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vol 6 - issue 03 (nov 2003) :: entertainmental
book review by smokin' joe blow

If you've already read Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, then you know what an overwhelmingly high-quality read it is; kudos to you. If you haven't, then please read this slightly long review to find out why I make it a point to re-read this book once a year.

Cryptonomicon follows the life of Randy Waterhouse, computer geek in the present day, and brilliantly intertwines it with the World War II experiences of Lawrence Waterhouse (Randy's brilliant-but-naive-grandfather), Marine Sergeant Robert Shaftoe, his son Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, his daughter America, and a determined Japanese engineer named Goto Dengo (who goes through hell and back) in one of the last wars that really meant something.

There is a lot to experience, and the story moves seamlessly back and forth through the Pacific theatre, so I recommend having a world map handy.

The Cryptonomicon of the title refers to a body of government cryptographic wisdom which Lawrence Waterhouse first learns of and then adds to while working as a code-breaker in the infamous Bletchley Park. This is while he has been collaborating off and on with Shaftoe, who, in turn, encounters Goto Dengo as first an enemy and then a friend. Meanwhile, Randy Waterhouse and his computer-speaking business partners seek new ways to exploit the information age by creating an information haven in the Philippines, and create the world's first electronic currency. Ronald Reagan, Alan Turing, and-- to a lesser extent-- General Douglas McArthur make cameo appearances as supporting characters.

Here's a random list of some of the goodies: Van Eck phreaking (just read it) gold, haiku poetry, higher mathematics, a brief explanation of why scuba divers are like computer hackers, and everything you've ever wanted to know about Filipino jails but didn't feel like doing the time to find out; a description of Cap'n Crunch cereal that will make you laugh and possibly expel milk through your nasal passages; Greek mythology 101; a mysterious priest named Enoch Root; the richly detailed technical descriptions Neal Stephenson is famous for; and a hilarious confrontation between Randy and a gathering of stuffy academics that relates nicely to J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world.

Most of the book is told in the present tense, which adds to the air of play-by-play breathlessness. The main characters are especially well sketched, and the settings-- both geographical and political-- are vivid. This is not the cyberpunk future of Stephenson's Snow Crash or The Diamond Age; it is the present day, and the immediate past. There is nothing in the book that would fit the normal definition of "science fiction".

The best thing about Cryptonomicon is that it's part of a trilogy; which makes a book geek like me tremble in anticipation in places you probably don't have.

So, if you're not a Neal Stephenson fan, please, go see what all the fuss is about.



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