Last Reviewed on May 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435
Neal Stephen's 1999 historical cyber-thriller Cryptonomicon begins at the outset of World War II as genius Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an American cryptanalyst, is dispatched to Great Britain. There, he works as a member of the secret operation known as Detachment 2702, which brought together a joint British and American team...
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Neal Stephen's 1999 historical cyber-thriller Cryptonomicon begins at the outset of World War II as genius Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an American cryptanalyst, is dispatched to Great Britain. There, he works as a member of the secret operation known as Detachment 2702, which brought together a joint British and American team to work on the Enigma machine project at Bletchley Park.
Since the Allies have already broken the German code, the unit's mission involves hiding all evidence of this truth in military operations where it might be detected. This kind of counterintelligence work is the specialty of Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe, a member of Detachment 2702 and veteran of Guadalcanal.
The narrative then jumps ahead to the late 1990s, where Randy Waterhouse, grandson of Lawrence Waterhouse, is a cybersecurity specialist and systems administrator working with his business partner, Avi, from their base in the Philippines. Avi and Randy’s goal is to set up a data haven known as “The Crypt” in the fictional sultanate of Kinakuta.
At the same time, Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe, the son of Bobby Shaftoe, is working on the underwater phase of Randy and Avi’s data operation with his daughter, Amy. While working underwater, he stumbles across evidence pointing to a horde of hidden gold—which, unbeknownst to him, was uncovered by both his father and the elder Waterhouse during World War II.
The novel returns to the 1940s storyline, as Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, and others discover crates of codebooks and a shipment of Chinese gold on a U-boat that has been sunk. They gradually learn of a plot called Golgotha that was hatched by the leaders of the Axis powers to ship the bullion to the Phillippines for burial until it could be safely recovered after the war.
Despite the machinations of a character called “The Dentist” (also known as Dr. Hubert Kepler), who is an evil investment fund manager, and his lawyer, Andrew Loeb, Randy manages to crack the code used in the 1940s, known as “Arethusa.” This is the same code that was found by his grandfather in the U-boat codebooks; it reveals the existence of the vast hoard of gold looted by the Japanese from a number of Asian countries prior to World War II.
After a great struggle between the two sides, the enemies of Randy’s team are either defeated or temporarily at bay. Randy and his allies locate Golgotha, the site of the gold horde. However, the fate of the gold, which Randy and Avi had speculated about using to back an electronic currency administered through “The Crypt,” remains ambiguous at the close of the novel.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2038
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 will figure out that the code has been broken and stop using it. They come up with Detachment 2702, which will plant evidence that the Allies discovered information by means other than breaking the Enigma code.
Back in the 1990’s, Doug Shaftoe proposes to Epiphyte that it fund his treasure-hunting work in return for a share of the profits. He wants to keep the profits from Dr. Hubert Kepler, an investor who is known as the “Dentist” and has ties to the Bolobolo crime syndicate. In the meantime, Epiphyte’s constantly evolving business plan now revolves around establishing a data haven (the Crypt, perhaps a play on the word “cryptography” as well as a reference to the huge underground cavern Epiphyte is constructing). Questions about the Crypt begin to appear on an Internet user group site dedicated to technical sophisticates. Randy and Avi suspect that they were posted by Andrew Loeb, a former business partner of Randy and Avi who ruined them financially and later was accused of being the “Digibomber,” a dangerous Luddite.
Back in the 1940’s, Bobby Shaftoe meets Lawrence Waterhouse on a sunk U-boat, where Waterhouse is recovering crates of codebooks. Waterhouse later takes some of the books to Turing, who recognizes that they are in von Hacklheber’s handwriting. Shaftoe sees that the submarine is loaded with gold bars as well. Decades later, his son and granddaughter will find such a sub while working for Epiphyte.
Shaftoe and Root are captured, and Waterhouse realizes that if they divulge what they know, the Germans will be able to figure out that they’ve been trying to conceal a source of intelligence. They devise a plan to send false messages, apparently from the U- boat transporting the two prisoners and its refueling ship. They hope that this will result in the U-boat being sunk by the Germans. Miraculously, the boat, with the mutinous Captain Günter Bischoff, escapes. Root, Shaftoe, and Bischoff make their way to Finland, where they meet Rudolf von Hacklheber. Von Hacklheber reveals that he knew that Enigma would be broken, but no one listened to him; he also knew about Detachment 2702 because he had broken Waterhouse’s codes. The group concocts a scheme to separate and meet in Manila, then take all the gold the Japanese and Germans have been hoarding there and use it to help victims of the war. Von Hacklheber suggests enlisting the aid of the Societas Eruditorum, causing Root to freeze—he is a member of the secret religious group.
