Cryptonomicon Summary
by Neal Stephenson

Start Your Free Trial

Download Cryptonomicon Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Cryptonomicon Summary

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.

Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,473 words.)