Electronic Impulse

A Hacker Tourist Visits The 20th Century In 'Cryptonomicon.'

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson (Avon). Cloth, $27.95.

BY AND LARGE, books about the Information Age have about the useful life expectancy of a new personal computer. Steeped in immediacy and geared for the moment, the quick slide to obsolescence begins before your credit card has forgotten the heat of the transaction. To the technoscenti, trendy exposés of cyberculture are old hat before the ink is dry; to everyone else the interest of such obsessive and introverted subject matter is fleeting at best.

Without apparent effort, Neal Stephenson gives these pitfalls a wide berth. Best known as a science fiction author, Stephenson could also be considered a natural historian of the information ecology. In the December 1996 issue of Wired, he delivered a monumental 40,000-word article, nominally about the Fiber-optic Link Around the Globe (FLAG). The article is very nearly the technojournalist's equivalent of the voyage of the Beagle. Arrogating himself the title of "hacker tourist," he lands on more than a dozen shores and traces the long, genealogical lines of the history of information. He unearths fossil evidence in Cornwall, England; finds radical new adaptations in Egypt; weird symbioses in Indonesia; and takes the reader on wild exploratory journeys into the antecedents of our modern world. If there is an information ecology, Stephenson may be its Darwin.

Cryptonomicon draws heavily on this experience, as well as his potent skills as a novelist. After first rocking the sci-fi world with its best work of the decade, Snow Crash, he quickly followed up with the equally virtuoso The Diamond Age. In what's becoming a familiar cultural feedback loop, both works have gone on to inform the reality of evolving infoculture to a degree that surpasses even William Gibson's.

This current work is contemporary and mainstream, its setting split neatly between the Second War in the Pacific theatre and modern Seattle and Manila. It's a story of gold and of secrets, of doomed imperial ambition and modern ventures of bewildering complexity. The novel has not one protagonist, but four of equal billing. This is not, however, a case of waiting until the end to find out how it all comes together: though dispersed in time and locale, the interlocking of lives and work is apparent throughout.

In the 1940s, quirky New England savant Lawrence Waterhouse fights the secret Cryptographic war against the Nazi masters of Enigma, in an odyssey that finds him faking signal searches from a crumbling British castle one day, and up to his armpits in sea water and sewage on a sinking German U-Boat in the North Atlantic the next. A doomed and starving Japanese sergeant slaves to build a cache for billions in Asian loot, while his recurrent bête noire, a U.S. Marine Corporal named Shaftoe, curses MacArthur as he executes suicidal missions of impenetrable mystery and massively subtle misdirection.

Meanwhile in the '90s, Waterhouse's descendent Randy, a programmer working on the nascent digital infrastructure of the Philippines, finds the work of all these men revealing itself in his own. In the '40s, none of them understood the bigger picture they were a part of, but their desperate acts and ingenious feats have become encoded in the very texture of Randy's world -- a complex and all but indecipherable message infused into the artifacts and even the very landscape his antecedents left behind.

These plot lines are woven into the fabric of a novel using innumerable threads of scientific and cultural excursion. Lightly digressive and vigorously expounded, the book is shot through with generally hilarious and always riveting forays into an almost encyclopedic array of subjects; and it's these forays that give the novel its heft. By infusing the story with knowledge, the author achieves an absorbing and detailed authenticity.

Stephenson possesses a gift for vigorous prose, his ability to make the weighty laughable and the trivial fascinating. He blends silicon and reality with splendid mixed metaphors -- for example, a hormonally distracted protagonist restores his focus by, as it were, getting a grip on himself and "executing a manual override." And as often as he exalts technology to the status of the living, he as readily diminishes the living to banal biochemical systems. A pivotal moment of high tension in a room full of powerful men suddenly shifts to a lesson in crude anatomy and biology: the corridors of power are trodden by willful bags of watery protein and dissolved gases.

Somehow, none of this detracts from the humanity of the story. Stephenson finds our lives to be at once heroic and pitiable: the fleeting, ephemeral journey of a standing wave of consciousness across a medium governed by pitiless mathematics and intractable physics. He unifies the experience of the electronic and material worlds in showing that we can only know either of them as information, however it reaches our senses. And finally, he shows us that the only thing that matters is what we do in those worlds.