Back in the 1990’s, Randy discovers that the person asking about the Crypt is not Andrew Loeb but instead a cleric who calls himself email@example.com. Avi reveals that the true value and meaning of the Crypt is in distributing his Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod, which governments would block because of its information on guerrilla warfare. A Filipina tells Randy a set of geographical coordinates; later, he and Doug Shaftoe discover more than $100 million in gold bars there. Although they cannot remove it because of the terrain and likely interference from the Philippine government, Avi thinks they can use it as backing for a new electronic currency, to be administered through the Crypt.
Back in the 1940’s, Goto Dengo escapes death several times, then is put to work designing a huge underground storage system, called Golgotha, in the Philippines. Those working on the project soon discover that they are loading gold. They are supposed to be executed when either the project is completed or it is clear that the Axis Powers will be defeated, but Goto builds an escape path into the storage facility; only he survives.
Lawrence Waterhouse receives a set of messages that he thinks relate to mining in the Philippines. He breaks the code with a primitive digital computer of his own invention, and he discovers the Golgotha project. He hides the punch cards with the messages and replaces them with a false set containing strings of random characters.
Randy Waterhouse is able to place his grandfather in Manila in March of 1945, two months before the sinking of the U-boat that Douglas Shaftoe discovered, and thinks his grandfather may have played a part in the sinking. Randy finds himself in a Philippine jail after drugs are planted in his luggage. He is allowed to have his laptop computer in his cell, and realizes that he will be watched to see if he reveals the location of the Golgotha site. He has the Arethusa messages and is able to decode them. So that their content is not discovered, he programs his computer to display them in Morse code on its LED lights for “Num Lock” and “Caps Lock.” Root is in the cell next to his and reveals that he was the one asking about the Crypt. He says that dictators and other power-hungry people must be resisted, preferably by technology. This is the use to which he wants to put the hoard of gold.
After Randy is released, he and Avi discuss the vulnerability of undersea cables like the ones they have been laying to connect the Crypt with the rest of the world. Because China recently has severed a cable connecting Korea and Japan, they see China and one of its leaders, General Wing, as threatening what Avi would call a new Holocaust. They resolve to keep the gold out of Wing’s hands. They meet Goto Dengo, who now heads Goto Engineering, and propose an excavation. Goto and the Epiphyte partners reveal that each knows about the hoarded gold and its location. When Avi tells Goto that he wants to use the gold to prevent another Holocaust and that General Wing is close to finding it, Goto agrees to help. Root later joins them and reveals that he has known for fifty years where the gold was hidden. That so many of the people who know where this treasure is hidden are focused on using it for world peace is a highly unlikely coincidence, for which Stephenson makes no apologies.
Randy, Amy and Doug Shaftoe, Root, and several others go to the Golgotha site. They hear an explosion and realize that someone has been tracking them, and they are now in a minefield. Amy is shot by an arrow, and Randy realizes that Andrew Loeb is the only person who would use that device rather than a gun. Loeb finds them, but Root shoots him dead.
At the book’s close, the Epiphyte group recovers the gold. Rather than dig for it, they pour burning fuel oil into a hole, then let the molten gold flow from another hole at a lower elevation. This is a powerful climax, but Stephenson has left plenty of threads untied. How will the gold be used? Will the Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod be disseminated? (Although most of the characters are given full names, Avi is not—perhaps this is Stephenson’s clue that more will be told about Avi in a later book.) What of the Dentist and General Wing, the antagonists? Will the Societas Eruditorum resurface? Stephenson has said little, other than that later books will go further into the future and will concern cryptography.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (April 1, 1999): 1366.
Library Journal 124 (May 15, 1999): 130.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 23, 1999): 11.
Newsweek 133 (May 10, 1999): 90.
Publishers Weekly 246 (March 22, 1999): 67.
The Village Voice 44 (May 4, 1999): 123.
Wired 7 (June, 1999): 189.