Cryptonomicon traces the thread of four narratives originating with the WWII Enigma cryptography program as they slowly converge onto one point. In the first narrative, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse attends Iowa State College, and is sent to Princeton by his parents for a year, where he makes the acquaintance of Alan Turing and and German named Rudy von Hacklheber, discussing mathematical problems together. He ends up in the Navy after college, where he flunks the Navy’s intelligence test and is assigned to play glockenspiel in the Navy band. While in that role, he is involved in the Pearl Harbor attack. Afterwards he is assigned to paperwork in a code-breaking group, where he instantly excels. He is eventually assigned to be a liason to the British Enigma efforts at Bletchley Park.

Turing had already broken the Enigma code, so Waterhouse’s role at Bletchley Park is to design figure out how to use the information in a way that statistics suggest that the code is not broken. He is assigned to direct Detachment 2702, a unit of Marines whose job it is to fix actions that statistically suggest that Enigma has been broken. Eventually he is sent out to a ramshackle palace on the island of Outer Qwghlm, a fictional island off the coast of Scotland with constant fog, rain, and cold, where he installs and pretends to operate a huffduff device for directionally finding locations of radio signals, so that the Germans will think that the Allies are finding the locations of U-boats by tracking their signals (instead of by reading the decrypted messages).

After the war in the European theatre has wound down, Waterhouse is sent to Australia to aid in breaking the Japanese codes, which he breaks with regular progress. This is aided with the digital computer that he built. All through his time at Bletchley Park he has been trying to create the general purpose Turing Machine (essentially a computer), and with his pipe organ background he figured out how to solve the problem of storage—storing bits by changing the resonant cavity of plumbing pipes and reading them back by “playing” the pipe and determining its frequency. The machine is rather noisy, and slow by modern standards, but is a lot quicker than using human computers.

Some of the Japanese codes give him serious trouble, though, especially one dubbed Arethusa, and he suspects that they might have been created by Rudy (who is now working for the Third Reich). Waterhouse knows that Rudy has been interested in zeta functions, as he talked about them at Princeton. After finding a Japanese bunker destroyed in a cataclysm of flame except in the inmost room where the human computers were had been computing, he observes that the people had been set up to do zeta function calculations. He reads off the coefficients from the papers they were writing the intermediate steps on, plugs them into his computer model, and succeeds in breaking Arethusa.

Somewhat unrelated to all this, he meets a Mary cCmndhd (pronounced “Smith”), who turns out to be from Inner Qwghlm. He is so taken with her, that for the first time in his life he is disgusted with himself for using prostitutes to service his libido, despite it being an unquestioned among military men. He even goes so far as to show up at a dance to get to know her better. Later he has an epiphany where he accepts the societal cost/benefit arrangement of marriage. Unfortunately, Mary is not terribly interested. He starts attending her church, where he uses his pipe organ knowledge to demonstrate the need and method of repairing the rather out of tune organ. Mary observes the affair, which shifts something in her. Shortly afterwards they are engaged.

The second thread is the adventures of Corporal Bobby Shaftoe of the U.S. Marines. He had been stationed in Shanghai for quite some time, and begins the book by evacuating his Marines as the Japanese begin their attack on Shanghai. He is then sent to Manila, where he impregnates a young Filipina named Glory that he is infatuated with, on the night that the Japanese attack. The Americans abandon the Philippines shortly afterwards, and Shaftoe sees action on Guadalcanal, where he narrowly survives being killed. He is haunted by the unusual and hard-to-understand sight of a giant lizard carrying off one of the dead soldiers; this story frequently comes up afterwards, and gains him a reputation of being somewhat unhinged. He also meets an unusual priest/philosopher Enoch Root, who helps him survive and get back to the Marines. He signs up for the Marines again after his tour is finished, where he is judged unfit for combat. Ordinarily they would tour him around the country telling war stories, but since the lizard story freaks everyone out, there is little useful alternative but to assign him to Detachment 2702. As it turns out, Root is also assigned to the unit.

