Literature: Cryptonomicon

Published in 1999 and widely considered to be Neal Stephenson's Magnum Opus, Cryptonomicon is a 1000+ page Sci-Fi/Historical novel following three independent yet interrelated story arcs, two of which are set during the Second World War and the third during the first years of the twenty-first century. Although it treats with some pretty deep, philosophical themes, the novel itself never comes off as dry or preachy, largely due to Stephenson's unique style of narration. Equal parts profound and profane, Cryptonomicon tells the story of multiple generations within the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, as well as their attempts to unravel the secrets of a vast conspiracy affecting history and society.

The Heroes:

  • Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse: A young mathematician/cryptographer serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy as a part of Detachment 2702, a secret paramilitary organization created for the purpose of keeping the Axis Powers ignorant of the fact that the Allies have broken the Enigma cypher. Is prone to drifting off on profound, philosophical, occasionally nonsensical musings. His best friend is Alan Turing.
  • Bobby Shaftoe: Badass Marine Raider responsible for putting Waterhouse and company's plans into action. Has a fondness for poetry, particularly Haiku. Don't get him started on giant, Nipponese-eating lizards. Trust us on this.
  • Randall Lawrence Waterhouse: A geek with a love of mathematics and computer science. Is currently involved in an attempt to create a "Data Haven", where information may be freely exchanged without government interference. He is the grandson of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse.
  • Goto Dengo: A Japanese private and mining engineer who is sent to New Guinea. His viewpoint largely serves as a tour of just how horrible the Pacific Theater actually was.

It should be noted that this novel takes place in the same universe as another of Stephenson's works, The Baroque Cycle, which prominently features a number of ancestors of Cryptonomicon's characters.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: America ("Amy") Shaftoe. Naturally, since she is the granddaughter of badass Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe.
  • Ancient Tradition: Societas Eruditorum.
  • Ass Shove: Upon learning of his niece's impending engagement to Enoch, Otto Kivistik produces a ring from out of his anus for him to give to Julieta. This is explained by Uncle Otto being a jewel smuggler who keeps a small container "down there" for just such an occasion.
  • Assimilation Plot: The ultimate goal of Loeb's Hive Mind project. Ultimately fails because, apart from believing that individuality is an illusion, none of its supporters can agree on anything.
  • Author Avatar: There are quite a few similarities between Stephenson and Randy, including their intellectual pedigree.
  • Author Tract: To almost Ayn Randian levels in some places, but most notable when Enoch Root becomes his mouthpiece.
  • Bandaged Face
  • Bayonet Ya: The Nipponese Army loves their banzai charges and their typical method of prisoner execution is to stab them repeatedly with a bayonet. They find out the hard way that bayonet charges are only good at killing unarmed natives, and when the war turns, end up being mowed down by mass fire from American and Australian troops.
  • Blah Blah Blah: Waterhouse explaining the digital computer to Comstock:
    "Dr. Turing, of Cambridge University, has pointed out that bobbadah bobbadah hoe daddy yanga langa furjeezama bing jingle oh yeah," Waterhouse says, or words to that effect.
  • Brand X: Randy's computer runs a very famous Finnish UNIX-like OS called Finux. The boot loader is called "FILO".
    • A more obscure one is the "Secret Admirers" mailing list. (The Cypherpunks actually debated changing the name of their mailing list to Secret Admirers because some of them thought it was a clever name.)
  • Brick Joke: In an early chapter, in the modern time line, Randy's arguing with an annoying Dr. G.E.B. Kivistik. Much later in the book, in the World War II timeline, a Ms. Julieta Kivistik is pregnant, but can't be sure whether GŁnter, Enoch, or Bobby is the father.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Both Lawrence Waterhouse and Shaftoe. Also Douglas MacArthur, who is so weird Shaftoe can't quite tell if he's hallucinating whenever the General is around. Avi to a lesser degree.
  • Cassandra Truth: Randy warns his girlfriend and her friends early in the book about a minor scandal that erupts around the "War As Text" conference.
