Sci-Fi Friday: ‘Cryptonomicon’ by Neal Stephenson.

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.

-From the Wikipedia page on ‘Cryptonomicon.’

This quote about the technical content in Cryptonomicon is certainly apt. Like much of Neal Stephenson’s work, it’s easy to feel like you’ve learned something when you read a few pages out of it (here’s my post on Seveneves). The above quote doesn’t go so far as to mention the four-and-a-half pages dedicated to one of the character’s procedure for eating Cap’n Crunch, though.

Why is such a wordy description of eating cereal in there? Well, the idea is to give you some insight into the mind of that particular character. But eating cereal is relatively easy to wrap your head around compared to some of the other stuff in this book.


Cryptonomicon follows characters in two different time periods: World War II and what could be considered Present Day (the book was written in the late 90s). While some characters use cryptography and military deception to win the war, others attempt to set up a kind of anonymous-banking nexus on an island in Southeast Asia.

The above-mentioned WikiPedia article refers to Cryptonomicon as being more “historical fiction” than sci-fi. Based on the novel’s discussion of cryptography alone, I think this book fits firmly in the Science Fiction category. And with the fictional portrayal of some of history’s biggest players—Alan Turing, General Douglas MacArthur—one could almost call this a work of Alternate History. And like I said in an earlier post, Alternate History is Science Fiction. Again, don’t try to argue with me.

For me, the most fascinating part of Cryptonomicon was the Allies’ use of misdirection and misinformation to keep the Nazis from discovering that the Allies had cracked the Enigma codebreaking machine. The concept of military deception, of course, was not an invention of Mr. Stephenson’s. It works like this: the Allies learn something important via an Enigma-encrypted message sent by the Nazis. In order to act on this information, they have to create a convincing narrative that explains how they got the information without giving away the fact that they’ve broken Enigma. It’s presents quite a challenge, doesn’t it? I could read a whole book about that.

Cryptonomicon offers more that that, though. A lot more. My paperback copy weighs in at 1,130 pages. And that’s just for the story itself. See, they didn’t think the book was quite long enough, so they’ve also included an essay on the Solitaire Encryption Algorithm and and an excerpt from Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle.” It’s quite a hefty book. The current list price of the paperback is around $16. That’s a hell of a lot of book for the price, if one were to consider the per-page price. But that’s no way to price a book, is it?

See you next time.

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