Corporal Shaftoe is too low in rank to be privy to details of the orders, but he has a knack for being able to question stupid-sounding orders without offending the officers, a trait that endears him to the enlisted men. Detachment 2702 has a lot of unusual orders, leading to a lot of verbal hilarity. In their first assignment, they take the body of a soldier who died in a meat-packing accident in North Africa, fly over enemy territory, out to a location at sea, turn back when they see that a U-boat has seen that they have seen it, and fly back to shore, Root puts some paper in the dead man’s pocket, they push him into the sea, and then fly to Malta. (The purpose that Shaftoe did not know was to make the Axis fleet think that they know the U-boat’s position by aircraft spotting, instead of by decrypting the codes, then plant evidence of a Axis deserter who had given paths of future convoys.)  Their second assignment is to impersonate a radio listening post in Italy that has been there for six months, but of course they are not told this, merely given instructions to litter the house with old newspapers and magazines (provided by the military) and to dig latrines and carefully fill it with layers of feces, urine and wadded up old newspapers, with the papers getting progressively newer towards the top. Then they are to arrange to get spotted by German planes, and narrowly escape the strafing.

The unit then rendezvous with Waterhouse in Qwghlm, where they pretend to operate the huffduff machine. When U-boat U-553 runs aground on the rocks nearby, Shaftoe and his men are taken to try to acquire the Enigma device on the submarine. The Engima device was not there, but after Waterhouse shows an interest in the captain’s safe, Shaftoe uses explosives to remove it, as a cover for finding the morphine in the medkit to satisfy his addiction. While there he notices gold bars in the U-boat. Waterhouse cracks the safe, discovering some papers filled with numbers that appear to be a one-time pad. Later, this provides him the final values that he uses to compare the output of the zeta functions that he computes to break Arethusa. The safe also contains one gold bar, which is observed to be from Shanghai, suggesting that the Axis are shipping gold around.

Detachment 2702's next mission is to ram a derelict vessel into Norway, abandoning it in such haste that the Allied shipping codes are left on board, giving an obvious reason for the Allies to change their codes which Enigma messages have alerted them have been broken. They are to make their way to neutral Sweden, which they accomplish with the loss of several men. They are then shipped out to the Atlantic, where they are to impersonate African-Caribbean sailors (only while on deck), to be observed by a U-boat at a particular location. The U-boat sinks the ship and leaves. An hour later German command tells the U-boat to pick up any officers that survived, so they turn around and arrive just as a Allied sub is picking up a few survivors. They torpedo the sub, and pick up Shaftoe and Root, the only survivors.

Prior to this, Captain Bischoff of U-691, despite sinking the most number of Allied ships due to his wily and crafty ways, grew tired of being constantly harassed by the Allies who constantly knew where he was, and suspected that Enigma was broken. He decided to take a vacation in the Caribbean, and refuses to relay his coordinates over the air. German command orders that his second remove him from command and assume command himself, which he does. This puts U-691 back in service to be spotted by Detachment 2702 and return to torpedo the rescue sub and pick up Shaftoe and Root.

Back on board U-691, Shaftoe is suffering morphine withdrawal. He happens to be in the same location where Captain Bischoff is confined to his straightjacket, and Bischoff uses the promise of morphine to get information out of him. He and the acting captain (who German command has ordered to cease interrogation, presumably because the prisoners know something he does not have clearance to know) learn that U-553 was carrying gold. The Allies were afraid that Shaftoe or Root would tell the U-boat commander that Enigma has been broken, and spoofed an Enigma message informing German command that the apparently unstable Bischoff had turned traitor. This caused German command to order all U-boats to sink U-691 on sight. This message arrives as Shaftoe is informing the two German officers German military secrets. Beck reliquishes command to Bischoff.

Shaftoe suggests that they take the sub to neutral Sweden, and since they have no options besides being sunk by the Allies or sunk by their own U-boats, they do so, going back to the port where Detachment 2702 had ended up. Bischoff arranges for the other sailors to be sent back to Germany with no repercussions, but he stays in Sweden, with Shaftoe and Root. Some time later Rudy arrives at the same village in Sweden, and meets up with Root, with whom he has some tenuous family connections. Rudy grew disenchanted with the Third Reich after Göring used the threat of sending Rudy’s male lover to the concentration camp to enforce Rudy’s secrecy in the creation of a new, unbreakable code, since he did not trust Enigma. Rudy made the code (but not without certain vulnerabilities, which Waterhouse later exploited), and escaped to Sweden. His lover almost escaped too, but died in a plane crash while arriving. Rudy informs Root and Bischoff that Japan and the Reich are stockpiling treasure in Manila. They conspire, along with Shaftoe, to converge to Manila with a U-boat’s worth of treasure. Bischoff brokers his return to the Reich in order to sail on a U-boat of an improved design with treasure to Manilla.

