Winning the Code War

Geeks are the real heroes in Neal Stephenson's new novel

I had barely cracked the spine of Neal Stephenson's new novel before my techie friends began descending on me. "Can I have that when you're finished?" they'd ask, barely able to keep themselves from ripping the book out of my hands, ink virtually still wet on the page. When I'd point to my bookmark, buried at the very beginning of this massive 918-page novel, they'd turn away in obvious exasperation with me for not devoting my entire life to finishing it as soon as humanly possible. Cryptonomicon

by Neal Stephenson (Avon, $27.50) Stephenson's novels are highly coveted by computer nerds and their ilk in large part because of the sheer amount of his innovative and original ideas—concepts so potent that they act on readers' brains like hot sun on a carbonated beverage, agitating the fizzy stuff until the can explodes in excitement. It all began with his 1991 novel, Snowcrash, a flipped-out cyberpunk epic in which a pizza-delivery ninja named Hiro Protagonist teams up with a teenage skateboard riot grrrl to uncover a potentially fatal language virus descended from the ancient Sumerians. After the release of his next novel, The Diamond Age, a neo-Victorian techno novel that linked theories of social engineering with speculations on micro-engineering, the fervency of his fans grew even more intense, until rumors about his next epic began to take on a mania of Phantom Menace proportions. But as often as I ran across the wild rumors of the brilliance of the novel, there would come the qualifier, "It's a real slowdown from Snowcrash, I hear." Well, yes it is. But it's the better for it. Snowcrash, in fact, was planned by Stephenson as the script for a friend's graphic novel, and in its hilarious satire of the burned-out strip-mall culture of America's heartland, as well as its two-fisted and seemingly eternal action sequences, it is certainly as much comic book as novel. Same goes to some extent for The Diamond Age, which is given to cinematic sweeps of action that make it seem a conscious bidder for a DreamWorks production. But Cryptonomicon, while its global trotting stretches from the South Seas to London by way of Seattle and spans 60 years, is never anything less than a serious attempt to write an end-of-century Serious Literary Work. Its success, within certain rather strict parameters, means that Stephenson is bidding to escape the science fiction ghetto. And, in large part, he succeeds. Though, strictly speaking, Cryptonomicon isn't science fiction (no aliens, no alternate earths, and datelines that go no further than the present day), it is certainly fiction about science—specifically, the origins and current-day implications of cryptology, the science of codes and ciphers. The efforts of Alan Turing and his fellow scientists before and during World War II to break the Nazi Enigma code, as well as its Japanese equivalent Ultra, marked the birth of computer technology. Now at a time when computers and the Internet make possible the creation of a digital worldwide currency, and the fledgling battles over intellectual property rights enter the courts, encryption science has again taken center stage. Stephenson bounces the action back and forth between two central characters and the people in their lives. First off, there's Lawrence Waterhouse, genius savant and cryptographer extraordinaire, who finds his life's calling when he stumbles into a code-breaking class soon after surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor. Friends with both Alan Turing (the real-life British genius who broke the Enigma code) and Rudolf von Hacklheber (a German genius of Stephenson's invention who creates new codes for the Nazis), Lawrence finds himself involved in the bizarre strategy of leading the Nazis to believe that the Allies haven't broken their code, despite the military actions that should make it obvious that they have. It's a case of "not letting them know that we know what they know." Then, in the present day, his grandson Randy cuts himself loose from his low-paying university job as a Webmaster and is pulled along into an entrepreneurial attempt to open up the vast markets of Asia to the wonders of the Internet. Much of this centers on the laying of telecommunications cable via the Philippines, and the planned creation of a "Data Cache"—a free zone for all sorts of electronic information, from currency to business plans to an "Anti-Holocaust Guide" that can be downloaded by potential victims of oppressive regimes. But as the novel progresses, Randy becomes involved, as his grandfather was 60 years before, in a plot to find the largest cache of Axis gold ever hidden. This tome-like riff on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug" (which shares its obsession with ciphers and gold treasures) is as eccentric and horrific, thanks to its gory combat sequences, as its illustrious predecessor, but a great deal funnier. For while Stephenson's heroes and supporting characters are prone to any number of violent atrocities (he seems to have a fixation on people being sole survivors of catastrophes ranging from labor camps to shark attacks), he's got a Vonnegutian sense of the absurd. One of the funniest relationships in the first half of the book is that between Lawrence Waterhouse and Corporal Bobby Shaftoe, a by-the-book Marine who's