Book Review: Cryptonomicon a Libertarian Winner

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Book Review: Cryptonomicon a Libertarian Winner

by Ari Armstrong

[The following article originally appeared in the January/February 2001 edition of Colorado Liberty.]

So is a beard a vestige of the male-dominated patriarchal society, or is it just something guys wear at random until it gets too hot for them? Randy Waterhouse doesn't really care: he's too busy stringing cables across the ocean floor to create an Asian data haven—and the attendant private currency—secure from government's prying eyes. That, and trying to figure out America Shaftoe, a diver who finds a sunken WWII submarine off the coast of the Philippines.

Randy is the grandson of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a trumpet player working for the Army (and the Marines) during the War who builds a prototypical digital computer out of organ pipes to break enemy code. America is the granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe, a Marine who at one point gives a shell-shocked interview to some lackey lieutenant named Ronald Reagan.

For a time, Lawrence and Bobby work together on a project known as Detachment 2702, the purpose of which Bobby Shaftoe doesn't have a clue. (Detachment 2702 used to be Detachment 2701, but Lawrence thought Alan Turing's title—the product of two primes—would be too obvious to their German friend working the other side.) In his spare time, Bobby writes haiku. (The modern world's hell on haiku writers: ‘Electrical generator' is, what, eight syllables? You couldn't even fit that onto the second line!)

Randy's business partner, Avi, is (understandably) obsessed with preventing another holocaust. Goto Dengo knows something about government-sponsored murder; he witnessed it many times, including at the top-secret engineering project he worked on while in the Japanese military. What does this have to do with cryptography and Greek mythology? Just ask the computer geek with the assault rifle.

Neal Stephenson has written a heavy libertarian novel that is coincidentally a New York Times bestseller. And by "heavy" I mean really, really big: 910 large pages (plus an appendix that describes how to send encrypted messages with a deck of cards).

But that space is well used. Stephenson is a wonderful writer. His characters are perhaps the most detailed and vivid in all of libertarian literature. His sense of humor is wry and fertile; I was regularly having to explain scenes to my wife after breaking into spontaneous laughter. Stephenson has already cracked the tech world: when I mentioned the novel to a Libertarian who works in computers I saw by chance in a restaurant, he said he'd already lent his copy out to a friend. He too commented on the lush writing style; the scene he noted was when Goto Dengo was on a Japanese ship bombed by the Americans. Because the (burning) oil was thick on the water, this stuck to the clothes and created an unexpected buoyancy, which made swimming to safety a difficult task.

Indeed, if I had one soft criticism of the book, it would be that Stephenson gets so caught up in the description and background of a particular scene that he sometimes seems reluctant to get back around to the plot. But this is easy to forgive, as the page-to-page writing is so intrinsically interesting. Had I been the editor, I don't think I would have had the heart to cut anything out. Some of Stephenson's plot features are a little coincidental, but this is well-hidden by the rich writing and subtle convergence of story lines. I'm willing to accept the coincidence as the fee for the inter-generation familial relationships.

Perhaps the easiest character to love is Bobby Shaftoe. To put it mildly, Bobby is rough around the edges. His religious incantations, well, might make some of our friends in Colorado Springs faint. The only thing the soldier is more loyal to than his country is his girlfriend and her family in the Philippines. Stephenson's sense of humor shines through Bobby, the tough son of a gun who swears profusely, develops a morphine habit, picks barroom fights, and slithers through the jungle to slap ominous bumper stickers on the trucks of Japanese convoys. Yet Bobby is at the same time Stephenson's most politically incorrect and sympathetic character, a guy with a heart of gold.

Stephenson is not an overtly libertarian writer; the libertarian themes in the book don't cohere until most of the way through it. (I bought the book by chance based on the provocative cover and the numerous reprinted quotes of praise.) Yet it's obvious that Stephenson is familiar with at least some of the basic libertarian literature on money, technology, and the right to bear arms. Stephenson is deeply philosophical and he shares with Objectivists a skepticism of post-modernism and a nostalgia for Greek intellectual life. While obviously the book's appeal extends far beyond libertarian circles, libertarians should feel perfectly at home in Stephenson's world. At least the novel proves the theory of Libertarian Vice-Chair Dan Fylstra and Colorado activist W. Earl Allen that there's a natural alliance between libertarians and computer techies.

You won't realize the significance of the following line until you read it in the context of the novel: "Then, on impulse, he dives in there after it." That's what I recommend you do relative to the story in this compelling novel.

The Colorado Freedom