Shaftoe returns from AWOL to the Marines, is discharged, tells the Marines his home is in Los Angeles because he gets a free ticket home. From there, he uses his knowledge of the military to sneak his way to the Philippines impersonating himself as an aide being sent to General MacArthur. On his way to Manila he tries to find Glory, having heard that she had given birth to a son. He does find her, but discovers that she has contracted a serious case of leprosy and is horribly disfigured and contagious. Crushed, he leads the small Army platoon he happened on as the American attack on Manila begins, and kills his way through Japanese soldiers to central Manilla to the church where his son is reported to be. He find his son, and has some brief father-son time before heading back out again to find General MacArthur.  He succeeds, and MacArthur sends him on a risky mission to take out one remaining large Japanese bunk by parachuting on top of it (hopefully avoiding getting punctured by the antennae on top), pouring fuel into it and blowing it up with a grenade. After he throws the grenade, as an afterthought, Shaftoe jumps in after it.

The third narrative is the story of Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier and sometime acquaintance of Shaftoe. They had a brief encounter before Shaftoe left Shanghai, and developed a mutual respect for each other. Goto’s story is dropped until the point when the American bombers torpedo his convey to the bottom of the sea. As this happens, two things change. First, he realizes that, unlike his country, the Americans are able to admit that they are wrong and develop a new, successful strategy. Second, he sees no point in sacrificially dying in the classic Japanese warrior style. This results in his eventually surviving by swimming to nearby New Guinea.

Although on land, the several day swim has ruined his body, plus there is no food. He steals a wok full of tasteless goop from a native village while they are otherwise occupied. He discovers gold in the stream, and being from a mining family, he gets an idea and pans for gold in the wok until he has recovered a reasonable amount of gold. He had seen a previous village excited about finding a gold tooth after they killed a fellow Japanese survivor, and he learned the word for gold in their language. He takes the wok and shouts the word, using gestures to communicate that he can get them gold in exchange for shelter and food. This arrangement is successful, until one day a Japanese Army patrol massacres the village while he is out panning for gold. He joins the patrol. The patrol has been devastated by dysentery and other diseases in the jungle, and even worse, they have been ordered to cross the mountain range. Still, he is the healthiest, and ends up surviving until he meets with a Japanese platoon on the other side of the mountain. It is obvious that the Japanese army is being defeated, but everyone in the platoon puts up a valiant denial. Goto is eventually shipped out.

He ends up in a Catholic hospital in the Philippines that was forced to provide medical care to Japanese soldiers, which Goto badly needed. He is impressed that the Catholic workers treat him well, despite the treatment they have received. He is also impressed with the portraits of Jesus, and also disturbed that he keeps losing the staring matches to Jesus. After he is better, he is transported to a small unit in the middle of the jungle, a place called Bundok. (Actually, that just means a random place way in the mountains in the local dialect, but the Japanese officer does not know that.)  Goto was assigned there because he has mining experience, and his task is to plan and build a treasury for the gold that is to be stored there, complete with a false treasure room and deadly traps for anyone trying to tunnel into it. He names it Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, and is given the use of Chinese slaves to build it. Partway through he realizes that anyone who learns the purpose of the project is killed, and realizes that his fate will be the same. He makes plans to build a subtle escape route for himself and a few of the slaves.

The treasure begins arriving in the vault. Slaves who accidentally discover what is being stored there (after a crate drops and smashes to reveal the gold) are brutally killed by the Japanese soldiers. Soldiers who drive the vehicles are killed after they are done. The slaves begin to realize that the ventilation shafts begun from above are not intended for ventilation, but for their dead bodies, and begin to revolt. The slave compound was built with careful placement for machine guns, which mow down all the revolters. The day arrives for Golgotha to be sealed. Goto takes his four slaves and sets the traps. A stream has been dammed above the excavation, and is now allowed to flood the tunnels to create the pressure on the traps. If, for example, the sand above the false room is removed, there will no longer be anything to push against the thin wall separating the water, which will break through and quickly flood the room, killing the excavators of the sand. The pathways and shafts for actual ventilation have been carefully constructed to provide pockets of air after the water floods. They group waits at the largest for several days so that the outside work is finished and they will not be observed. Then they swim from air pocket to air pocket and escape. The Chinese laborers have stuffed their pockets with diamonds, but Goto is ashamed of what he and his country have done and took nothing.

