, I look forward to reading more Stephenson and cyberpunk now!

– – –

A few excerpts from the book:

Describing the human body …

The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. 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. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus-greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy. And yet, despite all of this, not one of these bodies makes a single sound at any time during the sultan’s speech. It is a marvel that can only be explained by the power of brain over body, and, in turn, by the power of cultural conditioning over the brain.

Ocean is a Turing machine …

The sand at the surf line has been washed flat. A small child’s footprints wander across it, splaying like gardenia blossoms on thin shafts. The sand looks like a geometric plane until a sheet of ocean grazes it. Then small imperfections are betrayed by swirls in the water. Those swirls in turn carve the sand. The ocean is a Turing machine, the sand is its tape; the water reads the marks in the sand and sometimes erases them and some times carves new ones with tiny currents that are themselves a response to the marks. Plodding through the surf, Waterhouse strikes deep craters in the wet sand that are read by the ocean. Eventually the ocean erases them, but in the process its state has been changed, the pattern of its swirls has been altered. Waterhouse imagines that the disturbance might somehow propagate across the Pacific and into some super-secret Nipponese surveillance device made of bamboo tubes and chrysanthemum leaves; Nip listeners would know that Waterhouse had walked that way. In turn, the water swirling around Waterhouse’s feet carries information about Nip propeller design and the deployment of their fleets–if only he had the wit to read it. The chaos of the waves, gravid with encrypted data, mocks him.

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