According to Stephenson: The title is a play on Necronomicon, the title of a book mentioned in the stories of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft:
I wanted to give it a title a 17th-century book by a scholar would be likely to have. And that's how I came up with Cryptonomicon. I've heard the word Necronomicon bounced around. I haven't actually read the Lovecraft books, but clearly it's formed by analogy to that.
The novel's Cryptonomicon, described as a "cryptographer's bible", is a fictional book summarizing America's knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis. Begun by John Wilkins (the Cryptonomicon is mentioned in Quicksilver) and amended over time by William Friedman, Lawrence Waterhouse, and others, the Cryptonomicon is described by Katherine Hayles as "a kind of Kabala created by a Brotherhood of Code that stretches across centuries. To know its contents is to qualify as a Morlock among the Eloi, and the elite among the elite are those gifted enough actually to contribute to it."
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young United States Navy code breaker and mathematical genius, is assigned to the newly formed joint British and American Detachment 2702. This ultra-secret unit's role is to hide the fact that Allied intelligence has cracked the German Enigma code. The detachment stages events, often behind enemy lines, that provide alternative explanations for the Allied intelligence successes. United States Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, a veteran of China and Guadalcanal, serves in unit 2702, carrying out Waterhouse's plans. At the same time, Japanese soldiers, including mining engineer Goto Dengo, an old friend of Shaftoe's, are assigned to build a mysterious bunker in the mountains in the Philippines as part of what turns out to be a literal suicide mission.
Circa 1997, Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence's grandson) joins his old Dungeons & Dragons companion Avi Halaby in a new startup, providing Pinoy-grams (inexpensive, non-real-time video messages) to migrant Filipinos via new fiber-optic cables. The Epiphyte Corporation uses this income stream to fund the creation of a data haven in the nearby fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy do the undersea surveying for the cables and engineering work on the haven is overseen by Goto Furudenendu, heir-apparent to Goto Engineering. Complications arise as figures from the past reappear seeking gold or revenge.
Rudolf "Rudy" von Hacklheber, a non-Nazi German mathematician and cryptographer, who spent time attending Princeton University, where he befriended Waterhouse and Turing. He seems to know more about the mysterious Societas Eruditorum than any non-member.
Julieta Kivistik, a Finnish woman who assists some of the World War II characters when they find themselves stranded in Sweden, and who later gives birth to a baby boy (Günter Enoch Bobby Kivistik) whose paternity is uncertain.
“Uncle” Otto Kivistik, Julieta's uncle, who runs a successful smuggling ring between neutral Sweden, Finland, and the USSR during World War II.
Mary cCmndhd (pronounced "Skuhmithid" and anglicized as "Smith"), a member of a Qwghlmian immigrant community living in Australia, who catches the attention of Lawrence Waterhouse while he is stationed in Brisbane.
Glory Altamira, a nursing student and Bobby Shaftoe's Filipina lover. She becomes a member of the Philippine resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. Mother of Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe.
Fictionalized versions of several historical figures appear in the World War II storyline:
Alan Turing, the cryptographer and computer scientist, is a colleague and friend of Lawrence Waterhouse and sometime lover of Rudy von Hacklheber.
Douglas MacArthur, the famed U.S. Army general, who takes a central role toward the end of the World War II timeline.
Karl Dönitz, Großadmiral of the Kriegsmarine, is never actually seen as a character but issues orders to his U-Boats, including the one captained by Bischoff. Bischoff threatens to reveal information about hidden war gold unless Dönitz rescinds an order to sink his submarine.
Hermann Göring, who appears extensively in the recollections of Rudy von Hacklheber as Rudy recounts how Göring tried recruiting him as a cryptographer for the Nazis: Rudy delivers an intentionally weakened system, reserving the full system for the use of the conspiracy among the characters to locate hidden gold.
Future United States President Ronald Reagan is depicted during his wartime service as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Public Relations branch's 1st Motion Picture Unit. He attempts to film an interview with the recuperating and morphine-addled Bobby Shaftoe, who spoils the production with his account of a giant lizard attack and his harsh criticism of General MacArthur.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's 1943 death at the hands of U.S. Army fighter aircraft during Operation Vengeance over Bougainville Island fills an entire chapter. During his fateful flight, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy's Combined Fleet reflects upon the failures and hubris of his Imperial Army counterparts, who persistently underestimate the cunning and ferocity of their Allied opponents in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. As his damaged transport plane completes its terminal descent, Yamamoto realizes that all of the Japanese military codes have been broken, which explains why he is "on fire and hurtling through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour in a chair, closely pursued by tons of flaming junk."
Albert Einstein brushes off a young Lawrence Waterhouse's request for advice. During his year of undergraduate study at Princeton, Waterhouse periodically wanders the halls of the Institute for Advanced Study, randomly asking mathematicians (whose names he never remembers) for advice on how to make intricate calculations for his "sprocket question," which is how he eventually meets Turing.
Harvest, an early supercomputer built by IBM (known as "ETC" or "Electrical Till Corp." in the novel) for the National Security Agency for cryptanalysis. The fictionalized Harvest became operational in the early 1950s, under the supervision of Earl Comstock, while the actual system was installed in 1962.
The precise date of this storyline is not established, but the ages of characters, the technologies described, and certain date-specific references suggest that it is set in the late 1990s, at the time of the internet boom and the Asian financial crisis.
Randall "Randy" Lawrence Waterhouse, eldest grandson of Lawrence and Mary Waterhouse (née cCmndhd) and an expert systems and network administrator with the Epiphyte(2) corporation.
