Sunday, June 08, 2008

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

I have finished reading Cryptonomicon. While I could construct a lot of meaning around it (it is 1100 pages of fine print, after all!), I will not do that because I don’t think the author intended that much. It is very much written as a suspense thriller with the suspense clearing up in the last few pages. However, it would have thrilled you a lot if only it was a bit shorter. With its current length, the thrills come approximately 100 pages apart. Anyhow, the recurrent themes of the novel are two. One – the tussle between pure theory and practical world. So in one timeline you have the cryptanalysts vs. the soldiers in WWII while in the other timeline you have the hackers vs. the businessmen. The author seems to believe that it is only a blend of the two that helps mankind – viz technology. So out of the WWII scenario comes the digital computer and out of the modern scenario comes some sort of world changing internet startup. Stephenson bashes the dinner table intellectual types in several pages – especially the post modern social scientist.

The other recurrent theme is that everything has roots. Hacking has its roots in WWII cryptanalysis. Modern finance has its roots in the primitive banking systems of WWII. The current world order has its roots in the trifles of WWII. On a more plot level, all of the modern characters have grandfathers who played significant roles in WWII. Some of these grandfathers still survive and are important people in Nippon and China. Not only does that seem uncannily spooky, it leads to a kind of deliberately constructed plot which I dislike.

Yet, there were a few things that I liked about the novel. For example, Stephenson uses diagrams to narrate stories at some places. In the book, a Nipponese soldier is designing an elaborate tunnel system to hide a huge amount of Japanese gold. Have you ever read a story where the plot crucially depends on the geography of the place and after a few paragraphs of descriptions you lose track of everything that’s going on. I find such plots highly irritating and usually end up skimming pages. Stephenson solves all of these problems by giving you a map. And trust me, it does wonders to the clarity of the plot.

I think the message that gets across by doing this is that the non-technical types should understand that a lot of technical vocabulary is used not to complicate matters but to simplify them. Yes, to the non-initiated a diagram may look more complicated than words but once you’ve familiarized yourself with the vocab, a diagram will make a lot more sense. So the author is imploring the non-technical types to learn a little bit of technology to better understand the modern world. For example, the hacker protagonist in the novel has a debate with a social scientist type wherein he criticizes the social scientist for making claims about the internet without really knowing what internet is.

Rating - 3/5 (Good)

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