The fourth saga begins sixty years later in the present time (approximately 1999, given the publishing date and the technological scene of nascent but expanding Internet), as one of Waterhouse’s grandsons, Randy, partners with Avi to start a company in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are both skilled in technology, although Waterhouse tends toward the technical side and Avi to the management side. Their first company fails. The second company pulls Randy away from his long-time girlfriend and to Manila to start a company extending the Internet to Manila so that Filipino workers abroad can send short video messages to their family along with the money they wire. The video messages are simply the funding for the extension of the Internet, as Avi sees that telecoms are booming in third-world countries and aims to ride the wave.

Despite the non-existing notice, Avi successfully pulls Randy away from his girlfriend with the concise, insightful comment “you’ve been living with her for ten years and have no plans to marry her. Do the math.” Avi, as we slowly find out, being a Jew, has more insight in these matters due to the Jewish cultural value for and teachings about marriage. Randy concedes he is right. In fact, Charlene is a liberal arts academic with a specialty of deconstructing how white males are the cause of all injustice, and we are treated to a hilarious exchange as Randy, now knowing he has nothing to lose, says what he has always felt at dinner with her friends: there is no evidence for their position. Randy adjusts to life in Manila and Charlene goes her separate way.

As Epiphyte Corporation begins executing its strategy, they need to make a deal with an American billionaire living in the Philippines known as the Dentist. He is not someone to be trifled with, being both of a merciless persuasion and also married to a beautiful Filipina (and unbeknownst to him) prostitute with strong connections to Filipino strongmen. However, he owns the telecoms, and Epiphyte does not have the funds to lay cable from Taiwan. So to extend the cable they make a deal with him. This cable requires some undersea survey work, so after some research, Randy employs the services of Semper Fi Marine. It is owned by Doug Shaftoe, who as we eventually find out is Bobby Shaftoe and Glory Pascual’s son. He has a daughter, America (Amy) Shaftoe. Randy is immediately taken by Amy, who is a tatooed, diver who quite pointedly maintains a professional brusqueness between them.   The company is essentially a treasure-hunting operation funded by more professional work as occasion allows, and after Randy suggests this conclusion, Doug makes a handshake deal with Randy that if they find any wrecks during the sweeps extending farther than strictly necessary for the survey, he would share 10% with Epiphyte.

Avi is on a roll, and soon finds a bigger opportunity, leading to the creation of Epiphyte(2) Corporation. This opportunity is centered in Kinakuta, a (fictional) island in the South Pacific with a Islamic history, currently ruled by a Sultan who is modernizing the island with wealth from the oil around the island. He is building the Crypt inside a mountain, aimed to be a completely secure offshore data haven. Avi pulls together some friends to form a management team, and they attend a meeting with the Sultan. It turns out not to be a private meeting, however, as representatives from a number of other companies are there, including the Dentist as well as a company represented by a group of mainland Chinese investors, one of whom walks in late and talks on his cell phone a lot. Randy hastily creates a program to take screenshots of anyone who uses his laptop.

The Sultan gives a speech introducing the data haven as more than just secure data, and completely surprises everyone by asserting that the laws governing data-flow are accretions over a long period of time when physical location actually mattered, which it does not in cyberspace. Hence, a reboot is required, and he, the Sultan of Kinakuta is going to make it happen. He hereby declares that the new law of Kinakuta is complete freedom of information flow—no restriction or snooping of that flow will be made by the Kinakutan government, and invites the assembled to do something interesting with it. Dr. Pragasu, the Sultan’s nephew (and university classmate of Randy’s) introduces John Cantrell of Epiphyte Corporation (in actuality, Epiphyte(2)). Cantrell is a security paranoid, and, unknown to us readers, he and other members of the Epiphyte(2) has created a prototype banking application, a demo of which is available on Randy’s computer during the lunch break. Randy’s program takes mugshots of the other participants, which Avi sends to a contact in Hong Kong to ID them.

