Cryptology, privacy, and a free society’s adaptability: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the 2013 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade-plus history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian work, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 a series of Appreciations of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the 2013 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Tom Jackson

One of Neal Stephenson’s most-memorable novels, Cryptonomicon, was inspired by developments in cryptography during World War Two.

Published in 1999, Cryptonomicon won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2013. Given the novel’s focus on topics such as electronic money and cryptography, it seems prescient in anticipating the current moment’s obsession with cryptocurrencies.

In an interview with Reason magazine  Stephenson described Cryptonomicon as “a historical S.F. novel about the origins of information technology in the Second World War” and says it also had a lot to do with money.

The book weaves together two plotlines. One narrative is set during the Second World War and includes the efforts of fictional character Lawrence Waterhouse, who helps break Axis codes for the U.S. Navy. Bobby Shaftoe, a U.S. Marine who serves in a secret unit tasked with hiding the fact that the Allies have broken Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, also figures heavily in those sections.

A second major plotline focuses on Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence Waterhouse’s grandson, a computer software expert working for a startup who becomes involved in efforts to create a data haven. He pursues a romantic relationship with Amy Shaftoe, who is Bobby Shaftoe’s granddaughter.

While there are many fictional characters in the book, many real people appear briefly in the text, including Ronald Reagan and Isoroku Yamamoto.

Aside from the interest many libertarians have in cryptography, Cryptonomicon is interesting to libertarians because it also suggests that a country with elements of political liberty might have advantages during a war over an enemy with an authoritarian mindset.

In the “Skipping” chapter, Goto Dengo, one of the few sympathetic Japanese characters, is aboard a troopship in the Bismarck Sea when he discovers the Americans have invented a new bombing technique for attacking shipping. Instead of the previously ineffective tactic of using high-altitude bombing, the American bombers now come in low when they drop their load, allowing the bombs to skip toward the Japanese ships like flat rocks tossed on the surface of a pond.

Dengo cannot understand the system that would allow for such changes.

“The Americans have invented a totally new bombing tactic in the middle of the war and implemented it flawlessly,” Dengo realizes. “What a loss of fact it must have been for the officers who had trained their men to bomb from high altitudes. What has become of those men? They must have all killed themselves, or perhaps been thrown into prison.”

The “Yamamoto” chapter describes how American fighter planes intercepted and shot down a bomber carrying Admiral Yamamoto. When P-38 Lightning fighter planes suddenly show up, the Japanese pilot tries to take evasive action, the only hope for saving Yamamoto’s life, but is ordered not to: “The voice of Admiral Ugaki comes through on the radio from the other Betty, right behind Yamamoto’s, ordering Yamamoto’s pilot to stay in formation.”

In some ways, Cryptonomicon seems like a key transitional work from Stephenson. While all of his previous novels were a normal length for commercial fiction, Cryptonomicon’s hardcover print version has 918 pages.

Stephenson clearly must have decided to write the book exactly as he wished, and the result is a novel that has mathematical formulas, and even a passage describing Randy Waterhouse’s struggle to reach the optimum balance between milk and cereal while eating Cap’n Crunch. The result was a particularly vivid experience for the Stephenson faithful, and the author must have liked the results, too, as all of his subsequent novels also have been quite long.

Cryptonomicon concludes with an appendix that Stephenson did not write: Solitaire, an encryption cipher by Bruce Schneier, based upon shuffling a deck of cards, reinforcing an interest in privacy and protection from snooping that would interest many libertarians.

Neal Stephenson (Creative Commons license)

Biographical note: Stephenson also won the Prometheus Award for Best Novel for The System of the World (in 2005) and Seveneves (in 2016).


Neal Stephenson (Creative Commons license)

Cryptonomicon, a 2000 Prometheus Best Novel finalist, was the first former Best Novel finalist that didn’t initially win to be inducted years later (once eligible for consideration) into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Among Stephenson’s other Best Novel nominees: REAMDE (in 2012), Anathem (in 2009), The Confusion (in 2005), Quicksilver (in 2004) and The Diamond Age (in 1996).

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An appreciation of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free, the 2014 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* Read the introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans .
Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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