Techdirt Reading List: Cryptonomicon

from the a-little-fiction-for-you dept

We’re back again with another in our weekly reading list posts of books we think our community will find interesting and thought provoking. Once again, buying the book via the Amazon links in this story also helps support Techdirt.

In previous Techdirt Reading List posts, we’ve covered a bunch of different books about encryption and the crypto wars of the 1990s, arguing that it might be useful for more people to understand the past to avoid having to repeat the same old fight all over again (though, if we must, hopefully the eventual outcome is the same). However, a friend recently suggested another book on cryptography that is a bit different: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Unlike all of the other books on crypto that we covered, this one is fictional. However, it may also be the most entertaining and readable.

If you haven’t read it, I should warn you that it is a big book and also, like an unfortunate number of Stephenson’s books, it tends to go off the rails as he struggles to figure out how to end it (Stephenson is one of the best writers around, but has always struggled with endings). However, a key plot point in the book is encryption (the title may be a hint) and it actually does a pretty damn good job of explaining encryption in a way that is really understandable, often by going back and discussing earlier versions of encryption, but also comparing them to more modern encryption as well. Definitely worth a read (or a re-read if you read it a while ago)…

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Comments on “Techdirt Reading List: Cryptonomicon”

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fgoodwin (profile) says:

Great book

I “read” Cryptonomicon as an audiobook a year or two ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and (w/o giving away the plot) how Stephenson tied modern era cryptography to the work of the WWII code-breakers.

I don’t know if this book is classified as “historical fiction”, but he does place his characters in historical settings. I loved the discussion of the ethical dilemma of using decrypted information, if using it will save lives, but give away the fact that you now have broken the enemy code.

Stephenson also talks about Bletchley Park and even makes room for Alan Turing and some mythical friends! Fascinating stuff!

W. Vann Hall (profile) says:

an annual read

…well, OK, more like every 15 months or so.

Somewhere out there is a Master’s thesis waiting to happen on Stephenson as the new Thomas Pynchon. Central to that narrative is ‘Cryptonomicon,’ with echoes of both ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and ‘The Crying of Lot 49.’ (Not to mention Pig Bodine reincarnated as Bobby Shaftoe.) I have to disagree, though, with the ending being unsatisfactory — a little rushed, perhaps (if that’s not an absurd thing to say about a 900+ page book), but perhaps any ending would seem to come too soon. It’s also the book that triggered the second-highest number of unsolicited comments from strangers in airports — nearly as many as for ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ but from a much more interesting group of people.

fgoodwin (profile) says:

Re: Re: an annual read

I thought the last third of Seveneves was weaker than the first two-thirds, but not so much as to make me think I’d wasted my time time reading it.

So far, I’ve highly enjoyed every one of Stephenson’s books that I have read. In addition to “Cryptonomicon” (1999) and “Seveneves” (2015), I’ve read “Anathem” (2008) and “Reamde” (2011).

Of the four, I’d say I liked Crypto and Reamde the most, Anathem the least, with Seveneves somewhere in the middle.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: an annual read

I stopped being quite so enthralled with his writing starting with the Baroque Cycle, but I can’t think of a book before that time that wasn’t pure wonderfulness.

I can’t decide if I consider Diamond Age or Snow Crash to be his masterpiece, but Cryptonimcon isn’t far behind. And the Big U, but for radically different reasons.

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