I just finished reading Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, which I must say is one of the more enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. It revolves around cryptanalysis during the WWII era and various top secret Axis codes concerning a German-Japanese conspiracy. With three major story lines developing in parallel– one from the POV of an insanely brilliant American codebreaker (personal friend of Alan Turing), another with a US marine involved in numerous highly secretive and dangerous missions, and a third with a present day silicon valley entrepreneur who stumbles across the aforementioned top secret codes from WWII– there’s plenty of interesting plot developments and suspense to go around.

While Cryptonomicon has all the makings of a great high tech hacker thriller, there is one overall issue I had with the book. Although the author apparently knows a great deal about cryptanalysis (he provides satisfying details regarding the theories and mathematics behind various code schemes), some parts of the book come across like a story about hackers written by a non-hacker. For example, in one section, Randy Waterhouse– the modern day hacker– is tyring to anonymously wipe data from a server before the feds get to it. So, according to the book, he types in:

telnet laundry.org

(Laundry.org is an anonymous proxy.) The author then goes on to say:

[Randy] logs onto laundry.org using ssh– “secure shell”– a way of further encrypting communications between two computers.

Then, when logged into laundry.org, Randy types:

telnet crypt.kk

Okay, so who in their right mind would use telnet for security-sensitive activity? And the fact that the book says he types “telnet server.tld” and then “logs onto server.tld using ssh” simply does not make any sense. Randy, or any hacker worth two cents, would instead have typed:

ssh laundry.org
ssh crypt.kk

There are other incidents in the book that remind you, if you actually do work in some of the high tech fields discussed in the book, that this is written by someone outside said field. At least that was the case for me when it came down to topics on telecommunications and, to a lesser extent, “hacking” (I hate that term). That issue aside, however, this has got to be one of my favorite books in recent history– a worthy high tech intellectual thriller that makes The Da Vinci Code look like a third grade picture book.