The CR4 Book Club Blog

The CR4 Book Club

The CR4 Book Club is a forum to discuss fiction and non-fiction books that have science, engineering or technology thematic elements. The club will read and discuss several books a year. All CR4 users are invited to participate. Look out for book announcements and the ensuing discussions that follow, but beware of potential spoilers!

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Book Review: Cryptonomicon

Posted April 08, 2008 5:01 PM by Chris Leonard

Well, this is a tough one to approach in terms of a review. It's a modern classic with a cult following and the 2000 Hugo Award winner for best novel. It's also an incredibly dense 1,168 page (mass market paperback version) journey through history covering code breaking, cryptography, early computer programming, and hi-tech treasure hunting. Its part techno-thriller, part historical fiction, part sci-fi, part-cyberpunk, and fifteen other genres all mashed up with a lot of scientific and technical details. Cryptonomicon is a grand vision, but it's also in need of a good editor.

The story bounces back and forth between World War II and "Today", focusing in the 1940s on mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse and soldier Bobby Shaftoe and later, their grandchildren computer programmer Randy Waterhouse and ocean wreck salvager Amy Shaftoe. It's interesting to note that Stephenson uses distant relatives of these characters and others in his less-well-read epic work, The Baroque Cycle (three books, 3,500 pages covering 1663-1713, the rise of the British Royal Academic Society, the birth of coin-based commerce, the "war" between Leibniz and Newton; all wrapped up with the requisite political and religious intrigue, piracy, slavery, royal courtliness and the like – I've just started the third book The System of the World, so that may be the focus of a later Engineering Book Club Entry).

As I mentioned earlier, an editor is needed on this work, as Stephenson has the tendency to go off on long tangents about the system of pressurized tubes within the human body; the tool Randy uses to prepare Cap'n Crunch so that it remains crisp, but won't scrape the roof of his mouth (a true engineering feat); and modular arithmetic as it relate to code-breaking. These aren't one paragraph asides. They go on for pages. At the same time I say "a good editor", because it is specifically these asides that make the book jaw-droppingly good. You'd need a good editor to decide what to cut without removing some of the real fun of the work. It's also important to note that what seem to be small asides, such as a discussion on van Eck phreaking, turn out to be important to the plot. You're never really sure upon which concept the plot will turn. Similarly, though the book does engage in many inter-chapter segues that often leave the reader confused as to where in time and location the reader has been dropped.

As a semi-technical reader, many of the discussions of mathematics, ciphers and algorithms went over my head. Instead, I latched onto the varied takes on history and geography. Stephenson's use of historical figures like Alan Turing, Hermann Goering, Ronald Reagan and Douglas MacArthur all make appearances lending both a cognizance that these were momentous times as well as a surreal tie-in with the real world. That said the portrayal of MacArthur seems to be built on his legend more than the man in real life. Similarly, his interweaving of real places like Manila and Bletchley Park outside London, with fictitious realms like Qwghlm and Kinakuta give Stephenson ample room to maneuver.

You'll notice I'm entering my fifth paragraph on Cryptonomicon and I still haven't addressed the usual focus of a review – the plot and how the book flows. That's the hard part with this book. Ostensibly, Lawrence and Bobby are members of a secret British code-breaking force called Detachment 2702 whose goal is to make sure that Germans do not realize that their Enigma code has been cracked. This is made more difficult by the fact the lead German code-breaker is a friend of Lawrence's from college – as was Alan Turing, who plays an important role.

Lawrence's code work against the Germans and Bobby's military activity in the Pacific theater, specifically in the Philippines directly affect their grandchildren in the future. The later day story revolves around Randy Waterhouse's attempt to build a data haven in the Pacific nation of Kinakuta. Randy's company hires the Shaftoe's salvage company to help them both lay cable to make the data haven functional and later to help locate a missing German sub which is rumored to contain millions of dollars in gold bullion.

And, that's only about the first 500 pages….Don't worry, I haven't given anything important away.

I think I really enjoyed this book, enough so that I read other works by Stephenson, but at the same time something feels off about it. Like, maybe it could have been done in 500-600 pages? But again, I don't know what I would cut. I have the same feeling about the Baroque Cycle, but I'm into book #3. So, for those who have read Cryptonomicon, did you come away with the same feeling? Also, for the more technically minded, what about his extrapolation on waves, code-breaking, higher math, etc.? Did it shed light on the novel's plot that I may have missed?

Thanks for reading along, and here's our upcoming schedule. As always, if there's a book you'd like to discuss, let me know and I'll be happy to turn the blog over to you for a day.

April 22: To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

May 6: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel


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The Architect
Engineering Fields - Software Engineering - S/W Architect Popular Science - Evolution - Fascinating! Fans of Old Computers - TRS-80 - A fine computer United States - US - Statue of Liberty - NY

Join Date: Dec 2004
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Good Answers: 5

Re: Book Review: Cryptonomicon

04/10/2008 10:50 AM

This book is excellent... a fun read with intelligent characters and an intriguing story. Sure, it is long, but it is worth it.

Absolutely great if you enjoy more than one of these topics: math, hackers, World War 2 spy stuff, computer history, a good story.

" editor is needed on this work..." - Well, I would expect an editor to say this! I loved the spelunking into crazy niches of knowledge.

Once you cut your teeth on Cryptonomicon I whole-heartily recommend The Baroque Cycle.

Mark Gaulin
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