Avi Halaby, Randy's business partner in Epiphyte(2), of which he is the CEO. He is descended on his mother's side from New Mexican Crypto-Jews, which detail, while seemingly included as a pun, is explored further in The Baroque Cycle.
America "Amy" Shaftoe, Doug Shaftoe's daughter (and Bobby Shaftoe's granddaughter) who has moved from the U.S. to live with Doug in the Philippines, and who becomes Randy's love interest.
Dr. Hubert Kepler, a.k.a. "The Dentist," predatory billionaire investment fund manager, Randy and Avi's business rival.
Eberhard Föhr, a member of Epiphyte(2) and an expert in biometrics.
John Cantrell, a member of Epiphyte(2), a libertarian who is an expert in cryptography and who wrote the fictional cryptography program Ordo.
Tom Howard, a member of Epiphyte(2), a libertarian and firearms enthusiast who is an expert in large computer installations.
Charlene, a liberal arts academic and Randy's girlfriend at the beginning of the novel, who later moves to New Haven, Connecticut, to live and work with Dr. G.E.B. (Günter Enoch Bobby) Kivistik.
Andrew Loeb, a former friend and now Randy's enemy, a survivalist and neo-Luddite whose lawsuits destroyed Randy and Avi's first start-up, and who at the time of the novel works as a lawyer for Hubert Kepler. He is referred to by Randy as "Gollum," comparing him to that character in the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Goto Dengo, a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army and a mining engineer involved in an Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. In the present-day storyline, he is a semi-retired chief executive of a large Japanese construction company.
Enoch Root, a mysterious, seemingly ageless former Catholic priest and physician, serving as a coast-watcher with the ANZACs during World War II, later a chaplain in the top-secret British-American "Unit 2702," and an important figure in the equally mysterious Societas Eruditorum. In the present-day storyline, Root is portrayed as having a passionate belief that cryptography is important for maintaining freedom. Root spent the 1950s working at the National Security Agency and has since been based mostly in the Philippines as a Catholic lay-worker while lately "gadding about trying to bring Internet stuff to China, but to Randy this just sounds like a cover story for something else." Root also appears in Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, which is set between 1666 and 1714.
Mr. Wing, a wartime northern Chinese slave of the Japanese in the Philippines, who went on to become a general in the Chinese army and later a senior official in the State Grid Corporation of China. Described by Enoch Root as a "wily survivor of many purges," Wing is the only other survivor besides Goto Dengo of the Japanese gold burial project, and he competes with Goto and Epiphyte(2) to recover the buried treasure. Although Root and Wing do not meet during the action of the novel, Randy reflects that "it is hard not to get the idea that Enoch Root and General Wing may have other reasons to be pissed off at each other."
Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe (named after General Douglas MacArthur), Robert Shaftoe's and Glory Altamira's half-Filipino, half-American son. He is introduced near the end of the World War II storyline as a toddler, when he meets his father, who tries to explain Shaftoe family heritage during the Liberation of Manila. In the modern-day storyline, Douglas is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and U.S. Naval Academy graduate, who lives in the Philippines and operates Semper Marine, an underwater survey business with his daughter, Amy, conducting treasure hunts as a sideline.
Dr. Günter Enoch Bobby "G.E.B." Kivistik is introduced in the modern storyline as a smug, Oxford-educated liberal-arts professor from Yale who recruits, and later seduces, Randy Waterhouse's girlfriend, Charlene. In the World War II storyline he is the unborn son of Julieta Kivistik and one of three possible fathers (hence his unusual name). He is a minor character in Cryptonomicon, but both his [impending] birth and his participation in Charlene's "War as Text" conference catalyze major plot developments.
Mary cCmndhd Waterhouse, Randy's Australian-born, Qwlghmian grandmother and Lawrence's wife.
Portions of Cryptonomicon are notably complex and may be considered somewhat difficult by the non-technical reader. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking.
He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by the Finnish native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.
Allusions/references from other works
An excerpt from Cryptonomicon was originally published in the short story collection Disco 2000, edited by Sarah Champion and published in 1998.
Stephenson's subsequent work, The Baroque Cycle, provides part of the backstory to the characters and events featured in Cryptonomicon. An excerpt of Quicksilver, Volume One of The Baroque Cycle, is included in later prints of the Mass Market Paperback edition.
The Baroque Cycle, set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, features ancestors of several characters in Cryptonomicon, as well as events and items which affect the action of the later-set book. The subtext implies the existence of secret societies or conspiracies, and familial tendencies and groupings found within those darker worlds.
The short story "Jipi and the Paranoid Chip" appears to take place some time after the events of Cryptonomicon. In the story, the construction of the Crypt has triggered economic growth in Manila and Kinakuta, in which Goto Engineering, and Homa /Homer Goto, a Goto family heir, are involved. The IDTRO ("Black Chamber") is also mentioned.
According to critic Jay Clayton, the book is written for a technical or geek audience. Despite the technical detail, the book drew praise from both Stephenson's science fiction fan base and literary critics and buyers. In his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (2003), Jay Clayton calls Stephenson’s book the “ultimate geek novel” and draws attention to the “literary-scientific-engineering-military-industrial-intelligence alliance” that produced discoveries in two eras separated by fifty years, World War II and the Internet age. In July 2012, io9 included the book on its list of "10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read".
Translations into other languages: Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish. The Danish, French, and Spanish translations divide the book into three volumes. The Japanese translation divides the book into four volumes.