Basecamp Crypto

We are well underway in our attempt to scale Mt. Stephenson–i.e., read Neal Stephenson’s massive, approximately 3600-page Baroque Cycle in one long go. Strictly speaking, The Baroque Cycle is eight novels printed in three volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, but we included Cryptonomicon in the project because its characters and themes are extensions of those in the (don’t-call-it-a) trilogy. The Baroque Cycle is an exploration of the historical moment (which lasted most of a century) when the foundations of modern science and finance were laid. Cryptonomicon deals with the intersection of money and technology some 300 years on.

Cryptonomicon follows two story lines, one set during World War II and the other in the late 1990s, which interweave to tell a story about cryptography and the invention of the digital computer. The primary WWII characters are Bobby Shaftoe, Marine, and Lawrence Waterhouse, Mathematician. Their paths cross in Detachment 2702, an Ultra-Magic Secret (miles above Top Secret) operation designed to prevent the Axis powers from realizing the Allies have broken their codes. Essentially, the Allies know everything their enemies are planning, but if they show up at just the right spot to blow up every u-boat convoy or counter every move Rommel makes in North Africa, the Axis powers will figure out why they’re so well-informed and switch codes, shutting off the Allies’ main source of information. To allow them to take advantage of the information without tipping their hands, Lawrence plots clever ruses to disguise the improbability of the Allies’ “luck”, and Bobby leads the men who carry them out–whether by planting fake dead spies with waterproof packets of disinformation in the ocean, mocking up snipers’ nests to be ‘discovered’, or allowing American code books (cracked by the Nazis, but we don’t want them to know how we know that) to fall into enemy hands.

In the 1990s, Bobby’s son, Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, and granddaughter, America (Amy) Shaftoe, are marine salvage operators in the Philippines. They get into business with Lawrence’s grandson, Randall Waterhouse, when he hires them to survey the floor of Manila Bay for his telecom business venture. What they find sends the crew into a much bigger adventure than mere data lines into the Philippines: there’s an experimental Nazi rocket-sub full of gold sitting on the floor of the bay. A blown hatch indicates that someone managed to get off the sinking wreck; furthermore, documents brought up indicate that someone on the sub had a connection to Randy’s family.

The modern-era characters plunge into treasure-hunting (the gold in the bay is the merest fraction of a massive hoard hidden deep in the jungle), while battling nefarious conspiracies, a lawsuit-happy business partner and his (literally) feral lawyer, who has a long, bitter history with Randy. Additionally, Randy digs into his grandfather’s past, trying to uncover his connection to whomever was on the sub–and along the way, finds clues to the treasure in the jungle.

There are two relatively major characters who appear in both timelines, one a mastermind lurking in the story’s shadows, and the other who is its beating, bleeding heart. Enoch Root is a curiously-unplaceable (in accent, attitude and intent) priest who nurses Bobby Shaftoe back to health after a battle, and later shows up in association with Detachment 2702. Enoch’s motives are murky and tied to a secret society to which he shows greater allegiance than to the church, but he’s generally helpful to Bobby. He is also a mysterious figure who engages Randy Waterhouse in discussions of cryptography, business ventures, motives, and conspiracies–again manifesting at just the right moment to lend a hand to our hero. In both story lines, Enoch seems to have a lot of knowledge about secret things, with no obvious explanation of how he came by it. And when he finally puts in an appearance in the 1990s timeline, he seems very much unchanged from the Enoch we’ve gotten to know in the 1940s. Curious, that.

Goto Dengo is a poetically-inclined Japanese soldier who barely survives his terrible war experiences. He’s shipwrecked, washing up with a handful of shipmates onto an island inhabited by vipers and cannibals; Dengo alone survives, and only by chance. Finally rescued (too strong a word for it, really–retrieved, perhaps?), he is enslaved to design and dig a massive crypt-complex that will be the last resting place of the treasure of the falling Empire of Nippon–and very nearly, of Goto Dengo. He is saved by his intelligence, foresight, and the fact that he has been painfully stripped of many of the illusions he held before he went to war. (He sees his loss of faith as his unmaking, but in truth, it’s his salvation.) By the time Randy and his friends propose to excavate the crypt, we have a deep emotional connection to it; we have felt the human cost of its creation. As it happens, the firm with the expertise and capacity to open up the crypt is none other than Goto Engineering, and its elderly but still-hale founder has hard questions about why Randy’s team wants to dig up this particular grave. Goto Dengo wrings my heart again and again; he is the most humane character in the book, suffering so much, and withstanding it all with such heart and humility…I’m tearing up now. He’s simply a lovely, profound character.

One of my favorite things about this book is how knowing snippets from one timeline ratchets up the tension in the other–we know about the sunken sub early on, so when, in 1945, characters we care about propose to steal the sub and make their way to the Philippines, I wanted to shout at them not to do it. We don’t find out until very late in the book who the lone survivor was, and that question alone would have been enough to pull me along to the end, had I needed pulling. I didn’t — the whole thing is a rip-snorting, Nazi-fighting, code-breaking, treasure-hunting adventure, in my opinion. But Stephenson does like to burrow into some detailed rat holes–technical computer discussions, the inner workings of pipe organs, the specifics of a playing card-based crypto system–and a reader not interested in plumbing those depths might get bored. Someone once told me he thought the book would have been much better with about 200 pages cut out of it–specifically, those boring, rambling, detailed discursions into math and cryptography. It’s a valid opinion, though one I flatly disagree with: I believe those digressions are the point of the book–the adventure stories are just there to lead us from one to the next. That’s one of the things about reading Stephenson–he expects you to do some work to keep up with him, he’s not going to just spoon-feed you a story. I choose to be flattered by what this implies about Stephenson’s estimation of my intelligence, but I certainly understand that it’s not what every reader is looking for from their fiction. It’s not even what I want, all the time: I filled my down time between the first and second books with a little Harry Potter on audio, so I could just sit back and enjoy, no work required!

It should not surprise you to hear that Cryptonomicon is one of my all-time favorite books. I was already a fan of Stephenson when it came out, but more than any of his previous works, Cryptonomicon felt like Stephenson writing directly into the pleasure centers of my brain. It’s not perfect, by any means–it suffers from Stephenson’s tendency to write to his last plot bullet and then just stop, for one thing. As a heroine, Amy Shaftoe is not up to Stephenson’s usual standard; she’s fun to spend time with, but she’s no Eliza (Baroque Cycle); she’s not even a YT (Snow Crash). These flaws are so minor compared to the good things in the book, I really only mentioned them to let you know that I do maintain some critical ability in the face of a book that continues to sweep me off my feet after 12 years and four reads.

Now, on to Camp Quicksilver!

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One Response to Basecamp Crypto

  1. Ramona says:

    Love your little ‘mountain’ climbers!

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