Thus far the readers’ view into Epiphyte’s corporate communication has been through the Ordo program, a secure email program written by Cantrell which encrypts everything sent through and stored in it. In fact, it is only exists decrypted in RAM, it is never stored on the disk in plaintext. As the the saga unfolds we are introduced to various concepts of encryption and computer security. One of these happens after the meeting, as Randy is unwinding for the night. Cantrell has a bet with another team member that he can use Van Eck phreaking to read the other team member’s screen with no connection with or visibility to said member’s computer. Van Eck phreaking is explained to be picking up the electrical noise emitted by computer components, and pulling out the signal to from the video card using its steady clock signal to distinguish it from the seemly random noise from other components. Cantrell is successful.

While Randy is waiting for Cantrell to get everything set up, he explores a mysterious email with no personal identification from that he received (on the plane! as he had flown Sultan Class) asking why he is investing in the project at Kinakuta. He assumed it is his old enemy Andrew Loeb, who had sued him into near oblivion over some game code he had written for Andrew’s company, which Andrew later parlayed into a sizable fortune, but assures him that he is incorrect. (The reader might have noted a familiarity between the email address and the medallions that Enoch Root and the Catholic priest that served Goto Dengo wore, saying, “Societas Eruditorum” and “Ignoti et quasi occulti.”)  The email exchange continues as Randy flies back and forth between the Philippines, Kinakuta, and the U.S., with Randy trying to guess the identity of the sender, and the sender wanting both his question answered and Cantrell’s opinion of his mod-56 cipher.

Before Randy leaves Kinakuta, he asks Avi what on earth he was thinking, getting Epiphyte mixed up with the collection of no-prisoners sort of business types. Avi explains that the Jews still have a strong memory of the Holocaust, and he wants to prevent that from happening again. However, the world’s solution of attempting to educate the oppressors is stupid and bound to fail—the oppressors have a vested interest in not absorbing the “education.” Instead, prepare the victims to fight back. Given the overwhelming power-structure of the current nation-state system, this is most easily done by providing information in secure cyberspace, in the style of the 2600 publication. In response to Avi’s bombshell, Randy pulls one of his own: Doug Shaftoe has found gold on a sunken WWII U-boat, so now they need to figure out how to keep it secret from the Dentist, who has been agitating that the survey has been taking longer than it should and wondering if something unusual was going on.

Some time later, Randy is given GPS coordinates by old Filipina at a dance where he is trying to impress Amy. He and Doug explore it, and find out that, as they expected, there is a treasure of gold is there, hidden in plain sight the jungle, free for the taking. However, the taking would be impossible. The gold bricks are heavy, making concealment impossible. The roads are bad and there are army checkpoints all over, making large scale transportation impossible. And taking them out one by one would involve so many trips as to raise suspicions. Someone is sending a message: gold has no value if you cannot get it out.

The Dentist discovers that Shaftoe’s boat remains in more or less the same spot, suspects he has found a wreck, and files a lawsuit against Epiphyte with the asserted aim of collecting a piece of what he is owed, but in reality trying to gain a majority stake when Epiphyte cannot pay what is owed. Randy flies back to California, to deal with this; to assess the value of the house jointly owned by he and Charlene as part of their breakup; and to deal with the effects of his grandmother in Seattle who has been put in a rest home. As he is driving to the house there is an earthquake which destroys the house, leaving him with no money. Amy Shaftoe arrives to figure out what is going on with the relationship, along with two teenage cousins who drove from Tennessee; apparently Randy has gotten farther through his interactions with Amy than her seemingly cold response indicated. A good time is had by all, Randy introduces Amy to his friends and family in Seattle, and the relationship seems to be more settled. In Seattle Randy manages to acquire a box of his grandfather’s notes on the war projects he worked on. Included in there are some punched cards containing the encrypted contents of the Arethusa messages, which he takes to an eccentric and very wealthy friend from his role-playing games days to read, as he has quite an assortment of ancient computer parts in his eclectic museum-house.

Randy arrives back in San Francisco to discover that the Dentist has served the company that makes Ordo with a subpoena for Epiphyte’s email server as part of the discovery process, as the emails might contain the location of the alleged wreck. He finds the office embroiled in fight between police and security-paranoids. Randy takes the time offered by the fight to attempt to (illegally) erase the contents of the server, but before he is able to complete the wiping of the drive, the security-paranoids set off an EMP device with destroys all electronics in the area. It takes out Randy’s laptop, obviously, but not the contents of the hard drive, as magnetic platters are immune to EMP. Unfortunately, it does not help Randy, as the hard drive on Epiphyte’s server is likewise immune. He later discovers that the Ordo company had an electromagnet powered by battery backup around the doors to the server room, so that if hard drives that remained in the room were fine, but when they were removed, they would pass through the magnetic field and become completely randomized.

Some time later, on his return from a meeting in Kinakuta to Manilla, high-grade drugs were found in his bag, obviously planted by a malicious third-party. He spends some time in Philippine while his lawyer investigates what needs to happen to “persuade” the right parties to free his client. He is given the opportunity to have a private jail cell, as well as, surprisingly, his laptop so he could work. How magnanimous. Except that the batteries were removed from his laptop and the room was arranged so that the outlet was right next to a locked cabinet that was almost certainly filled with Van Eck phreaking devices. His friend in Seattle attempts to help in out, but is only able to send him some CDs, one of which is the contents of the encrypted Arethusa messages on his grandfather’s punched cards. So he sets to decrypting them, making sure that the contents are never displayed on the screen. This involves studying the Cryptonomicon, a collection of encryption mathematics compiled over the years and implementing it in code. Randy makes everything difficult for the phreakers (who, he discovers, are not the Dentist) by removing the titlebars on his windows and writing unrelated code.

He also talks with the prisoner in the next cell, who turns out to be both and an elderly Enoch Root. They exchange some messages by encrypting and decrypting with a playing card deck using the system he had previously sent to Randy. It seems that the Arethusa messages involve a large treasure of Japanese WWII gold somewhere in the Philippines. Randy had previously discovered the surprising fact that the NSA had been trying to decrypt the Arethusa messages for years, getting nowhere until one bright kid determined that the messages were, in fact, simply numbers from a one-time pad. A more surprising fact came when he looked at the encrypted contents of his grandfathers copy: the messages were different. It turned out that in the course of his attempts to crack the Arethusa code, his grandfather had observed the four conspirators from a distance, deciding on the encryption key to use. He cracked the code, and met up with Randy. At this point he did not want to expose the conspirator’s secret of the gold (at their request), so he replaced the original encrypted transcripts with the zeta function output, and kept the messages himself.

At one point Randy observes that Root’s medallion has the image of Athena on it, and notes that Athena seems an odd thing for a (former) priest to sport. The conversation turns philosophical, with Root arguing that the Greek gods were not seen as actual supernatural persona, but rather as symbolic. Athena is a particularly interesting case. She is the goddess of wisdom, and appropriately is born from Zeus’ head. However, “wisdom” is the word “techno” which is really more like “cunning.” Athena is also the goddess of war, which is interesting, because Ares is already the god of war. Ares is what you would think a god of war would be, namely strong, male, and hot-headed, however, he is not actually a very successful god of war—he gets captured a number of times. Root argues that Ares represents the brute force approach, which does not succeed well, while Athena represents the cunning, which does succeed.

Randy succeeded in implementing the decrypting, programming his laptop to accept shell commands via Morse code with his spacebar as he pretended to read the Cryptonomicon. He used that to send the decrypted messages in Morse code to his keyboard LED lights (the CapsLock and NumLock indicator lights) to avoid the phreakers reading it. Then he altered the GPS coordinates of the treasure to be in the right vicinity but a number of miles off, and looked at the that file. He was released shortly after, by means of being deported from the Philippines and told never to return.

Avi wants to recover the gold, so that they have something to back their electronic currency stored in the Crypt. Doing this would require massive digging, and the best company for that is the Goto Corporation in Japan. They are invited to a private dinner by the old Goto himself, who does not want to get involved, saying that gold is dead wealth. Real wealth is a vibrant economy of creative people, much like himself, who was heavily involved in rebuilding Japan after the war. By this point Avi has identified the people that caused Randy’s imprisonment as a wealthy, amoral Chinese PLA general, who the reader knows to be one of the Chinese slaves that Dengo helped escape. Avi explains his goal of preventing holocausts and suggests that it would be better for Epiphyte and Goto to have the gold than for an amoral third party to have it. Goto agrees. Randy smuggles himself back to the Philippines, they find the location, and with Dengo’s knowledge of the traps, successfully drill to the treasure room.

