Is Cryptonomicon the novel you should be reading now?


Are you baffled by encryption? Do the arguments between the FBI and Apple over an iPhone used by a now-dead terror suspect sound rather like secret messages you can’t quite decipher? If so, a holiday with Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (1999) may be just what you need.

Cryptography is thoroughly woven through both parts of Stephenson’s time-hopping story, which follows code breakers in World War II and code makers in the late 90s, and the book makes a good case for viewing code, in various senses of the word, as built into the foundations of our era. As the decryption of Axis messages enabled the Allies’ victory in the war, gave birth to computers, and helped set up the order of the postwar world, so did encryption and other work by coders during the 90s shape that decade and bid fair to influence the future. Stephenson doesn’t explicitly play up the interchangeability of “coder” and “programmer,” but it’s implicit to his book: those who program computers are working in a cryptic realm that’s not directly accessible except to initiates.

In a way, both sides of the iPhone case are here. The FBI’s desire to learn more about what Syed Farook had been up to before he and his wife murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015 parallels the Allies’ pressing need to figure out what the Germans and the Japanese were up to during the war, a quest that’s embodied in the book by fictional characters such as the code breaker Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse as well as by historical figures such as Alan Turing. Similarly, Apple’s desire to uphold the protections that are built into its phones corresponds, though a little less neatly, to 90s-era efforts in the novel by network specialist Randy Waterhouse and his colleagues to develop a data haven in Southeast Asia and establish a digital currency while they try to protect their work from the prying eyes of enemies and business rivals.

Mind you, the novel is nowhere near as schematic as that. In fact, Cryptonomicon is so long (910 pages as an e-book), sprawling, and fanciful that it’s not easy to say what it’s really about, and it’s probably a mistake to read it with any expectation that “Where’s he going with this?” is going to be clearly answered. In one sense, the novel is about systems of exchange: primarily the exchange of communications (encoded messages, the Internet, programming itself), secondarily the exchange of value (of which money is the chief example). In another sense, the novel is simply but deeply about its characters. Many of them are picaresque types—lively and resourceful heroes engaged in episodic adventures. The gung-ho Marine Bobby Shaftoe, for instance—who’s one among an ensemble of about half a dozen major characters—evacuates from Shanghai in late 1941, falls in love with a woman in Manila, invades Guadalcanal, gets addicted to morphine, participates in a mysterious operation to dump a dead body off the Spanish coast, discovers a cache of gold in a sunken U-boat, takes up with a smuggler’s daughter in Sweden, and makes his way back to the Philippines, where he links up for a second time with a Japanese mining engineer and is befriended by General Douglas MacArthur.

Derring-do is only part of the point. Stephenson is interested in the qualities and viewpoints of these guys—and they are all guys. Though women aren’t absent from the tale, they tend to be objects of desire and sources of mystery—like secret messages the men struggle to decode—more than direct drivers of the plot. One woman ends up leading a resistance faction in the Philippines, but neither she nor any of the others are characters whose consciousness Stephenson follows. One may wonder how a woman would’ve written such a story, but it has to be said that the imbalanced gender roles bear at least a superficial resemblance to reality in the military-scientific-technical establishments of the 40s and the 90s.

Bobby is often in over his head, whereas Lawrence is working near the secret heart of things, but whether or not they’re smart, and whether or not they’re on the side of the Allies, all the guys Stephenson tracks in this novel embody aspects of the spirit of geekery, and the book is, as much as anything else, a celebration of technology and technologists. It both anticipates and answers the call of Project Hieroglyph, launched about 12 years later, for compelling stories in which Big Stuff Gets Done. As his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry puts it, Cryptonomicon is “not so much a story as a way of seeing the world.” That, by the way, is another reason to consider reading it: here you’ll meet, looking about as good as they can, the code jockeys and assorted other engineering types who are making the apps and the gear you use, and making a good deal more than that as well—including, for some, great piles of money.

The focus on gold, which is first mentioned in an epigraph and which increasingly comes to the fore as the novel proceeds, is curious. Having nodded in both time periods to unstable paper currencies, Stephenson appears to believe—at any rate, he allows his characters to believe—that a digital currency will need to be backed by a tangible asset, and since there’s nothing like a treasure hunt to add zest to a tale, he sets his modern characters in pursuit of a buried horde with which to endow their bank, while for good measure he weaves a few other sets of gleaming gold bars into the piece: Filipino gold in the jungle! German gold on a submarine! The financial rationale is iffy; the United States had abandoned the gold standard in the 70s, the Asian currency crisis in the late 90s to which Stephenson is partly responding couldn’t easily have been solved by gold, and as it turned out Bitcoin needed no such backing. What’s more, when he moved on from this to write his origins-of-the-modern-world series, the Baroque Cycle, he seems very sensibly to have demolished the entire notion that currency needs a material basis. (I haven’t read the cycle and am relying on Stephenson’s SFE entry.) No big deal—the business of the gold works as one of the McGuffins that keeps the plots moving.

