Like a pipe organ, a Digital Computer is not so much a machine as a meta-machine that can be made into any number of different machines…
As an eight-year-old, I suffered the indignity of having my parents rung up by my math teacher. This was not the last time my parents were rung up to discuss my behaviour—there was the time when I wrote rude notes about a teacher in my notebook, and the time when I hit a boy in the hallway and was recommended for child psychotherapy; I was a bit of a trial as a kid—but it was, in retrospect, the most depressing. My peccadillo, it turned out, was to have written, in darkly pressed graphite capitals, I HATE MATH in the top margin of every page of my math workbook. Every single one.
Things didn’t get any better after that. At nine, I memorized multiplication tables, but, oddly, didn’t learn long division. At ten, I went to middle school and was immediately placed into the bottom set for maths. At twelve, I was taught for a year by the redoubtable Amy Brudin, in whose classes I tried to read novels under the table. At fourteen, I went into freshman geometry, where I set the pace for the rest of my high school maths career by sitting silently near the back of the classroom, copying the answers out of the back of the textbook and being hit by intermittent waves of despair. At seventeen, I got into Oxford and told my AP Statistics teacher, as politely as I could, that her class was going to be the bottom of my priority list until I sat my AP English exam. She nodded, appeared to understand, and gave me full marks for the end-of-year project, which I’m fairly certain I didn’t even turn in.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that if you had told me, fifteen or ten or five or even two years ago, that I would one day spend a good portion of my morning commute engrossed by a multi-page breakdown of modular arithmetic, and come out of the experience possessed of significant understanding, I would have laughed in your face. But this is exactly what happened in the course of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a book so erudite, so fascinating and so unexpectedly funny that I really think Stephenson could write about nearly anything and achieve much the same results.
There are three main plot strands, set in two different time periods. Beginning in the Second World War, we’re introduced to Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine stationed in the Pacific whose raw intelligence is channeled into being an exceptional soldier and tactician, and Lawrence Waterhouse, whose mathematical genius is apparent from a very young age. Waterhouse spends a year of his university career at Princeton, where he meets Alan Turing, with whom he is friends for the rest of his life (one of the great joys of the book is the dialogue that Stephenson gives these two). He finishes university and joins the US Navy, and is in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it and the war, for the Americans, begins. Sixty years into the future, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy gets involved in a company that wants to establish a data haven in a small Southeast Asian country, and needs the help of Shaftoe’s descendants to do it. Throw a pile of Nazi war gold into the mix, and we’re deep in techno-thriller territory.
Stephenson’s virtues as a novelist are essentially twofold. The first of these is his ability to explain mathematical and computing concepts thoroughly, comprehensibly, and without being patronizing. This is an unspeakably difficult combination, but if you want the very definition of “writing for the intelligent layperson”, that’s what he does. The narrative voice at these points is patient, methodical, reasoned, and conversational. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a three-page exposition on a technique known as Van Eck phreaking:
The way that the computer talks to you is not by controlling the screen directly but rather by manipulating the bits contained in the buffer, secure in the knowledge that other subsystems inside the machine handle the drudge work of pipelining that information onto the actual, physical screen. Sixty to eighty times a second, the video system says shit! time to refresh the screen again, and goes to the beginning of the screen buffer—which is just a particular hunk of memory, remember—and it reads the first few bytes, which dictate what color the pixel in the upper left-hand corner is supposed to be. This information is sent on down the line to whatever is actually refreshing the screen, whether it’s a scanning electron beam or some laptop-style system for directly controlling the pixels. Then the next few bytes are read, typically for the pixel just to the right of that first one, and so on all the way to the right edge of the screen.
It’s impossible to read this and not be nodding your head, going, “Uh huh, okay, that all makes sense,” and then before you know it the man has gotten onto square waves and you’re like “Gosh, this makes sense too!” Ordinarily I am deeply anti-info-dumping in novels, but I loved it in Cryptonomicon; the book sounds like this because a lot of its characters do, too, or at least you get the impression that they would, if you asked them to sit down and explain these things.
Stephenson’s other major novelistic gift, which you may have gathered a bit of from the above passage, is that he is very funny. It’s a dry, witty sort of humour, but it’s constant, and it makes the act of reading the book a continual pleasure. It’s about serious things and clever people, and part of the delight of that is recognizing how much of cleverness is the ability to play, to pretend, to be un-serious. The narration also maintains a lightly knowing touch on the way that nerds relate to each other: their emotional peculiarities and their ability to focus intensely. Here, for instance, Turing and Waterhouse in the early days of their friendship:
One day a couple of weeks later, as the two of them sat by a running stream in the woods above the Delaware Gap, Alan made some kind of an outlandish proposal to Lawrence involving penises. It required a great deal of methodical explanation, which Alan delivered with lots of blushing and stuttering. He was ever so polite, and several times emphasized that he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was interested in this sort of thing.
Lawrence decided that he was probably one of those people.
Alan seemed vastly impressed that Lawrence had paused to think about it at all and apologized for putting him out. They went directly back to a discussion of computing machines, and their friendship continued unchanged.
Or, for another fine example of nerdy objectivism made humorous simply by being observed:
Later, he was to decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.
“Fractally weird”! Who doesn’t know someone who is fractally weird, eh? What a brilliant idea, and what a way of expressing it.
It’s not all fun and games, however. Bobby Shaftoe’s plotline, in particular, becomes more and more fraught with violence and horror; he’s a Marine in the South Pacific just as the war with Germany ends and the war with Japan steps up. General MacArthur makes an appearance, and is sketched with more nuance than you might think; he’s clearly a lunatic, but a lunatic whose own internal logic is coherent. The sack of Manila, on the other hand, is unrelentingly horrible, and reading descriptions of it was sickening. Stephenson is to be commended for his clear-eyedness; just because he’s writing a novel that, in some sections, qualifies as picaresque, doesn’t mean he’s flippant about the horror or the trauma of war.
At over nine hundred pages, there are inevitable lapses in control; particularly near the end, it was difficult to keep all of the connections across the decades clear in my head, and some of the coincidences involved in connecting characters do seem a bit…well…strained, if you think about them too hard. But you don’t, because the book is galloping ahead at full speed the entire time, throwing off quips and asides, and you’re too busy having fun gathering those. After Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote three books which are collectively known as the Baroque Cycle and which feature Shaftoes and Waterhouses of yore, in the feverish atmosphere of political and technological acceleration which characterized eighteenth-century Europe. This happens to be my literary period of choice, so I am definitely going to find and read them; I’d read Stephenson’s shopping list, if I knew that it would give me another fix of that warm, ironic, sharply observant, utterly humane voice.