The novel is an epic that encompasses life, maths, secrets, gold and cryptography during World War II and the modern day.
It tells the story of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse an American wartime codebreaker and cycling buddy of Alan Turing, and parallels his adventures with those in the modern day of his grandson Randall Waterhouse a Unix system administrator and founder of Epiphyte a company involved in the construction of a Data Haven.
The novel features many other odd characters including:-
|Bobby Shaftoe a morphine-seeky haiku-writing Marine Raider (like a Marine,
only more so).
|Goto Dengo a noble Japanese soldier built like a brick outhouse, friend of Bobby Shaftoe and with more lives than a cat.
|Enoch Root an enigmatic possibly immortal pseudo-priest.
|Avi Halaby a Holocaust-obsessed entrepreneur, Randy's best friend and business partner.
|Plus many other minor characters including a treasure hunting Vietnam veteran, a sultan, a U-boat commander, hackers, cypherpunks, Finns and Filipinos.
Lawrence Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe and Enoch Root are teamed with others as part of a joint British-American unit called Detachment 2702. The purpose of this unit is to maintain the secret of the Allies success in cracking Enigma through various insane missions that take them from North Africa to the coast of Norway.
The reasoning behind the operations of Detachment 2702 is explained as such "When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first.... Of course, to observe is not its real duty--we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed.... Then, when we come round and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious."
Stephenson's style doesn't appeal to everyone, as he is liable to go off at a tangent to the story that on the surface doesn't add to the main narrative. But these tangents are an oblique method of reinforcing the main themes of the story through metaphor.
The central theme to the book is the communication of information and discovery of the hidden patterns within seeming chaos. A recurring phrase in the book is 'Someone is trying to send you a message Randy' this refers to the various travails of Randy that allow him to learn something in order to move forward.
It is also one of the funniest books I have read, Stephenson has a talent for spotting the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the world especially during wartime and putting his own unique spin on them.
Overall this is a brilliant book that is hard to put down and is worth rereading periodically. The ending feels unsatisfactory both because it ends abruptly leaving you wanting more and a bizarre reappearance of a minor character that doesn't I feel fit well with the ending.
Aside from these minor points this is a book I can heartily recommend to everyone.
In a time of increased awareness of cryptography both modern and wartime as well as films such as Saving Private Ryan and television series like Band of Brothers I am sure that this is a book that deserves to be filmed (due to the length probably as a mini-series).
If you are interested by the subjects covered in Cryptonomicon see our page where we suggest Books and Websites for further reading and the annotations section of the site where we attempt to give further detail of the people and objects featured in the novel.