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Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
(Random House, £12.99, 918 pages, trade paperback; published 1999; ISBN 0-434-00883-4.)

It was pure coincidence that I bought Cryptonomicon and Peter F Hamilton's The Naked God by mail order at the same time, but our postman is still not speaking to me - they're both huge!

The Naked God at least has the excuse that it's a hardback. Neal Stephenson's latest effort, a mere paperback, manages to be just as big and heavy. And if, as I've heard rumours, it's only the first part of a trilogy then the final collected edition will surely be declared illegal under some sort of postal Geneva Convention!

Having said that, it would be an enormous pity if it were because Cryptonomicon is a superb book, spitting sparks of fascinating knowledge, pithy humour and disquieting observation from every page.

Despite its size and weight it flows smoothly and lightly, ricocheting from past to present every few pages. The former is the career of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse an American contemporary of Alan Turing and almost as gifted, and Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe of the Marine Corps. Both are working for Allied Intelligence in WWII, breaking Axis codes and then trying to disguise the fact that they have been broken.

Meanwhile, in the present day (or perhaps a few minutes into the future) Lawrence's grandson, Randy, is a programmer specialising in cryptography. Part of a team working to establish a very secure data haven where (to quote the cover blurb) "encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny," Randy's career echoes that of his ancestor.

Please don't apologise if you're not entirely convinced that Cryptonomicon will be a great read, I felt exactly the same way before I started reading it. Cryptonomicon doesn't sound like a blockbuster but really it is, and in the very best sense of the word.

"But is it sf?" you say. "Er, well, um… Oh, look! There's a badger!" I reply.

Stephenson's style here is consistently deadpan and spare, somewhere between Raymond Carver and Douglas Coupland, but with added knowing irony. The action is narrated with an engaging naiveté that is almost Socratic in its wisdom on occasion.

It must be said that all of the main characters are nerds (even the near-psychotic Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe) in that they have specialised strongly and superlatively in their respective fields, to the detriment of their social skills (something I suspect Stephenson doesn't think is in itself necessarily a bad thing).

This perceived nerdishness leads to some very funny and piercingly accurate set pieces. Lawrence's narrative gives you and I an insight into the condition of being a single-minded genius, as he finds behavioural algorithms in the most unlikely places, the exposition of which sometimes go on for pages. This might sound ridiculous but is at least vaguely amusing and at best a genuine source of wonder.

Meanwhile, Randy's apparent innocence of the real world actually conceals a sharp, insightful intelligence, and his demolition of his former girlfriend's knowing academic friends is a joy to read for anyone who's ever endured any tediously posh dinner parties!

Bobby Shaftoe's experiences of combat are written in a curiously deadpan and bleak tone, bringing to mind Raymond Carver (again) as he might have written a war story: men die and keep on dying until those doing the killing die themselves in turn.

In a sense this is what Cryptonomicon is all about, putting an end to such a pitiless and wasteful cycle. The message about ineffectual relativism and liberal hand-wringing is repeated at least twice and is, arguably, at the centre of the book.

The main characters in Cryptonomicon are DOING THINGS, and doing them for what are (certainly to them) damned good and noble reasons.

Randy's partner is supposed to be in business to finance HEAP, the Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod. This is a body of free information intended to stop anything like the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War ever happening again. All his business efforts are to finance this and the free data haven will be a repository for it.

There is much soul-searching when it seems their noble vision of a free data haven will be largely financed by organised criminals and free-marketeers, using it to shield their ill-gotten gains.

What I couldn't understand was exactly what use Randy and co had expected the free data haven to be put to if not this. Having once (briefly) worked for a company that actively directed its clients towards the fringes of what might be considered legal in terms of sequestering money and avoiding taxes I know such people would love just such a place to hide their piles of loot! The central point of the data haven seemed to me to be rather woolly and not properly explained.

But you can't help but be engaged by Cryptonomicon's delight in cryptography and mathematics even if your maths skills, like mine, stop just short of embarrassing. It's full of bright nuggets of information and of ways of looking at the world that will keep you thinking long after you've finished reading it.

Stephenson also has his own cryptonomicon of obscure words that will need some looking up ("sinter" is his favourite, appearing at least twice - it means "to form large particles or lumps from (metal powders or powdery ores) by heating or pressure or both," so now you know!). This is by no means a criticism - I was simultaneously humbled and gladdened to think there are still people in the world who can and do take the time and trouble to broaden our vocabularies this way (David Zindell is another shining example).

Cryptonomicon is big, bold and not quite like anything else I can recall reading recently. It might benefit from being a little shorter, but not very much, and might just as easily benefit from being a little longer! If you like books dense like a neutron star with interesting stuff then you'll love reading Cryptonomicon.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 25 March 2000