Part I is here. Part II is here. Standard rules apply below the jump: spoil up to, but not beyond, the section entitled “Phreaking.” And for next week, let’s read up to the section entitled “Conspiracy.”
One of the things that’s struck me most reading our most recent chunk of Cryptonomicon is the extent to which it is both about historical moments of innovation and change, and the extent to which it is itself a historical document. The sections that are about internet startups feel sort of quaint and anachronistic, both in the technology Randy, Avi, and others are using, and in the way they understand startups and business models.
This is a bit of a diversion from the point I’m going to get around to eventually, but Lee wrote in comments in our first discussion that “the breathless way NS goes about describing Avi makes me wonder whether he doesn’t unself-consciously venerate these Silicon Valley VC types (making allowances for the fact that the bubble hadn’t yet burst).” I think is this not quite accurate, and the Epiphyte Business Plan is the best example of this:
Unless you are as smart as Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss, savvy as a half-blind Calcutta bootblack, tough as General William Tecumseh Sherman, rich as the Queen of England, emotionally resilient as a Red Sox fan, and as generally able to take care of yourself as the average nuclear submarine commander, you should never have been allowed near this document….After taking vows of celibacy and abstinence and forgoing all of our material possessions for homespun robes, we (viz. appended resumes) w ill move into a modest complex of scavenged refrigerator boxes in the central Gobi Desert, where real estate is so cheap that we are actually being paid to occupy it, thereby enhancing shareholder value even before we ahve actually done anything.
My suspicion is that Stephenson admires Avi’s hucksterism, rather than him as a technologist, in the same way, as much as the Dentist is a parody, he is capable as hell. Stephenson likes survivors, especially when they’re a bit off-kilter, be they morphine-addicted smart-aleck Marines, semi-autistic cryptographers who have affairs with German spies because what the hell, dreamy coders who make throwaway deals for buried treasure. I feel like he could have written one hell of a Western.
But really what this section of the novel got for me, and why I think it works even if the technology Avi and Randy are using feels dated, is that it’s about moments when you change or die, the points at which we become different kinds of humans. Bobby Shaftoe feels the shift coming in the way he fights his war:
Shaftoe has killed Chinese bandits on the banks of the Yangtze by stabbing them in the chest with a bayonet. He thinks he killed one, once, just by hitting him pretty hard in the head. On Guadalcanal he killed Nips by shooting at them with several different kinds of arms, by rolling rocks down on them, by constructing large bonfires at the entrances to caves where they were holed up, by sneaking up on them in the jungle and cutting their throats, by firing mortars into their positions, even by picking one up and throwing him off a cliff into the pounding surf. Of course he has known for a long time that this face-to face style of killing the bad guys is kind of old-fashioned, but it’s not like he’s spent a lot of time thinking about it. The demonstration of the Vickers machine gun that he witnessed in Italy didx sort of get him thinking, and here he is now, inside one of the most famous killing machines in the whole war, and what does he see? He sees valves.
Of course, Bobby Shaftoe’s probably more likely to make the transition to a new age because he’s the kind of guy who will try out sushi and martial arts, just as Lawrence Waterhouse seems likely to make it because he’s able to see the world differently at the precise moment when there is a need for his kind of differentness, when elites start to desperately need non-conformists. There’s something remarkable about Yamomoto’s revelation as he’s about to die: the margin between the time you have to make these realizations is perilously thin, especially when the things that are changing about you aren’t just sort of fundamental communications things like the rise of the internet, but matters of more immediate life and death.
I’ll be curious to see how this emphasis on evolution plays out. Obviously, we know from history if not from the novel yet that being overly-evolved—in other words, in touch with and accepting of his homosexuality—doesn’t exactly play out for Alan Turing. And I think we’re also reaching the point in the novel when it’s going to be important for characters to be able to look back, without being captured by it. I assume that Randy’s mysterious correspondent is Enoch Root, something Randy can’t puzzle out yet because he can only see the new meaning of a root@ email address, rather than looking back (of course, Enoch Root isn’t really a fathomable phenomenon by any set of rules, old or new). I’ll be curious to see how Avi’s Judaism sorts itself out. And of course, given Stephenson’s focus on lineage, some understanding of these characters’ pasts is going to matter in comprehending their future.