  • Chandler's Law: Near the climax, Andrew Loeb shows up and tries to kill Randy and Co. He does this even after getting his leg blown off by a mine.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Quite a few minor details turn out to be important.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Lawrence Waterhouse is absolutely brilliant, but he's not really all there, interpreting events (like Pearl Harbor, while in the middle off it) rather... differently.
    Clearly, Mr. Drkh has had a long career of being the weirdest person in any given room, but he's about to go down in flames.
  • Coincidence Magnet: Bobby Shaftoe. The giant Nip-eating lizards of Guadalcanal that saved his life. The interview by Lieutenant Reagan (while drugged with morphine). Detachment 2702 missions (such as "Negroes of the Caribbean"). His friendship with Bischoff (a German submarine commander- Shaftoe is an American marine. All of this during WWII). And of course the really, really weird and accidental meet up between General MacArthur, Bobby Shaftoe, and Goto Dengo in the ladies' room in the middle of a battle in the Philippines. It starts to have an effect on him.
    He had slowly been gathering a reputation as a man who needed watching.
  • Color-Coded Wizardry: Enoch Root is also known as Enoch the Red, and Randy compares him to a Lord of the Rings wizard.
  • Cool Old Guy: Enoch Root.
  • Cool Ship: V-Million.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Lawrence Waterhouse briefly muses on the possibility that the world is actually ruled by a cabal of elderly women who influence world events by controlling how often world leaders get laid. We're mostly sure that he's just being his normal cloudcuckoolander self. Mostly.
  • Crazy Survivalist: Andrew Loeb.
    • Averted with Tom Howard, who is an enthusiastic user and collector of automatic weapons but is fairly mentally stable beyond a...quirk or two the book gets into.
  • Deadpan Snarker: A fair number of the cast get in several good ones; most notably, this is Douglas MacArthur's general mode of communication with troops who have failed him in some way.
  • Dinner and a Show: Randy is first introduced at a fancy restaurant, being pushed over the edge by his girlfriend's friends into picking an academic fistfight.
  • Everyone Is Armed: Including the nerds.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: Unusual variant: Randy uses Morse to view and enter data on his laptop when he's in prison and being monitored, using the spacebar for input and a keylock LED for output.
  • Fetish: Tom Howard's chapter-long dissertation on hosiery/furniture fetishism. It's not clear whether it's sincere or not.
  • Friendly Enemy: Waterhouse is overjoyed to learn that his opposite number amongst the Axis nations is none other than his old college buddy, Rudolph von Hacklheber. He works with Turing, and Turing was "Rudy"'s boyfriend at the time.
  • From Bad to Worse: Goto Dengo's whole ordeal, from when Americans attack until he meets up with his fellow Nipponese again. I mean, first the bombs, then the flaming oil everywhere, then the whole nearly dying of thirst and exhaustion thing, then the sharks, then the other sharks, then the sharp coral, then the poisonous snake, then the cannibals, then an Australian patrol, then a death sentence for surrendering to the enemy...and then, it gets even worse.
  • Gainax Ending: Stephenson is famous for these. Cryptonomicon is no exception.
  • Generation Xerox: Nearly all of the characters have ancestors in The Baroque Cycle.
  • Genius Bruiser: For all his martial prowess, Bobby Shaftoe is clearly pretty intelligent himself.
  • Gestapo: They only show up once: Rudy is less than impressed.
  • Gilligan Cut: An uncommon literary variant in which Bobby Shaftoe pays a visit to his girlfriend Glory—or, more precisely, to the Pascuals, who run the school she goes to, carefully negotiating an hour of formal and stylized socializing, "an eternity of small talk" with Mr. and Mrs. Pascual, half an hour of "'private' time" together, and a "painfully elaborate and lengthy good-bye ceremony".
    Half an hour later, they are doing tongue judo in the back of a horse-drawn taxi galloping over the cobblestones toward the nightclubs of Malate.
