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Archive for May, 2009

Book Review: Cryptonomican by Neal Stephenson

Posted by jaystile on May 7, 2009

Cryptonomican by Neal Stephenson © 1999

My initial reaction to Cryptonomican by Neal Stephenson is that it was pretty much a waste of time. It is long and tedious and geared toward computer geeks. Usually, I revel in that but this book had some gross short comings. I was recommended this book by a buddy of mine so I made sure to finish. I’ve been giving him a hard time about my most negative feelings of this endeavor.

Cyrptonomican follows two time lines. The first being the modern time of the programmer / hacker Randy Waterhouse and his adventures leaving California and wrecking havoc in Southeast Asia on a new business venture. The second time line is during WWII which follows Randy’s grandfather and others around the world doing cryptographic cat and mouse games. It would be a stretch to call this book cohesive, even following just one time line would have the reader jumping months into the future talking about disparate events. It was most like looking at a time line of history: 14000 B.C. humans crossed the Bering Straight, 5000 B.C. The Great Pyramids were built, 476 A.D The Fall of Rome. Interesting, yet not connected. Of course, the events of the two time lines do interconnect to form a sort of treasure hunt.

The Bad
First off, weighing at over 900 pages make this book a long read. The next major flaw was that there was almost zero character development. The Randy Waterhouse at the beginning of the book is the same as the end, other than he has experienced a lot of different adventures. The love interests of the main characters are present but not useful. Randy’s love interest, America (Amy) Shaftoe, is a Filipino firecracker, what more do you need to know? Stephenson seems to try too hard to use ‘interesting’ words. Early in the book I was looking up 3-4 words in the dictionary each page (which was getting to be quite exhausting for a ‘pleasure read’). By the end the ‘interesting’ verbiage was gone and the dictionary was not needed.

The Good
Stephenson introduces a crypto system in the book know as Solitaire. It’s implementation is described in detail in the back of the book. It was fun and I tried it out. Kind of tedious to do crypto by hand though. The WWII time line was a lot more interesting than the modern. A good portion of the book is detailing the exploits of Bobby Shaftoe, U.S. Military grunt, (Amy Shaftoe’s Grandfather) as he goes with his team to try to hide the fact that the Allied forces have broken various Axis crypto systems. They do this by creating ‘plausible’ situations where the Allies discovered Axis secrets through non code-breaking means. But to do this they have to sneak behind enemies lines, etc.

The Excellent
The strongest point in this book (which is only like 10-20 pages) is where the elder Enoch Root (who occurs in both time lines) is in a Filipino jail with Randy Waterhouse. Enoch Root describes the reoccurring theme of Ares vs. Athena. They are both gods of War. Ares is the primal, raging, wanting to rule, kind of god. Athena, who is know for her intelligence is seen with the Aegis shield and is a protector. Extrapolate that theme to the Axis and Allies or U.S. and North Korea, or any person or group standing up to an Ares. The ‘Athenas’ are supposed to keep the ‘Ares’ in check by using their superior intellect and technology. What is interesting to me is that I’m starting to read ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ which talks about reoccurring themes in the mythologies of all of humankind. I’ll keep you posted.


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