Where cryptography is concerned, Stephenson is an excellent guide. Readers of Snow Crash (1992) may have felt that he went astray in attempting to argue us, at length and in detail, into buying his notion of a computer virus that could also affect the human brain and that had influenced the development of languages. In that novel, Stephenson came off as too much the “village explainer” (to borrow Gertrude Stein’s complaint about Ezra Pound); one of my friends took to skipping those sections and was probably not alone. Nonetheless, despite the risks of boredom and annoyance, explaining things is a valuable function, which Stephenson just needed to moderate, and in Cryptonomicon he does. He’s not averse to throwing in a mathematical expression here and there, or even a bit of computer code in the form of a Perl script, but he does it all pretty lightly, interleaving much of the discussion with action and making the essential points clear whether or not you can decipher the details. (The American public’s assumed aversion to mathematics in books, by the way, is an embarrassment and silly to boot; anyone who’s encountered Shakespeare in school will have encountered algebra as well, yet no one avoids quoting Shakespeare. I’m glad to see Stephenson defy it.) Here, for instance, is an early reference: “Randy fires up a piece of software that is technically called Novus Ordo Seclorum but that everyone calls Ordo for short. It is a fairly strained pun based on the fact that Ordo’s job, as a piece of cryptographic software, is to put a message’s bits in a New Order and that it will take Centuries for nosy governments to decrypt it.” By the time you’re done, you’ll understand one-time pads and a lot else. You’re not going to come away from this excursion really knowing any more about highfalutin stuff like zeta functions than you knew going in, but you should have no trouble grasping how they fit the story.

It may help if you’re already interested in crypto, but then if you’re already interested you may already know most or all of what’s here. Either way, whether you’re encountering the history and ideas for the first time or not, reading Cryptonomicon is a far more entertaining way of coming to terms with cryptography than any ordinary primer is likely to be. The only obstacle to the Stephenson method of updating your wetware is the considerable time it’ll take. (Incidentally, those in the know, both within this book and beyond, tend to use “cryptography” to mean the making of codes, “cryptanalysis” the breaking of codes, and “cryptology” the two things together. The rest of us can do just as Merriam-Webster does and allow “cryptography” to cover it all.) And there’s at least one new thing in the book. Stephenson commissioned computer-security expert Bruce Schneier to devise a message-encryption system for use in the book, which is called Solitaire and is described in an appendix. It’s a simple though time-consuming method that requires only paper, pencil, and a deck of playing cards, and to judge from the only analysis I’ve read it’s relatively secure.

Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is knowing and solidly of its time in many respects but contrary in at least one way. Part of the book’s background is the controversy that had swirled around encryption technologies for much of the 90s; though I saw no sign of either in two period reviews I randomly checked, the better-informed among the book’s original readers would’ve been well aware of the so-called Crypto Wars, as they would have of the Asian financial crisis. Meanwhile, in 1996, as Internet usage boomed, Wired magazine had published a veritably encyclopedic report on the proliferation of undersea fiber-optic data cables such as the one that figures into the modern section of this novel. Who wrote that report? Neal Stephenson himself. It’s included among the back matter of the Cryptonomicon e-book, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable to re-read despite being old news and astoundingly wordy. Wordiness, by the way, is the contrary thing in the novel. Did a prolixity virus infect Stephenson’s brain in the mid-90s? While much else became shorter and, as James Gleick’s 1999 book title declared, Faster, Stephenson began luxuriating in length. Unlike the coders he celebrates in Cryptonomicon, he’s a little heedless of efficiency. Nonetheless, I can’t help being fond of a guy who goes all the way back to Lord Kelvin in his Wired piece on undersea cables and even gives us the name of Kelvin’s yacht: Lalla Rookh.

Given that its 90s characters employ standalone GPS receivers and have no smartphones, Cryptonomicon may seem to be behind the times in crucial ways. Though the book can’t tell us, in as much detail as we might like, where we are now and where we might go from here, it’s still germane. The mobile computational devices that appear in the book are laptops, whereas the ones we use now are increasingly smartphones, but many of the data-protection issues are the same.

At the moment, some of the major smartphone manufacturers think it’s good business to build a degree of security into their products, so that, assuming you set it up properly, no ordinary snooper is likely to be able to find out what’s on your phone unless you tell them the passcode. This isn’t as secure as it sounds. Apple, for instance, happens also to have built into its phones the ability for a technician to update the system software without the user’s permission, which is exactly how the FBI proposes to get into Syed Farook’s phone and look around. It’s conceivable that an American court will order Apple to cooperate; all the editorialists who argue that unelected judges shouldn’t settle such questions should keep in mind that the American Congress may enact a statute explicitly requiring exactly the same thing. If you don’t want a court to demand the creation of a backdoor because the tech might be reused or stolen, then you ought to be worried about a legislature dictating it, for the same reason. And there are nearly 200 other countries in the world where similar things might happen. Meanwhile, doesn’t it verge on arrogance to argue that an American decision, in court or Congress, to require a backdoor would set a precedent for other countries? This suggests that no one else could even have thought of the idea on their own and wouldn’t presume to act on it unless we did.

To put it simply, as long as the phone makers are technically capable of getting into your phone, it’s not secure, and—in case it hadn’t occurred to you—the same is true of your computer. What’s more, no encryption of your phone’s contents protects text messages, emails, or anything else you send from your phone. If you’re concerned about that, you—and this is true regardless of whether you’re a law-abiding citizen, a criminal, or a terrorist—are going to do just as Randy Waterhouse did, in the passage quoted above, and encrypt stuff before you send it. Software to do this is widely available (and anyone who wants my public PGP key is welcome to ask for it). Personally managed encryption isn’t necessarily secure either, since you can already be legally ordered—on pain of jail, as happens to Randy in the novel, or a good deal worse—to give up your encryption keys, but at least this puts the outcome in your hands. The encryption genie is out of the bottle, just as the nuclear genie is. What’s before us now are various attempts to leash it. The future is going to be interesting.


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