    • (It doesn't stop there. Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe is conceived that night.)
  • Hard on Soft Science: Although really more like "Hard on Liberal Arts Academia". Pretty much anybody who has a graduate degree and isn't a scientist or working in the private sector is a Jerkass who has no comprehension of the "real" world, notably Dr. G.E.B. Kivistik and Randy's ex, Charlene. Balanced somewhat in that these people, unlike most of the hard scientists, have genuine social skills, and averted in Enoch Root, who has a mathematical background but also a strong philosophical one.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Alan Turing is featured prominently in early chapters, General Douglas MacArthur in later chapters.
  • Hollywood Encryption: Thoroughly averted. Bruce Schneier served as a consultant, and the book also draws on stuff you can find on actual textbooks.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Averted to some degree; Randy goes through an elaborate (and elaborately-described) attempt to anonymize his Internet traffic in order to hack a computer, only to realize that he's spent a lot of time ensuring that said computer is pretty much unhackable, and that the only way to make the changes he needs to make is to log in with his actual user account—so after all of the work he's put into making the attack untraceable, he has to enter his own user name. He briefly contemplates leaking his username and password via an anonymous forum post, but realizes that the timing would only make it even more suspicious.
  • Honor Before Reason: Douglas MacArthur thoroughly exploits Japan's dedication to "honor" during the war, brazenly blowing up targets that only Japan should know about, because MacArthur knows that no Japanese higher-up will willingly admit that their military codes have been broken.
  • I Know You Know I Know: The purpose of Detachment 2702. Lawrence spends a lot of time thinking about this kind of thing.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Lawrence's mom died from what the book suggests was polio. It was at least the kind of disease that puts one in an iron lung or leaves the infected with a permanent limp.
    • This is confirmed much later in the book, when Lawrence arrives on Qwlghm. "Mrs. Qrtt...notices his slightly asymmetrical walk and manages to ferret out that he had a spot of polio at one point."
  • Instructional Dialogue: A little more subtle than in Anathem, but still very much present.
  • Jerkass: Earl Comstock and then some. He steals ideas from Waterhouse that would have made him millions, and uses the NSA as his own private codebreakers. His son, whom we don't see much of, is apparently worse.
  • Knife Nut: Loeb.
  • Lemony Narrator
  • Mad Mathematician: Though they're harmlessly eccentric, Lawrence Waterhouse and most of his progeny are this to at least some extent.
  • Mars-and-Venus Gender Contrast: Played completely straight. John Grey's trope-naming book even gets a Shout-Out.
  • Metafictional Title: In-Universe, the Cryptonomicon is a comprehensive study of cryptography, both for making and breaking codes.
  • More Dakka: A Vickers machine gun is described in loving detail.
  • Mundane Made Awesome:
    • Cap'n Crunch cereal. Breakfast has never been so pornographic.
    • Also, the Penthouse letter.
  • Mythology Gag/Continuity Nod: In Rudy and Alan's dialogue about Leibniz, Rudy refers to an attempt by Leibniz to catalog everything that exists, and Alan exasperatedly comments that since no one but Rudy seems to have heard of this attempt, it can be assumed that he failed. This attempt was a sizable chunk of the plot of The Baroque Cycle, thus being a rare continuity nod forward in time (in the real world). Alternatively, it's foreshadowing of something that's already happened in a book that hadn't been written yet.
  • Nazi Gold: Well, Yamashita's gold—the Pacific War equivalent—is a big connection between the plot lines.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Randy is about to erase some incriminating evidence from a computer that the Feds are trying to seize when someone else, thinking that they're foiling the Feds, hits the building with an electromagnetic pulse, frying all the electronics in it and shutting down Randy's erasure of the data. They're quite pleased with themselves, and when Randy tells them that they also fried his laptop, they tell him not to worry—the EMP wouldn't damage the data stored on his hard drive. They don't realize that the same applies to the servers that the Feds are seizing.
    "I know you are expecting me to take that as good news," Randy says.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Between Qwghlm and Kinakuta, almost half the story takes place in fictional locations. Qwghlm is a small, rustic island northwest of Great Britain with a language and culture that parody Welsh. Kinakuta is an island between the Philippines and Borneo ruled by a Sultan with very IT-friendly policies. However, many historical figures appear in person.
  • Noodle Incident: Virtually every description of the book will mention something along the lines of "a lengthy piece of erotica concerning antique furniture and black stockings". Reading said piece...isn't much more enlightening. Really, its only function is to be memorable so that the reader doesn't forget about Van Eck phreaking.
    • Earl Comstock's fall (or possibly push) off a ski lift in Colorado in 1975 also counts. We never see it, but we know it was richly deserved.
      "My pop—" Amy does a little head-fake towards one of the photographs "—happened to be seated right next to him at the time."
      "By accident, or—"
      "Total chance. Not planned."
      "That's one way to look at it," Randy says, "but on the other hand, if Earl Comstock went skiing frequently, the probability was actually rather high that sooner or later he'd find himself sitting, fifty feet off the ground, next to a Vietnam combat veteran."
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: An entire family of them, the Comstocks.
  • Ocean Madness: Goto, having learned to swim in flooded mineshafts and caves, and an Okinawan who grew up by the sea manage to swim from open sea to New Guinea after their troop transport is sunk. Their fellow survivor from Tokyo, however, loses it.
  • Pink Mist: The fate of the unfortunate Lieutenant Ethridge.
    "You weren't hit," the flyboy says confidently. "If you'd been hit, you'd look like Lieutenant Ethridge."
    For the first time, Shaftoe hazards movement. He props himself up on one elbow, and finds that the floor of the plane is slick and wet with red fluid.
    He had noticed a pink mist in the cabin, and supposed that it was produced by a hydraulic fluid leak. But the hydraulic system now seems hunky-dory, and the stuff on the floor of the plane is not a petroleum product....
    Shaftoe looks at what is left of Ethridge, which bears a striking resemblance to what was lying around that butcher shop earlier today....
    "Holy cow," he finally says, "that Kraut twenty-millimeter is something else."
  • Punch Clock Villain: Goto Dengo is appalled at the brutality of his fellow soldiers, particularly after the New Guinea affair, but can't protest it lest he be shot for being a traitor or insulting somebody's honor. He saves a handful of workers when the Japanese Army is sealing Golgotha—permanently—and killing everyone who worked on it, converts to Christianity after he meets Douglas MacArthur, and helps rebuild Japan after they surrender.
  • Sequel Hook: Subtle enough that it initially seems like bad writing. Stephenson has said that no one batting an eye at Enoch Root appearing at Shaftoe's funeral after having dramatically died in Sweden the previous winter is a hint that Cryptonomicon might be sci-fi after all. It's a hook for his next book, The Baroque Cycle, which also features Enoch Root—and takes place at the turn of the 17th century.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The academic conference that ultimately ruins Randy and Charlene's relationship, as well as Charlene's lengthy article on beards. Similarly, the Japanese Army, when it has to come up with terms to save face: "retrograde maneuver" (i.e., "retreat") comes up repeatedly.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: Tom Howard's rambling story about discovering his own and his wife's sexual fetishes rambles on for most of a chapter. It's only relevance to the story is to illustrate what Van Eck Phreaking is and how it works, which are critical to the plot later. The story's actual content is never referenced again.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Discussed and zigzagged. Randy is awed by Action Girl Amy Shaftoe's changed appearance at a ballroom dance, but he admits that unlike in the movies, she's not as well-dressed or as good a dancer as the ballroom regulars.
    • When he later sees her in a nicer dress at the airport, he feels like he's been hit with a poleaxe.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shown Their Work: If there's a commercial literature work that does features real cryptography, down to and including a working Perl script for a cipher commissioned from a real cryptography guru, as well as including entire lectures on information theory, it's definitely Cryptonomicon.
