Stephenson’s prodigious new yarn (after The Diamond Age, 1995, etc.) whirls from WWII cryptography and top-secret bullion shipments to a present-day quest by computer whizzes to build a data haven amid corporate shark-infested waters, by way of multiple present-tense narratives overlaid with creeping paranoia.
In 1942, phenomenally talented cryptanalyst Lawrence Waterhouse is plucked from the ruins of Pearl Harbor and posted to Bletchley Park, England, center of Allied code-breaking operations. Problem: having broken the highest German and Japanese codes, how can the Allies use the information without revealing by their actions that the codes have been broken? Enter US Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe, specialist in cleanup details, statistical adjustments, and dirty jobs. In the present, meanwhile, Waterhouse’s grandson, the computer-encryption whiz Randy, tries to set up a data haven in Southeast Asia, one secure from corporate rivals, nosy governments, and inquisitive intelligence services. He teams up with Shaftoe’s stunning granddaughter, Amy, while pondering mysterious, e-mails from firstname.lastname@example.org, who’s developed a weird but effective encoding algorithm. Everything, of course, eventually links together. During WWII, Waterhouse and Shaftoe investigate a wrecked U-boat, discovering a consignment of Chinese gold bars, and sheets of a new, indecipherable code. Code-named Arethusa, this material ends up with Randy, presently beset by enemies like his sometime backer, The Dentist. He finds himself in a Filipino jail accused of drug smuggling, along with Shaftoe’s old associate, Enoch Root (email@example.com!). Since his jailers give him his laptop back, he knows someone’s listening. So he uses his computing skills to confuse the eavesdroppers, decodes Arethusa, and learns the location of a huge hoard of gold looted from Asia by the Japanese.
Detail-packed, uninhibitedly discursive, with dollops of heavy-handed humor, and set forth in the author’s usual vainglorious style; still, there’s surprisingly little actual plot. And the huge chunks of baldly technical material might fascinate NSA chiefs, computer nerds, and budding entrepreneurs, but ordinary readers are likely to balk: showtime, with lumps.