According to Stephenson the title is a play on Necronomicon, the title of a book mentioned in the stories of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft:
I wanted to give it a title a 17th-century book by a scholar would be likely to have. And that's how I came up with Cryptonomicon. I've heard the word Necronomicon bounced around. I haven't actually read the Lovecraft books, but clearly it's formed by analogy to that.
The novel's Cryptonomicon, described as a "cryptographer's bible", is a fictional book summarizing America's knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis. Begun by John Wilkins (the Cryptonomicon is mentioned in Quicksilver) and amended over time by William Friedman, Lawrence Waterhouse, and others, the Cryptonomicon is described by Katherine Hayles as "a kind of Kabala created by a Brotherhood of Code that stretches across centuries. To know its contents is to qualify as a Morlock among the Eloi, and the elite among the elite are those gifted enough actually to contribute to it."
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young United States Navy code breaker and mathematical genius, is assigned to the newly formed joint British and American Detachment 2702. This ultra-secret unit's role is to hide the fact that Allied intelligence has cracked the German Enigma code. The detachment stages events, often behind enemy lines, that provide alternative explanations for the Allied intelligence successes. United States Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, a veteran of China and Guadalcanal, serves in unit 2702, carrying out Waterhouse's plans. At the same time, Japanese soldiers, including mining engineer Goto Dengo, a "friendly enemy" of Shaftoe's, are assigned to build a mysterious bunker in the mountains in the Philippines as part of what turns out to be a literal suicide mission.
Circa 1997, Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence's grandson) joins his old role-playing game companion Avi Halaby in a new startup, providing Pinoy-grams (inexpensive, non-real-time video messages) to migrant Filipinos via new fiber-optic cables. The Epiphyte Corporation uses this income stream to fund the creation of a data haven in the nearby fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe, the son of Bobby Shaftoe, and his daughter Amy, do the undersea surveying for the cables and engineering work on the haven, which is overseen by Goto Furudenendu, heir-apparent to Goto Engineering. Complications arise as figures from the past reappear seeking gold or revenge.
Rudolf "Rudy" von Hacklheber, a non-Nazi German mathematician and cryptographer, who spent time attending Princeton University, where he had a romantic relationship with Alan Turing and befriended Waterhouse. He seems to know more about the mysterious Societas Eruditorum than any non-member.
Julieta Kivistik, a Finnish woman who assists some of the World War II characters when they find themselves stranded in Sweden, and who later gives birth to a baby boy (Günter Enoch Bobby Kivistik) whose paternity is uncertain.
“Uncle” Otto Kivistik, Julieta's uncle, who runs a successful smuggling ring between neutral Sweden, Finland, and the USSR during World War II.
Mary cCmndhd (pronounced "Skuhmithid" and anglicized as "Smith"), a member of a Qwghlmian immigrant community living in Australia, who catches the attention of Lawrence Waterhouse while he is stationed in Brisbane.
Glory Altamira, a nursing student and Bobby Shaftoe's Filipina lover. She becomes a member of the Philippine resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. Mother of Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe.
Fictionalized versions of several historical figures appear in the World War II storyline:
Alan Turing, the cryptographer and computer scientist, is a colleague and friend of Lawrence Waterhouse and sometime lover of Rudy von Hacklheber.
Douglas MacArthur, the famed U.S. Army general, who takes a central role toward the end of the World War II timeline.
Karl Dönitz, Großadmiral of the Kriegsmarine, is never actually seen as a character but issues orders to his U-boats, including the one captained by Bischoff. Bischoff threatens to reveal information about hidden war gold unless Dönitz rescinds an order to sink his submarine.
Hermann Göring, who appears extensively in the recollections of Rudy von Hacklheber as Rudy recounts how Göring tried recruiting him as a cryptographer for the Nazis: Rudy delivers an intentionally weakened system, reserving the full system for the use of the conspiracy among the characters to locate hidden gold.
Future United States President Ronald Reagan is depicted during his wartime service as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Public Relations branch's 1st Motion Picture Unit. He attempts to film an interview with the recuperating and morphine-addled Bobby Shaftoe, who spoils the production with his account of a giant lizard attack and his harsh criticism of General MacArthur.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's 1943 death at the hands of U.S. Army fighter aircraft during Operation Vengeance over Bougainville Island fills an entire chapter. During his fateful flight, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy's Combined Fleet reflects upon the failures and hubris of his Imperial Army counterparts, who persistently underestimate the cunning and ferocity of their Allied opponents in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. As his damaged transport plane completes its terminal descent, Yamamoto realizes that all of the Japanese military codes have been broken, which explains why he is "on fire and hurtling through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour in a chair, closely pursued by tons of flaming junk."