    • Also detailed is computer science, politics, diving technique, etc. If you stop to think about all the research Neal has done, it'll be a long time before you finish the book.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Doug Shaftoe.
  • Super-Detailed Fight Narration
  • Staying Alive: Enoch Root.
  • Straight Gay: Alan Turing.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: The Waterhouses are especially prone to this.
  • Tangled Family Tree: The Shaftoes. Lampshaded when Amy states that, while she could try to explain her actual relation to her "cousin" M.A.note , Randy would "start shifting around and heaving great big sighs before [she] got more than half way through".
    • The Altamiras even more so. Of course, they're eventually connected through Bobby, Glory, and Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe...which only makes everything even more complicated.
      The family Altamira is vast enough to constitute an ethnic group unto itself, and all of them live in the same building—practically in the same room. Once or twice, Glory has begun to explain to Bobby Shaftoe how they are all related. Now, there are many Shaftoes—mostly in Tennessee—but the Shaftoe family tree still fits on a cross-stitch sampler. The family Shaftoe is to the Altamira clan as a single, alienated sapling is to a jungle. Filipino families, in addition to being gigantic and Catholic, are massively crosslinked by godparent/godchild relationships, like lianas stretched from branch to branch and tree to tree. If asked, Glory is happy, even eager, to talk for six hours nonstop about how the Altamiras are related to one another, and that is just to give a general overview. Shaftoe's brain always shuts off after the first thirty seconds.
  • Taking You with Me: Bobby Shaftoe blows himself up with a large and ship-like bunker of Japanese soldiers. More accurately, he decides to blow them up, and, already fatally wounded, joins them.
    • Averted in that whenever Japanese soldiers try this, they die.
      "Don't you guys know banzai charges never work?!"
      "Everyone who learned that died in banzai charges."
  • Title Drop: The eponymous Cryptonomicon, which is a centuries-old, ever-growing compendium of cryptology, gets mentioned several times.
  • Translation: Yes: Several of the Qwghlmian-English parts. Bonus points for bringing in information theory: the Qwghlmian language's information density is so high, it's difficult to transmit clearly over a radio channel.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: One set during WWII, the other during the final years of the twentieth century.
  • Unexplained Recovery: Enoch Root is unceremoniously shot to death in Sweden mid-book and given a funeral, but sudden reappears talking to Goto Dengo in Manila towards the climax and, sixty years later, shows up in the jail cell next to Randy.
  • The Vietnam War: Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe is a veteran.
  • Walking Armory: In Egypt, Bobby Shaftoe has half a dozen weapons hidden on his person; knives, pistols, derringers, etc, in addition to the much more obvious Tommy Gun. At one point, he's on a transport and trying to get comfortable so he can get some sleep. To do so, he has to deal with: "the teeny revolver in his waistband", "the Marine Raider stiletto holstered invisibly between his shoulder blades", "a standard-issue Colt semiautomatic" on one side, "his own six-shooter from home" on the other, "the various ammo clips, speed loaders, and maintenance supplies that go with them", "the V-44 'Gung Ho'...knife, strapped to the outside of his lower leg", and "the derringer that he keeps on the other leg for balance". The only things he doesn't move "are the grenades in his front pockets".
  • War Is Hell: Stephenson's depiction of the Second World War, particularly the Pacific theater, is incredibly brutal. Gets really depressing once you realize it's a case of Shown Their Work; the Japanese, in their Imperial phase, were really not nice people.
  • Warrior Poet: Bobby Shaftoe and Goto Dengo. Bonding over poetry is how they first meet.
  • Wicked Cultured: At one point we meet Herman Goring, who is a terrible person...but he's got some great taste in art.
  • World of Badass: The narration posits that any organism living on Earth after billions of years of evolution is a "nightmarishly lethal, memetically programmed death-machine". (Even nerds like Lawrence.)
    Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey [Lawrence's father] was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo—which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead.
  • You Are Number Six: Loeb insists on being referred to as RIST 9E03. No one outside of his immediate circle of followers calls him this.