Cryptonomicon in January: Week 1

I decided to read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon this January for a slightly delayed resurrection of my previous December book clubs. I thought that maybe January would be better because the hectic schedules of the Holidays were over people like to start the year fresh sometimes and decide “this is the year I get back to reading”. So we ended up with an 1000+ page book (depending on the edition) about cryptology, the perfect kind of light reading to help you start the year off right.

We’re reading 32 pages a day, which is a bit more ambitious than I realized. Which is why you’re getting a week 1 recap about halfway through week 2. In fact, here’s the schedule, which is roughly 220-230 pages per chunk (based on my copy of the book, the 2000 paperback edition published through Harper Perennial, which I purchased at a thrift store for $1):

  • Week 1: beginning through Crypt
  • Week 2: Lizard through Outpost
  • Week 3: Meteor through The Most Cigarettes
  • Week 4: Christmas 1944 through end

I have found, in my life, that I prefer certain kinds of literary fiction. While I certainly love the young adult genre novels which read quick and have shoddy world building but fun movies (Harry Potter/Hunger Games come to mind–you’re welcome to fight me about JKR’s Harry Potter world building), I really sink into books that can be charitably described as infodumps. JRR Tokien’s Hobbit is a nice primer into books that have a narrative but spend a bunch of time just explaining stuff, then cutting back to the story. Frank Herbert’s Dune really is where I got my first taste of hardcore, well-thought-out informational overload being balanced with an exciting but somewhat opaque story that slowly comes into focus as background is added. A much more hardcore example of this is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Weird how all of these books have been part of book clubs I’ve led or at least taken part in.

So Cryptonomicon

The book starts with background on, at this point, three main characters. We also start immediately pre-World War II at the tail end of 1941. So we have, in 1942:

  • Bobby Shaftoe, a Marine and eventually a Marine Raider who is a war hero, has seen some shit, and likes haiku
  • Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an extremely smart enlisted Marine who is tends to treat human interaction as a problem to solve, and not even an interesting one. Friends with, among others, actual real-life historical figure Alan Turing.

In 1999:

  • Randy Waterhouse, systems and network admin involved in some kind of new startup in the Philippines. Definitely related to Lawrence.

So far we haven’t received the inner monologue of many other characters, though we’ve been introduced to a lot of other mostly fictional people:

1942

  • Glory Altamira, Bobby Shaftoe’s erstwhile paramour in Manila
  • Rudy von Hacklheber, former schoolmate of Lawrence’s, very good friends with Alan Turing, it’s worth mentioning that he’s German
  • Goto Dengo, member of the Japanese military who befriends Bobby Shaftoe when they’re both stationed in Shanghai
  • Enoch “Brother” Root, missionary with questionable credentials who once saved Bobby Shaftoe’s life and then ended up in his life again mysteriously
  • Ultra/Magic, not actually a person, but the secret code names of the joint British/American cryptography venture that Lawrence is involved with

1999

  • Avi Halaby, Randy’s business partner who is very excellent at human interaction and also really prefers everything to be encrypted (apparently also a reference to Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series The Baroque Cycle, and not even the only one, though it was written after Cryptonomicon)
  • America “Amy” Shaftoe, who runs a salvage/diving business out of Manila, working with Randy. Definitely related to Bobby Shaftoe
  • Epiphyte (1) & (2), the two startups that Randy and Avi are working on. The first is a project to use microwave antennas to bring greater internet connectivity and asynchronous video messages to Manila, the second is the creation of a data haven.
  • The Sultanate of Kinakuta, this is not a real place, though the Sulu Sea is real. It’s where Epiphyte(2) is building their data haven.

There is a lot happening, and it’s a lot of reading. A seriously great chapter-by-chapter breakdown is over here at rackpull.com with tons of links to relevant wikipedia articles. I particularly appreciate the wikipedia photos of the real life places some of this story occurs in, like the Intramuros or the Pine Barrens.  Also really worth reading is Neal Stephenson’s 1996 book-length Wired article Mother Earth Mother Board, the research for which must have partly inspired this book. MEMB is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction writing, and having read it helps clarify a lot of the undersea cable talk in the 1999 chapters.


This recap is obviously delayed and there’s definitely the chance that the next one will be too.  ¯_(ツ)_/¯