Albert Einstein brushes off a young Lawrence Waterhouse's request for advice. During his year of undergraduate study at Princeton, Waterhouse periodically wanders the halls of the Institute for Advanced Study, randomly asking mathematicians (whose names he never remembers) for advice on how to make intricate calculations for his "sprocket question," which is how he eventually meets Turing.
Harvest, an early supercomputer built by IBM (known as "ETC" or "Electrical Till Corp." in the novel) for the National Security Agency for cryptanalysis. The fictionalized Harvest became operational in the early 1950s, under the supervision of Earl Comstock, while the actual system was installed in 1962.
The precise date of this storyline is not established, but the ages of characters, the technologies described, and certain date-specific references suggest that it is set in the late 1990s, at the time of the internet boom and the Asian financial crisis.
Randall "Randy" Lawrence Waterhouse, eldest grandson of Lawrence and Mary Waterhouse (née cCmndhd) and an expert systems and network administrator with the Epiphyte(2) corporation. He is mentioned in Stephenson's 2019 novel Fall, in which he has amassed a fortune that led to the creation of a charitable Foundation bearing his name.
Avi "Avid" Halaby, Randy's business partner in Epiphyte(2), of which he is the CEO. He is descended on his mother's side from New Mexican Crypto-Jews, which detail, while seemingly included as a pun, is explored further in The Baroque Cycle. Avi is obsessed with using technology to prevent future genocides, namely by creating a handbook of basic technology and defense practices. His nickname Avid comes from his love of role playing games.
America "Amy" Shaftoe, Doug Shaftoe's daughter (and Bobby Shaftoe's granddaughter) who has moved from the U.S. to live with Doug in the Philippines, and who becomes Randy's love interest.
Dr. Hubert Kepler, a.k.a. "The Dentist," predatory billionaire investment fund manager, Randy and Avi's business rival.
Eberhard Föhr, a member of Epiphyte(2) and an expert in biometrics.
John Cantrell, a member of Epiphyte(2), a libertarian who is an expert in cryptography and who wrote the fictional cryptography program Ordo.
Tom Howard, a member of Epiphyte(2), a libertarian and firearms enthusiast who is an expert in large computer installations.
Charlene, a liberal arts academic and Randy's girlfriend at the beginning of the novel, who later moves to New Haven, Connecticut, to live and work with Dr. G.E.B. (Günter Enoch Bobby) Kivistik.
Andrew Loeb, a former friend and now Randy's enemy, a survivalist and neo-Luddite whose lawsuits destroyed Randy and Avi's first start-up, and who at the time of the novel works as a lawyer for Hubert Kepler. He is referred to by Randy as "Gollum," comparing him to that character in the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Goto Dengo, a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army and a mining engineer involved in an Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. In the present-day storyline, he is a semi-retired chief executive of a large Japanese construction company, Goto Engineering.
Enoch Root, a mysterious, seemingly ageless former Catholic priest and physician, serving as a coast-watcher with the ANZACs during World War II, later a chaplain in the top-secret British-American "Unit 2702," and an important figure in the equally mysterious Societas Eruditorum. He first appears on a Guadalcanal beach to save a badly injured Bobby Shaftoe. Hints about his longevity emerge when Root is critically injured in Norrsbruk, Sweden, and is wed to Julieta Kivistik on his "death bed" so that she and her unborn child can obtain British citizenship. Root is officially pronounced dead, but is slipped away, rapidly recovering after a mysterious therapeutic agent is obtained from his antique cigar box. He turns up in Manila later in 1944 and goes on to spend part of the 1950s with the National Security Agency and, by the 1990s, has been based mostly in the Philippines as a Catholic lay-worker while "gadding about trying to bring Internet stuff to China." Root also appears in Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, which is set between 1655 and 1714, and in his 2019 novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, including a chapter set in late 21st-century Seattle.
Mr. Wing, a wartime northern Chinese slave of the Japanese in the Philippines, who went on to become a general in the Chinese army and later a senior official in the State Grid Corporation of China. Described by Enoch Root as a "wily survivor of many purges," Wing is one of only two other survivors (along with Goto Dengo and a Filipino worker named Bong) of the Japanese gold burial project, and he competes with Goto and Epiphyte(2) to recover the buried treasure. Although Root and Wing do not meet during the action of the novel, Randy reflects that "it is hard not to get the idea that Enoch Root and General Wing may have other reasons to be pissed off at each other."
Douglas (Doug) MacArthur Shaftoe, son of Bobby Shaftoe and Glory Altamira, is introduced near the end of the World War II storyline as a toddler during the Liberation of Manila, when he first meets his father, who tries to explain Shaftoe family heritage, including their enthusiasm for "displaying adaptability." In the modern-day story line, Doug is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and Annapolis graduate, who lives in the Philippines and operates Semper Marine Services, an underwater survey business with his daughter, Amy, conducting treasure hunts as a sideline.
