The Cybersecurity Canon: Cryptonomicon

Dec 19, 2013
5 minutes

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For the past decade, I have had this notion that there must be a Cybersecurity Canon: a list of must-read books where the content is timeless, genuinely represents an aspect of the community that is true and precise and that, if not read, leaves a hole in cybersecurity professional’s education. I’ll be presenting on this topic at RSA 2014, and between now and then, I’d like to discuss a few of my early candidates for inclusion. I love a good argument, so feel free to let me know what you think.

Cryptonomicon (1999) by Neal Stephenson

I said during the introduction to this series that I wouldn’t focus purely on technical literature, or even just nonfiction, for that matter. To me, Cryptonomicon is the quintessential hacker novel. The author, Neal Stephenson, describes a story that is set around the intersection between the discovery of world-changing math insights and the incipient designs of our computer science founding fathers.

Stephenson delights in explaining how all of these things go together. His collection of fictional and nonfictional characters orbits each other across a thousand pages and propels the reader through dual timelines of World War II and the dot-com startup decade of the 1990s.

The result is a multigenerational treasure hunt worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure, but unlike Indiana Jones, this is not a light read. It is dense with ideas. You do not skim through this looking for the good parts, but if you take the time to embrace the journey, you will not be disappointed. You will be fed cybersecurity history, rollicking adventure, heartbreaking tragedy, the pleasures and perils of a multigenerational family, and the awkwardness of several geek love stories all told from the hacker perspective. There is something for everyone here, and you owe yourself the pleasure of finding your favorite part. It deserves a spot in the canon.

Genuine Passion

When I describe Cryptonomicon as the best hacker novel I’ve ever read, I use the word “hacker” from the old-school definition – meaning, not computer trolls who spend their time breaking into systems for fun and profit but technological wizards who have a genuine passion for learning about how things work and making the world a better place with that knowledge.

I admit it: I am a fanboy of Stephenson. He has written several of my favorite hacker novels over the last two decades, including Snow Crash, The Baroque Cycle and Reamde. But he uses Cryptonomicon as his personal petri dish to explore some wide-ranging ideas. He touches on everything from the impact of Allied code breaking during World War II, to the importance of Dungeons & Dragons to modern-day geeks, to the jaw-dropping complexities of twentieth-century banking, to the necessity and procedures for getting the correct ratio of milk to Cap’n Crunch kernels in your morning cereal, to the horrors experienced by soldiers and civilians in the Philippines during WWII, to the significance of cryptological systems in our state-of-the-art world, to the excitement of a present-day treasure hunt, and, most importantly, to the beauty of family ties across generations.

As you might expect, this is a dense read. One fellow fan and author, Charles Yu, describes the book this way: "A copy of Cryptonomicon has more information per unit volume than any other object in this universe. Any place that a copy of the book exists is, at that moment, the most information-rich region of space-time in the universe."

You get the idea. It is not a novel you are going to get through in a weekend. But one of Stephenson’s great gifts is his ability to juggle many seemingly unrelated and interesting characters within a story and then surprise the reader about how they are all connected. He crafts four main narrative arcs in Cryptonomicon and uses a parade of major and minor characters that intersect at key moments to propel the story. Three of the arcs happen during WWII, and the fourth happens during the Internet boom of the 1990s. Much more is woven throughout, and the word cryptonomicon itself refers to a collection of code-breaking techniques that one character inherits and develops throughout the story.

Why It’s In

Cryptonomicon is unique in that it qualifies in two different categories: “books for important historical context” and “novels that don’t exaggerate the genre.” For historical context, Stephenson describes a story that is set around the intersection between the discovery of world-changing math insights and the incipient designs of our computer science founding fathers. That intersection is ground zero for my chosen profession—cybersecurity—and the hacks that are described are interesting and well within the realm of “the possible.”

But with all of that, Cryptonomicon is not an easy, breezy read. It is packed with ideas. Savor the journey though, and find your favorite part.

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