unwittingly assigned to the division that Waterhouse masterminds. Whenever Lawrence needs to mislead the Nazis into believing that they haven't broken the Enigma code, he throws an unlikely element of pre-staged "coincidence" at them, such as a ship crashing into the coast of Norway complete with code books that the Allies know the Nazis have already broken. The soldier who is chosen, time and time again, for such an uncomprehending and apparently insane mission is Shaftoe. This is Catch-22 as conspiracy theory: War is insane, but even more insane if you actually understand what's going on. Stephenson's favorite literary technique, appropriately enough for a novel about coding and encryption, is delayed coding. That's when the narrative voice shifts into an uncomprehending notation of sensory input, while only slowly becoming aware of what is actually happening. At Pearl Harbor, for example, Alan is impressed with the verisimilitude of a training exercise involving low-flying bombers, and only gradually does he become aware that it's actually an attack. Even the characters who should be in the know time and again stand around trying to make sense of an anomaly. Though masterful and often hilarious (he's as proficient a satirist as Vonnegut or Pynchon, though even less consistent than either of them), its repeated use at times becomes out-and-out exhausting for the reader. The amount of technical detail contained in this novel is absolutely staggering. Science fiction fans talk about "world creation" as a prerequisite for a really good book. In both Snowcrash and The Diamond Age, Stephenson was able to take the already-hackneyed conventions of cyberpunk and cybersteam and turn them into something rich and strange. In this text, his cheerful conflation of fiction, history, and high-tech journalism can make your head spin—and not always in the best of ways. If you're free of paranoia about who has access to your bank account and e-mail, you won't be by the time you finish this novel. The book often hints at a hidden text (or texts?) below its surface: in-jokes, and conspiracies, and secret histories. Here's an example: Is it just a humorous detail that Randy is fetishistically obsessed with Cap'n Crunch cereal? Perhaps. But knowing that "Captain Crunch" was the alias of one of the most famous of all proto-hackers, a "phone phreak" who figured out that a cereal-prize plastic whistle duplicated a Bell phone code, lends credence to the nagging suspicion that Cryptonomicon is filled with any number of obsessive in-house codes. It's got "cult status" writ large all over it, and one can imagine that a lot of Web sites will be devoted to uncovering its intricacies in the months to come. Another reason this book is bound to be a hit with the geek brigade is that a good portion of the characters, including Alan Turing, Waterhouse, his grandson Randy, and his business counterparts, are full-fledged geeks themselves. In fact, between the professional soldiers and professional number crunchers, there's not a lot of room left for anyone else in the book—particularly convincing female characters. But while scientists, cryptographers, and assorted other types will undoubtedly have a blast, what about the rest of us, even those of us (and I name no names) who may have lost their interest in math sometime around high school algebra? H.G. Wells, the father of modern science fiction, once countered criticism of his novels by claiming that he was a journalist, not a novelist. When one is in the midst of wading through several pages of Cryptonomicon that describe how Van Ecker Phreaking (a method of "tapping" the radio signals emitted from a computer) works, or a description of how a video monitor displays information, one suspects that Stephenson might try to hide behind the same claim. How interesting will this information be to people in 20 years, let alone five? Does Stephenson care? His subject matter may seem to indicate he doesn't, but his inherent ability as a writer argues otherwise. He's a good enough stylist that his books should still be pleasurable long after the techno-thrillers of such hacks as Tom Clancy have turned to brittle brown remainder ware. I was surprised but pleased to find that Stephenson's ultimate aim in this book is not to just go on a treasure hunt, but to ask what the value of such a treasure might be. What's the worth of all this high tech, aside from Lake Washington millionaires being able to build houses that defy the Ludicrously Oversized Home Ordinance? (There's a hilarious parody of such a figure in Chester, gaming-geek-turned-magnate, whose house contains the remounted remains of a blown-up 747, carefully cleaned of the original victims.) On its most profound level, Cryptonomicon exemplifies the proposition not only that all language is code, but that ultimately all human interchange, from the immensely complex (global warfare, cyberbanking) to the intensely personal (romance, friendship), is coded information. For a novel so filled with covetous descriptions of the latest high-tech wonders, it eventually turns out to contain a highly moral message about how certain individuals must take arms against the inhumanity and brutishness of war and oppression with the sly cleverness of applied knowledge. John Longenbaugh is the theater critic for 'Seattle Weekly.'

 
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