“It would be interesting to approach this as a problem in information theory,” he announces. “How can data flow back and forth between nodes in an internal network” – Randy knows that by this Eb means people in a small corporation – “but not exist to a person outside?”
“What do you mean, not exist?”
“How could a court subpoena a document if, from their reference frame, it had never existed?”
– Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
Finally, five books in (review for The Cobweb upcoming), we come to Cryptonomicon. This and Snow Crash were the two Stephenson books I’d heard the most about before starting his oeuvre myself, and it lived up to the hype.
As always, it’s hard to discuss Stephenson books without spoilers, because “the big ideas at the heart of this book” is one of the mysteries you have to discover as you go. I’m going to spoil those, so stop here if you plan on reading the book soon.
1. Information Theory
The sample messages used are like ONE PLANE REPORTED LOST AT SEA AND TROOPS HAVING DIFFICULTY MAINTAINING CONNECTION WITH FORTY FIFTH INFANTRY STOP which Randy finds kind of hokey until he remembers that the book was written by people who probably didn’t know what “hokey” meant, who lived in some radically different pre-hokiness era where planes really did get lost at sea and the people in those planes never came back to see their families and in which people who even raised the issue of hokeyness in conversation were likely to end up pitied or shunned or maybe even psychoanalyzed.
In turn, the water swirling around Waterhouse’s feet carries information about Nip propeller design and the deployment of their fleets—if only he had the wit to read it. The chaos of the waves, gravid with encrypted data, mocks him.
– Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
The first and most blatant theme of Cryptonomicon is information theory – specifically cryptography, which is the art of hiding information from some while revealing it to others. Very quickly we are taught that this is not as simple as it seems. The novel’s protagonists are like blind spiders hunting each other across the same web – every step produces vibrations that tell the enemy where you are, what you’re doing. On the other hand, vibrations are all you see – every player is trying to reconstruct the other player from distorted patterns at distant remove. What’s shocking is how often this is possible.
2. Information Theory and the Physical
“My DISINTER [Agon: a function for retrieving a stored piece of data. Lawrence is building one of the first digital computers.] works better than our shovel expeditions,” Lawrence says. “Did you ever find those silver bars you buried?”
“No,” Alan says absently. “They are lost. Lost in the noise of the world.”
And, Randy’s favorite,
As to luck, there is the old miners’ proverb: “Gold is where you find it.”
– Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
The first one was easy. A book about cryptography deals with information theory. In an 1100+ page novel Stephenson isn’t going to stop there.
Buried in the messages about information theory (appropriately) is another, deeper message about the physical world. This book is in part about digital computers, and in part about buried treasure. Half of it takes place during World War II, and half of it takes place in the modern day. In World War II, a massive amount of Japanese war gold is being hidden in the Philippines. In the modern day, an enormous data haven – like an offshore bank account for data storage – is being built in the Philippines. The verbs used for “save data” and “retrieve data” in the newborn digital computers? BURY and DISINTER.
(This is how you do symbolism, guys. It seems heavy-handed when I call it out here, but buried in these interwoven plots – like an encoded message buried in a sea of white noise – it’s just subtle enough to really smack you when it does.)
The universe is, for all practical purposes, a big hard disk. Extrapolate from there as you feel appropriate – it sets us up for our next point.
3. Information Theory and Identity
“Enoch…why are you here?”
“Why has my spirit been incarnated into a physical body in this world generally? Or specifically, why am I here in a Swedish forest, standing on the wreck of a mysterious German rocket plane while a homosexual German sobs over the cremated remains of his Italian lover?”
“So what’s your explanation of how I recognized you?”
“I would argue that inside your mind was some pattern of neurological activity that was not there before you exchanged e-mail with me. The Root Representation. It is not me. I’m this big slug of carbon and oxygen and some other stuff on this cot right next to you. The Root Rep, by contrast, is the think that you’ll carry around in your brain for the rest of your life, barring some kind of major neurological insult, that your mind uses to represent me. When you think about me, in other words, you’re not thinking about me qua this big slug of carbon, you are thinking about the Root Rep. Indeed, some day you might get released from jail and run into someone who would say, ‘You know, I was in the Philippines once, running around in boondocks, and I ran into this old fart who started talking to me about Root Reps.’ And by exchanging notes (as it were) with this fellow you would be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the Root Rep in your brain and the Root Rep in his brain were generated by the same actual slug of carbon and oxygen and so on: me.”
“And this has something to do, again, with Athena?”
“If you think of the Greek gods as real supernatural beings who lived on Mount Olympus, no. But if you think of them as being in the same class of entities as the Root Rep, which is to say, patterns of neurological activity that the mind uses to represent things that it sees, or thinks it sees, in the outside world, then yes.
–Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
Alright – still with us?
- Every action produces waves of information, telling the rest of the universe what happened. Blind spiders sense each other through vibrations in the web. (In The Cobweb, if you will! But I haven’t written that review in the time between mentioning it above and now).
- Now forget that light ever existed. There is only vibrations – the universe is just a web of information, bouncing around, bumping into us so that we ‘know’ things. We never see the other spider.
- (Buckle up). There is no other spider. To us, there is only the vibration – and maybe we learn to recognize, by repeating patterns in the vibration, something at the other side of the web that tends to move in certain ways. We (Spider One) name that vibration-causing-thing Spider Two (or ‘Enoch Root’, in the book).
- What if, silently and undetectably (to us – you can be damn sure Spider Two is going to feel it), Spider Two gets picked off the web by a bird and replaced by Spider Three? What if Spider Three’s behavior sends the same vibrations to us?