Dr. Günter Enoch Bobby "G.E.B." Kivistik is introduced in the modern storyline as a smug, Oxford-educated liberal-arts professor from Yale who recruits, and later seduces, Randy Waterhouse's girlfriend, Charlene. In the World War II storyline he is the unborn son of Julieta Kivistik and one of three possible fathers (hence his unusual name) including Günter Bischoff, Enoch Root and Bobby Shaftoe. He is a minor character in Cryptonomicon, but both his [impending] birth and his participation in Charlene's "War as Text" conference catalyze major plot developments.
Mary cCmndhd Waterhouse, Randy's Australian-born, Qwghlmian grandmother and Lawrence's wife.
Portions of Cryptonomicon contain large amounts of exposition. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking.
In the first printing of Cryptonomicon, the script contained a syntax error in a substitution operator which prevented it from running. This was fixed in subsequent printings.
A verbose and annotated version of the script appeared for some time on Bruce Schneier's web site.
Several of the characters in the book communicate with each other through the use of one-time pads. A one-time pad (OTP) is an encryption technique that requires a single-use pre-shared key of at least the same length as the encrypted message.
The story posits a variation of the OTP technique wherein there is no pre-shared key - the key is instead generated algorithmically.
He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by the Finnish native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.
An excerpt from Cryptonomicon was originally published in the short story collection Disco 2000, edited by Sarah Champion and published in 1998. Stephenson's subsequent work, a trio of novels dubbed The Baroque Cycle, provides part of the deep backstory to the characters and events featured in Cryptonomicon. Set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the novels feature ancestors of several characters in Cryptonomicon, as well as events and objects which affect the action of the later-set book. The subtext implies the existence of secret societies or conspiracies, and familial tendencies and groupings found within those darker worlds.
The short story "Jipi and the Paranoid Chip" takes place some time after the events of Cryptonomicon. In the story, the construction of the Crypt has triggered economic growth in Manila and Kinakuta, in which Goto Engineering, and Homa/Homer Goto, a Goto family heir, are involved. The IDTRO ("Black Chamber") is also mentioned.
Stephenson's 2019 novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, is promoted as a sequel to Reamde (2011), but as the story unfolds, it is revealed that Fall, Reamde, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle are all set in the same fictional universe, with references to the Waterhouse, Shaftoe and Hacklheber families, as well as Societas Eruditorum and Epiphyte Corporation. Two "Wise" entities from The Baroque Cycle also appear in Fall, including Enoch Root.
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According to critic Jay Clayton, the book is written for a technical or geek audience. Despite the technical detail, the book drew praise from both Stephenson's science fiction fan base and literary critics and buyers. In his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (2003), Jay Clayton calls Stephenson's book the “ultimate geek novel” and draws attention to the “literary-scientific-engineering-military-industrial-intelligence alliance” that produced discoveries in two eras separated by fifty years, World War II and the Internet age. In July 2012, io9 included the book on its list of "10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read".
Translations into other languages: Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish. The Danish, French, and Spanish translations divide the book into three volumes. The Japanese translation divides the book into four volumes.
^Goldberg, Ian. "Solitaire cryptosystem: verbose version". schneier.com. Archived from the original on February 20, 2019.
^Stephenson, Neal (1999). "Old site". Archived from the original on 2015-03-21. Retrieved 2015-04-09.
^United States. Patent Office (1886). Specifications and Drawings of Patents Relating to Electricity Issued by the U. S. pp. 80–81. In the new element there can be used advantageously as exciting-liquid in the first case such solutions as have in a concentrated condition great depolarizing-power, which effect the whole depolarization chemically without necessitating the mechanical expedient of increased carbon surface. It is preferred to use iron as the positive electrode, and as exciting-liquid nitro muriatic acid, (aqua regis,) the mixture consisting of muriatic and nitric acids. The nitro-muriatic acid, as explained above, serves for filling both cells. For the carbon-cells it is used strong or very slightly diluted, but for the other cells very diluted, (about one-twentieth, or at the most one-tenth.) The element containing in one cell carbon and concentrated nitro-muriatic acid and in the other cell iron and dilute nitro-muriatic acid remains constant for at least twenty hours when employed for electric incandescent lighting.
^Brown, Mick (September 19, 2014). "Peter Thiel: the billionaire tech entrepreneur on a mission to cheat death". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved November 23, 2014.
^ abJay Clayton (14 April 2006). Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. Oxford University Press US. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-19-531326-0. Retrieved 8 May 2011.