The lengthy Cryptonomicon has no plot as such; instead, it consists of brief segments of action tied together by characters and lines of development. One set of action takes place during World War II and revolves around Allied codebreakers who have deciphered Enigma, the Germans’ supposedly unbreakable code. In the other set, a group of high-tech entrepreneurs plan to build a “data haven,” where electronic messages can be sent free of government interference.
Part of the novel’s charm is the way that characters and events reappear and intermingle, but it is also a source of frustration for the reader, who must struggle to keep track of myriad details because any one of them could become key to action further on. Other details simply disappear—possibly fodder for books to come.
The four pages of the prologue, set in November, 1941, in Shanghai, introduce several recurrent themes—seemingly absurd military missions engaged in by Corporal Bobby Shaftoe (hauling paper out of a shack, then burning it and the shack—even though it belongs to the Allies), codebreaking efforts (the shack and its mysterious papers that must be burned), and overwhelming amounts of money (Chinese men carrying boxes of currency across town, exchanging it from bank to bank). These details form part of the texture of the book, to be picked up and threaded through the fabric at later times, interacting with other details to form new patterns.
In a later section, Shaftoe enters a Shanghai sushi bar, drunk, on a dare. He correctly expects a brawl to result from his presence among the Chinese. Goto Dengo engages him during the fight but lets him go. Shaftoe later tracks Goto, and they renew their acquaintance. Soon Shaftoe is transferred to Guadalcanal, where Marines are killed all around him. Brother Enoch Root, a mysterious figure, takes Shaftoe into his radio shack and assists him in recovering from his wounds.
The book itself opens with an introduction to Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a child musical and mathematical prodigy. He ends up at Princeton in his sophomore year, on a scholarship, and there meets Alan Turing and Rudolf von Hacklheber, both brilliant mathematicians. When Turing (one of several historical figures who play small but key roles in the book) returns to England, he writes to Waterhouse, but one letter explains that he will not be able to write anything of substance, hinting at his involvement in secret government work.
Waterhouse himself becomes involved in government codebreaking work by accident. After being assigned to the Navy band because the Navy sensed that he had no other talent, he ends up in cryptography school, where he shows extraordinary aptitude. Soon he is working under the top codebreakers and even adding to the Cryptonomicon, the “bible” of codebreaking procedures.
The first section of the book, set in the 1990’s, introduces two business partners, Randy Waterhouse (the grandson of Lawrence) and Avi. They are meeting in Manila to plan yet another new business venture following several bankruptcies over the past twelve years. The two exchange electronic messages that are encrypted using a 4,096-bit key. (In the real world of 2000, 128- bit keys are considered adequate for many purposes, and each additional key makes breaking the code twice as difficult.) Avi’s insistence on this long key reveals his pessimism about politicians trying to break coded messages and his long time horizon; he does not want any of his messages from the present decoded decades later, when machinery improves.
They set up an office in Intramuros, where, coincidentally, Bobby Shaftoe met with his Filipina girlfriend, Glory, during World War II. Randy and Avi, through their new Epiphyte Corporation, engage Semper Marine Services to lay underwater telecommunications cable. Semper is run by Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, later revealed to be Bobby Shaftoe’s son by Glory, and Douglas’s beautiful daughter, Amy. Randy is immediately smitten with her. These initial episodes set the major characters in place.
After becoming the youngest person ever to receive the Silver Star, Bobby Shaftoe is assigned to a special Marine Raider/British Special Air Services project called Detachment 2702. The missions puzzle him—the detachment’s members are put on a ship that, in his words, “rams Norway”; they dress a dead man in a wet suit and move him thousands of miles, then drop him in the ocean; and they occupy a radio shack for several weeks, then burn it once they are sighted by the enemy. He realizes that the missions are a scheme to deceive the Axis Powers about Allied intelligence gathering. On one mission, Shaftoe again encounters Enoch Root, who joins the detachment.
Lawrence Waterhouse is part of Detachment 2702’s intelligence work. He and Alan Turing, now the leader of the British team that broke Germany’s Enigma code, realize that if the Allies act on too much of the information from decoded messages, the Germans...
(The entire section is 2038 words.)