I should note here that this interpretation is based only on Cryptonomicon. I haven’t yet read The Baroque Cycle, where Enoch Root’s identity is revealed in more detail, but I think this is accurate to what Stephenson is trying to express both here and in Anathem.
In Cryptonomicon, most of the main characters are present in both the World War II story and the modern day story – but some of them are actually new people. Try to follow this jump towards the meta (and comment if it totally lost you, because if it did, it’s my fault:)
- A character in a book is a “pattern of impressions passed onto the reader, which quickly become grouped together in the reader’s brain as, e.g., ‘the badass marine'”.
- A person in a book is a named, discrete entity that theoretically exists in the ‘real world’ of the book, eg, ‘Bobby Shaftoe’.
- A character is a pattern of vibrations. A person is Spider N.
Throughout Cryptonomicon, a single pattern of vibrations (‘the badass marine’) is played by multiple characters (‘Bobby Shaftoe’, ‘Doug Shaftoe’, ‘Marcus Aurelius Shaftoe’). It doesn’t really matter to us, because we just feel the vibrations.
Enoch Root is this concept made explicit – he dies and reappears throughout the book, we are not told how this happens, and in the dialog above Enoch himself reminds us that it doesn’t matter how this happens. He is, to us, a pattern of incoming data, and if we mistake that thing for a human that can’t keep sending data after it dies, that’s our mistake.
An easy mistake to make as Enoch appears human in every other way, but a mistake, nonetheless.
And here I will end, though of course there is more. This was the most fascinating of the several arcs Stephenson develops in Cryptonomicon. I highly suggest reading it, taking notes, and seeing what patterns emerge.
“You bent my words again,” says Goto Dengo.
“You spoke crooked words and I straightened them,” snaps Father Ferdinand.
Randy wonders if he’s ever had a serious experience in his life, an experience that would be worth the time it would take to reduce it to a pithy STOP-punctuated message in capital letters and run it through a cryptosystem.
The original writers of the Cryptonomicon actually had to decrypt and read these goddamn messages in order to save the lives of their countrymen. But the modern annotators have no interest in reading other people’s mail per se; the only reason they pay attention to this subject at all is that they aspire to make new crypto systems that cannot be broken by the NSA, or now this new IDTRO thing. The Black Chamber. Crypto experts won’t trust a cryptosystem until they have attacked it, and they can’t attack it until they know the basic cryptanalytical techniques, and hence the demand for a document like this modern, annotated version of the Cryptonomicon. But their attacks generally don’t go any further than demonstrating a system’s vulnerabilities in the abstract. All they want is to be able to say in theory this system could be attacked in the following way because from a formal number-theory stand point it belongs to such-and-such class of problems, and those problems as a group take about so many processor cycles to attack. And this all fits very well with the modern way of thinking about stuff in which all you need to do, in order to attain a sense of personal accomplishment and earn the accolades of your peers, is to demonstrate an ability to slot new examples of things into the proper intellectual pigeon-holes.
But the gap between demonstrating the vulnerability of a cryptosystem in the abstract, and actually breaking a bunch of messages written in that cryptosystem, is as wide, and as profound, as the gap between being able to criticize a film (e.g., by slotting it into a particular genre or movement) and being able to go out into the world with a movie camera and a bunch of unexposed film and actually make one.
“My son tells me that you want to dig a grave there.”
“A hole,” Randy ventures, after much uncomfortableness.
“Excuse me. My English is rusty,” says Goto Dengo, none too convincingly.
But now he knows how Alan must have felt after they turned decryption into a mechanical process, industrializing Bletchley Park. He must have felt that the battle was won, and with it the war. The rest might seem like glorious conquest to people like the General, but to Turing, and now to Waterhouse, it just looks like tedious mopping-up. It is exciting to discover electrons and figure out the equations that govern their movement; it is boring to use those principles to design electric can openers. From here on out, it’s all can openers.
He concludes that these are all consumer-grade diving books written for rum-drenched tourists, and furthermore that the publishers probably had teams of lawyers go over them one word at a time to make sure there would not be liability trouble. That the contents of these books, therefore, probably represent about one percent of everything that the authors actually know about diving, but that the lawyers have made sure that the authors don’t even mention that.
Alan is not satisfied with merely knowing that it [light] streams in. He blows smoke into the air to make the light visible.
Waterhouse says, “The new curve looks a little better because I filled in that gap, but it’s not really bell-shaped. It doesn’t tail off right, out here at the edges. Dr. von Hacklheber will notice that. He’ll realize that someone’s been tampering with his channel. To prevent that from happening I would have to plant more fake records, giving some unusually large and small values.”
“Invent some fake girls who were exceptionally short or tall,” Chattan says.
“Yes. That would make the curve tail off in the way that it should.”
Chattan continues to look at him expectantly.
Waterhouse says, “So, the addition of a small number of what would otherwise be bizarre anomalies makes it all look perfectly normal.”
“As I said,” Chattan says, “our squad is in North Africa—even as we speak—widening the bell curve. Making it all look perfectly normal.”
Actually, they have not been talking so much as mentioning certain ideas and then leaving the other to work through the implications.
By the time they reach their seats in the top of the Bubble, all of the others are in awe of Goto Dengo, and ready to do whatever he says. He senses this. It fills him with unutterable misery.
“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By school children doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”
where i = (1, 2, 3,… [infin])
more or less, depending on how close to infinitely long Turing wants to keep riding his bicycle. After a while, it seems infinitely long to Waterhouse. [Agon: he’s not talking about this review. I promise.]
-Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson