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Hackers and Code Breakers: Two Books

© 2000 Lawrence I. Charters

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Snow Crash

It is the not too distant future, when central governments have fallen, replaced by semi-autonomous Burclaves complete with their own laws and security patrols, The Mafia has gone legit. Or, rather, what it does is no longer constrained by the ineffective government, and Uncle Enzo appears on billboards advertising the message: "The Mafia: you've got a friend in The Family. Paid for by the Our Thing Foundation." Uncle Enzo, among other things, heads up the giant CosaNostra Pizza chain, which promises to deliver your pizza in 30 minutes, or else.

Hiro Protagonist, the hero and protagonist of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, works for CosaNostra Pizza #3569 in The Valley, east of Los Angeles. He is a Deliverator, an elite driver dedicated to delivering CosaNostra Pizza on time, every time, or you get to shoot him, take his car, and file a lawsuit against CosaNostra Pizza. To do his job, he has a wickedly powerful car, lightning fast reflexes, and a thorough knowledge of the layout of all local TMAWHs, the ubiquitous armored, gated communities developed by The Mews at Windsor Heights Development Corporation.

On page 33 of this 470 page novel, Hiro is having a bad day. Running late through circumstances beyond his control, he takes a shortcut through a Burclave that turns disastrous:

If it had been full of water, that wouldn't have been so bad, maybe the car would have been saved, he wouldn't owe CosaNostra Pizza a new car. But no, he does a Stuka into the far wall of the pool, it sounds more like an explosion than a crash. The airbag inflates, comes back down a second later like a curtain revealing the structure of his new life: he is stuck in a dead car in an empty pool in a TMAWH, the sirens of the Burclave's security police are approaching, and there's a pizza behind his head, resting there like the blade of a guillotine, with 25:17 on it.

Then things get exciting.

Hiro, when not failing at being a Deliverator, is the "Last of the freelance hackers," as his business card says, and "Greatest sword fighter in the world." Unfortunately, all the programmers who make money work as part of corporate teams, so Hiro the freelancer is so poor he lives in a storage container. His claim to be the world's greatest swordsman is based on his prowess in virtual reality combat. (His hacking skills and swordmanship are used to excellent effect later on as the punchline in an outrageous, involved, multi-page pun that also plays a critical role in the story.)

Snow Crash takes its name from how the screen on a computer looks after a particularly bad crash: the screen turns to snow, with no pattern or logic, all intelligence and structure destroyed. Hiro, former Deliverator, hears rumors it may also be the name of a computer virus that has, impossibly, crossed the silicon/brain barrier, and is infecting people. Meanwhile, he runs into his ex-girlfriend, who proves to be as competent as he is inept, discovers more than he wants to know about the ancient language of the Sumerians, teams up with a skateboard-riding juvenile girl who works as a courier, and learns how to use a portable rail gun powered by an atomic reactor. All these prove useful when Hiro literally saves the world.

When Snow Crash was first released, I overlooked it, fooled by the title into thinking it was some potboiler dealing with cocaine or crack. It isn't. Instead, it is a startlingly original view of the near future, at times hilarious and at times brutal, with striking characters who try very hard to act like stereotypes, but fail and become individuals. It is also strictly R rated, with "mature themes and situations" unsuitable for some adults, much less children.

Stephenson, as it turns out, first plotted Snow Crash as a computer game for the Macintosh. For various reasons, this never jelled, and he fleshed out the idea into a novel of great wit and density. His description of how hackers work -- the "hacking away at a problem" style of programming made famous by Steve Wozniak, not the computer vandal sort of hacking -- is both engrossing and far more accurate than any other novel I've read. Highly recommended, though with caveats about the mature themes, etc.


If Snow Crash is about the near future, Cryptonomicon is about the present, and the past. If Snow Crash is all about computer programming, language, hacking and debugging, Cryptonomicon is all about computer programming, language, codes and code breaking. Both of them are mini-textbooks on their respective subjects, enhanced and made far more riveting than any textbook by rich, dense stories.

Cryptonomicon is a massive novel, at 918 pages, with two parallel timelines, one just prior to and through World War II and the second in the present. The chief protagonist for the earlier portion is Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, the son of a West Virginia preacher with a fascination for patterns. This fascination leads to an interest in church organs, music, and eventually mathematics, where he demonstrates a rarified genius. But not much common sense or practicality: he gets drafted into the Navy. As an enlisted member of a Navy band, he has a splendid view of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the perspective of one of the targets: a US Navy battleship. The fascinating patterns of planes, intermixed with the chaos of explosions, proves almost fatal; it doesn't really occur to him that his life is in danger.

Half a century later, his grandson, Randy Waterhouse, is part of a team trying to set up a data haven in Southeast Asia. Randy is only slightly more in touch with reality than his grandfather, and is a survivor of several high-tech companies that are now either owned by someone else or died and faded away. Randy is a communications expert, skilled at making computers and telephones and networks talk to one another, but inept at talking to other human beings, particularly women.

Linking the two plots are a host of historical figures, from Alan Turing to General Douglas MacArthur, plus a vast array of historical and mythical events. The Magic and Ultra code-breaking efforts play a central role, as does the legendary gold horde buried by General Yamashita's troops just as the Philippines were liberated by American troops. In the past, Lawrence Waterhouse, absorbed in the beauty of numbers, draws on the resources of Britain and the United States to break German and Japanese messages. In the present, his grandson Randy tries to keep all governments, as well as talented snoops, from reading his own E-mail, and the E-mail of paying clients. Both find their intellectual passions distracted by other passions.

Interspersed throughout the book is a very thorough explanation of how networks work, of the theory and application of cryptography, and of other matters more obscure. At one point, in wartime London, Lawrence Waterhouse prepares to visit a weather-beaten offshore island with more than its fair share of British eccentricities, so he tracks down a reference book:

Waterhouse found a worm-eaten copy of the Encyclopedia Qwghlmiana in a bookshop near the British Museum a week ago and has been carrying it around in his attache case since then, imbibing a page or two at a time, like doses of strong medicine. The overriding Themes of the Encyclopedia are three, and they dominate its every paragraph as totally as the Three Sgrhs dominate the landscape of Outer Qwghlm. Two of these themes are wool and guano, though the Qwghlmians have other names for them, in their ancient, sui generis tongue. In fact, the same linguistic hyperspecialization occurs here that supposedly does with the Eskimos and snow or Arabs and sand, and the Enccyclopedia Qwghlmiana never uses the English words "wool" and "guano" except to slander the inferior versions of these products that are exported by places like Scotland in a perfidious effort to confuse the naïve buyers who apparently dominate the world's commodity markets. Waterhouse had to read the encyclopedia almost cover-to-cover and use all his cryptanalytic skills to figure out, by inference, what these products actually were.

You, too, should read Cryptonomicon from cover to cover, though the reading should be far more pleasant. Highly recommended, with the same cautions about mature language and themes as Snow Crash.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash. Bantam, 1992. 470 pp. $6.99. ISBN 0-553-56261-1

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon. Avon, 1999. 928 pp. $16.00 ISBN: 0-380-78862-4