Today’s Post is brought to you by the letter
Where K is for Key. As in cipher key.
I like books about codes. As in secret codes, not writing code as in computer programming. There are some similarities between coding and encoding, but for now, let’s leave it at I like books about secret codes.
I’ve mentioned Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson before in this blog. I called it twisted history at the time. Cryptonomicon is mostly about codes, as in secret codes and encryption systems. I really like this aspect of the book. Enigma by Robert Harris also includes a lot of secret code stuff in it, as the action centres around Bletchley Park, home of English and Allied code-breaking operations. Bletchley Park also features in Cryptonomicon. I’m sure there are other books that feature WW2 code breaking, but those are the two I know about and enjoyed reading.
Codes also feature in Have His Carcass, by Dorothy L. Sayers. HHC features Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane finding bodies and solving murder mysteries. It comes after Strong Poison, and before Gaudy Night. If you like the characters, HHC has them, PLUS, as an added bonus, it has secret codes. And spies. And all kinds of cool stuff. You should check it out.
I’ve got A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar on my shelf to read. It is also about cryptography. I’m interested in the subject, and think the book looks fascinating, so I’m not quite sure why I haven’t read it yet. So many lovely things to read though, that could be part of it. I get distracted by other shiny books.
Update: You may remember that I thought I might read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies but wasn’t sure because of the person who recommended it. I’m almost finished and totally hooked on Robertson Davies. Now I can say I’ve read Davies!
Neal Stephenson writes hard-to-classify books, all having to do with economics, history, and technology in some kind of combination. I’ve heard seen Stephenson’s writing called “Baroque“, and I find the description helpful; do with that what you will. In terms of genre, I don’t think most people would call Cryptonomicon historical fiction, though it does have historical elements. I’ve found Cryptonomicon in the regular fiction and science fiction sections of bookshops. I’d say it is a thriller, but it doesn’t quite move as quickly as most thrillers do. Let’s just agree that the book is History With A Twist.
I first heard of Stephenson from a student back when I tutored mathematics for income while at Seminary. This student said to me: “You like reading and computers, right?” I agreed that I did. “And you are into religion, right?” Yes, also true. “You’ve gotta read this book, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is awesome.” The kid was right. It IS an awesome book. It took me a while to find it as I was looking for a book by someone called Neil Stevenson, but eventually I got the picture. Then I started reading Stephenson as he (slowly) produced new material. Cryptonomicon (1999) starts in WW2 but it also jumps forward to the present/near future. It is a very long book, and while you can easily see that the characters in the WW2 segment are related to the characters in the present/near future (the last names are a giveaway), it isn’t clear exactly how the whole thing is going to come together. I had no idea at all where this was going the first time I read it. It becomes clearer with each re-reading, and so it has the hallmarks of good literature (according to Lewis). Cryptonomicon is connected to Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, more clearly historical fiction, which includes Isaac Newton of physics fame as a key character. Stephenson’s brand of history is history with a twist. I’m not sure how else to describe it. There is a thread of the fantastic that runs through both the trilogy and Cryptonomicon which is hard to describe. That fantastic thread is not really ever resolved or clarified. It remains a mystery to both the characters in the book and to the reader. It makes the whole thing much more interesting.
I’ve read Cryptonomicon 6 times, far more than I’ve re-read any other Stephenson book. This one appeals because it is full of grace, has really interesting things to say about theology and redemption, and takes me to the places described. And I like the characters and want to spend time with them again. The tech element in the book is mostly about codes an code-breaking and computation power. The key characters are mostly geeks, though there are also USMC-type soldier and ex-soldier characters. One of the Marines also writes haiku. And is named Bobby Shaftoe. This is appealing to me. The history element is set in an alternative WW2 (no atom bombs in the story), and the economics has to do with gold and backing currency. Read it — but remember, it takes a certain amount of patience. You’ll find out where it goes eventually, trust me.