You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, August 14, 2006


At 1130 pages, The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is the longest single book I've read. It details the struggle during WWII to keep Allied communication secret through cryptography, and to break the codes of the Germans and Japanese (referred to as Nipponese in the book). The story follows Sgt. Shaftoe, a marine in the Pacific who gets transferred (after some heriocs) to duty in Europe as part of a secret operation; Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematician who quickly works up the crypto ranks; and his grandson Randy Waterhouse, who sixty years later is a programmer and engineer who works on crypto systems as part of a small company he owns with a few of his colleagues.

The subject of cryptography during WWII is an intriguing one, and Stephenson ties it to the modern day uses pretty well. Randy Waterhouse's company is involved in setting up a modern vault or "crypt" in an island nation to house private data, and also to store electronic currency. Both of which require high-level elaborate cryptological protections. Some detail is spent on the facts of cryptography, which I found very interesting. What I found most fascinating was the description of how the Allies tried to hide the fact that they had broken important enemy codes. In order to keep a secret that the codes had been broken, they had to either act in a way that they hadn't been broken, or provide a "cover story" for why so many German ships were getting sunk. (Of course, there's much debate among the Germans as to whether the codes were broken). So, Sgt. Shaftoe ends up on several missions where he's planting false evidence of spies and false codes. This is dramatized by the chapter where his superior officer must leave a code book for the Nazis to capture, but the officer is the only one who knows about it, so everyone else thinks he's really a Nazi agent.

The story of Randy Waterhouse (presumably set in the nineties) gets a little bogged down with the details of the company's operation, it's setup, and the lawsuits filed against it by a tycoon known as the Dentist (actually he used to be an oral surgeon). For me it was the slowest part of the book. It does have a decent payout though. Also the parts with Randy's personal life were a little slow, but they tied in to the overall plot eventually.

I really appreciated the level of detail of cryptology and cryptanalysis, and could have used more. It might be too much for the average reader though. Really there's only a few parts. Some detail is given on Lawrence Waterhouse's development of a digital computer, using mercury in pipes, in order to crack codes. Also mentioned are Alan Turing, whom Waterhouse studies with in school, and their colleage Rudy, who ends up working for the Nazis. It makes the story personal when they talk about breaking Nazi codes that Rudy had invented.

(OK, side note: I was nearly half way through the novel when it came to my attention that the book was written entirely in the present tense. I would have thought that this would be more distracting, but it works well. I think part of the reason for writing it this way (though Snow Crash was also written in the present tense) is because of the threads of the story being decades apart.)

The basic plot boils down to one thing: gold. And lots of it. The theory is that the Japanese buried tons of gold in the Phillipines toward the end of the war. The code that Waterhouse tries to break at the end of the novel is related to the gold; he can tell because of other information he's put together involving mining engineers and the like. He believes if he can decode the messages, then they will reveal the location of the buried gold. Decades later, Randy comes across the messages and tries to decrypt them. Also involved is a German submarine and its captain, Shaftoe's girlfriend and young son, that son's daughter (in the nineties) and her growing relationship with Randy, Filipino thugs and Chinese bureaucrats who want the gold, a Japanese mining engineer (and buddy of Shaftoe's) who ends up as Eisenhower's assistant, and good dose of horniness.

Grade: A. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in crypto or WWII. Plus, any story involving the pursuit of large quantities of gold is captivating. Stephenson can really write, and gives a solid picture of character, as well as a superb sense of place.


Anonymous Fred Peters said...

Wow, 1130 pages, I'm impressed. I've got a historical book titled "The Codebreakers" that is about that long. I started it, but it will probably be a retirement project.

The city of Coventry was targeted in the war for a large scale air raid. The Brits did not warn anyone there in fear of giving up that they had broken the code.

11:10 PM, August 17, 2006  

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