CRYPTONOMICON, by Neal Stephenson

1999. Rating: 9 1/2

Who ever would've thought that you could make a stunningly good novel out of mathematics? Stephenson, who has already written several popular computer books and science-fiction novels, will certainly be best remembered for Cryptonomicon, which traces the history of codes and code-breaking (along with a lot of computers and math in the process) from just prior to World War Two up to the present day.

The novel does take some getting used to at first: it's extremely detailed, though in most cases this is an asset, and in the beginning the math may seem intimidating to most people. But don't lose heart; everything is broken down and explained (eventually), and though the chapters bounce back and forth between different time periods (primarily WWII and today), all is tied together by the end. Primarily we follow characters from two families: the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes, and through their eyes we watch how the science of secret codes and computer encryption has progressed and, very likely, where it's going.

The book does run slowly on occasion, and even a normally-fast reader like me had to decelerate my reading pace so that I didn't miss anything. Along with being packed full of information, the book is full of interesting quirks, some less obvious than others. More obvious are the footnotes, which can cover everything from cultural details to what the character is thinking. Less obvious is the fact that parts of the book are written to match computer code!

Both in fiction and non-fiction, Stephenson has a proven track record of his details either being completely accurate, or his near-future predictions coming true. The size of the book will put a lot of people off--917 pages, including an appendix on a Solitaire encryption algorithim--but it's an intriguing read if size and detail aren't problems for you. It will definitely leave you feeling that, no matter how complex you imagined the world of the Computer Age to be, it's even moreso.

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