The narrative of Cryptonomicon is quite technical, explaining principles behind WWII-level encryption and modern computer security concerns by means of analogies. It seems aimed at a technical audience (and is much beloved the software developers), as it assumes a background with Linux (referred to as Finux in the book). Indeed, I have encountered all the software described, including the keyboard LED program (to which I said, “what would anyone use this for?!”).

The narrative descriptions of places or feelings are generally communicated indirectly, via humorous allusion to locations or events current to the setting. This requires a broad knowledge of history, and some of them went over my head anyway. ETC Corporation is obviously IBM, Finux is obviously Linux (a Unix written by a Finnish guy named Linus), and so-on. Some of them are more obscure, like alluding to a YHWH card in a Magic the Gathering like game. (YHWH being the name of God, which scholars think is read Yahweh, but cannot know, as ancient Hebrew was written without vowels.)  Clearly a God card could be a useful card, but you would have to have a fairly lengthy exposure to Christianity (and possibly Judaism, but they think it sacrilege to write out the full name of G-d) to encounter that. It took me much longer to figure out what Qwghlm was an allusion to; I think it is a mashup of different features of Brittain: the Welsh names that sound nothing like they look, the coastal islands, and the miserable weather.

The characters are fairly one-dimensional, but they do describe your stereotypical computer geek pretty well. Lawrence Waterhouse, for example, never bothers to remember anyone’s name, as it is irrelevant to the important work (mathematics), and then has to try to figure out who people are in context. I think it is meant to be funny, but it came across as pretty crass behavior to me. Perhaps this is because have had similar self-focused behavior when I was Waterhouse’s age, and have repented of it. There are few women, the main one being Amy Shaftoe, and this was not Stephenson’s strength. Amy’s character lurches from cold, distant, and masculine to suddenly warm and feminine; going from athletic diver to wearing beautiful dresses, in way I have not observed in real women.

There is a preoccupation with sex by the main characters, which does not add at all to the story, nor do the several borderline pornographic sex scenes. The sex parts could be removed without impacting the plot at all, and the book would be better, albeit less titillating, without any of it. If it were normal irrelevant text it would have been discarded, so let’s just discard it. If I want to be titillated (and I don’t), I know right where to go, but when I want a story, I want a story, and object when it is diluted with smut. Interestingly, the Stephenson appears to suggest that reigning in your bodily desires is the better way. The elder Waterhouse discovers that limiting yourself to one woman is better, and Avi tells Randy that his experience is that refraining from pleasuring yourself actually leads to a deeper experience and commitment to the one woman you choose. Randy, in turn, discovers that that same refraining brings him greater focus. So Stephenson has a very mixed message: on the one hand, he seems to say that sex committed to one person is the better way, yet at the same time he writes a fairly constant background titillation.

Cryptonomicon is a massive, 900 page book, written as alternating short fragments of each thread. Each thread is engaging, particularly the dialogue of Corporal Shaftoe, and splitting them up all the time does make the book more of a page turner, because to see what happens next in the thread you want, you have to read two other threads. At the same time, I found it quite annoying, as I tended to have completely forgotten (in technical lingo, “swapped out”) what happened in the previous threads and had to get my bearings again. This is a technique best used in moderation with a book of this depth. And if you are dying to do it, take ques from The Westing Game, which each unrelated vignette advances the same plot thread. This results in an alternating feel, but without needing to swap out plot threads every few pages.

I like the idea of Cryptonomicon, and it takes in interesting part of WWII, mixes up apocryphal treasure legends and current events into an epic journey. However, 900 pages is a bit long—I think it would have been stronger at half the length. The alternating fragments was an interesting experiment but did not work well for me. Characterization needs improvement, especially of Amy, and the end was rather sudden and surprisingly meaningless. However, the narrative was hilarious, especially if you caught the references, and the dialog, particularly of Corporal Shaftoe and of the white-men-cause-all-the-injustice academics.

Review: 5
Poor characterization, poor story-telling technique, excessive length, weak ending, and smut counterbalance the strong narrative and dialog. It does seem like a book written by and for computer geeks, but has limited appeal outside that demographic, even notwithstanding the above criticism. At the same time, I found it definitely to be a page turner, which was sort of a problem, as 900 pages will completely consume your life.