Book review: Cryptonomicon

22 Nov

I finished reading this back in July, but if the other posts here are any indication I’m not in the habit of writing things up as soon as I should. The book this time around is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, a book that tells a story spread across 2 different time periods.

Cryptomicon hardback cover

The first story begins with the Allied forces as world war 2 begins and follows the efforts to break the cryptographic codes used by the Axis.  The other story begins in the modern-day and follows a tech start-up company in the Philippines as they work to make a secure data storage facility designed for privately and securely storing data for companies the world over.  They may seem like pretty different stories to begin with, but the underlying theme of cryptography is tied together very well and by the end of it you’ll have a fair knowledge of the historical concepts of cryptography as well as how it’s used in the modern world.  As you can tell it’s a fairly techy novel, but as with a lot of techno-thrillers you can just turn your brain off and take things as given.  Unlike some techno-thrillers though, everything here is based in reality.  The only things they change about the technology is a couple of ciphers here and there and the names given to some technology, everything else is completely plausible.

Being a bit of a fan of cryptography I was initially more interested in the WW2 storyline, learning about the techniques used to generate data as randomly as possible to help create uncrackable codes.  Even more interesting was the manoeuvring that was done to prevent the enemy from discovering that someone had cracked their codes and thwarting them by simply creating a new set.  The modern-day storyline starts off pretty slow, only getting a glimpse of story every 3 or 4 chapters. It slowly ramped up throughout the book, transforming into the main story while world war 2 sits at the back and helps set the scene.  It begins as a story about a technology start-up in the Philippines but later evolves into a hunt for a large amount of gold that came into the area during WW2.  It may sound like a strange transition, but it does make sense in the context of the story.

As it’s a book by Neal Stephenson there were plenty of times when a completely unrelated story popped up every now and again, written in great detail and feeling like the author put a huge amount of research into it. No matter what the topic you couldn’t help but be pulled in and enthralled by these topics, whether it was a treatise on the origins of the Sumerian language in Snow Crash, a lecture on Great Circles and flight paths in Reamde, or in Cryptonomicon’s case, an essay on the fetishism of shaving as a privilege exclusive to white men (you can find your own link for that one).  Despite often having nothing to do with the story, they always end up being an absolutely fascinating read and usually written so well into the main story that they never felt too out-of-place (the exception being Snow Crash, which while still interesting felt like poorly placed plot dumps).

Thinking back on it, my only complaint with the book is with the finale of the modern-day story, which suddenly changes tact and ends in an action scene.  In the WW2 story it may have made sense, but going from businessmen and programmers to guns and shootouts didn’t mesh quite as well.

Overall I absolutely loved this book during both storylines, and I’m just glad I didn’t give up on Stephenson after being so disappointed by Snow Crash.  I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it, but I already have book 1 of The Mongoliad sitting on my Kindle, and I’m definitely going to be checking out Anathem and The Baroque Cycle trilogy at some point in the future too.

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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review


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