Ian Grigg's Crypto Fiction Choices
freematt at coil.com
Tue Dec 10 11:45:29 PST 2019
Crypto novels are not that common. It's an esoteric subject that
remains too small to even justify a niche title. Most of the
treatments relate to only fringe interests.
There is a bit of a revival in crypto interest within the 90's
science fiction genre. This can be traced back to authors who are
influenced by the net, and geographically, it's clear that the main
stars in this revival hail from or are influenced by the bay area and
the cypherpunks movement.
For what it's worth, and to generate some commissions for Cryptix, I
list here some crypto novels I've read. I rate them with bits of
entropy, as a sort of reverse correlation with relevance. This rating
isn't necessarily a view that this book is good or bad, just that it
has a valued combination of readability and cryptology.
If you're looking for a present for that pesky relative that keeps
asking "so, what is it that you do?" then you may find the answer
The leading light in the crypto novel scene has to be Cryptonomicon.
This book, the fourth by trail blazing net author Neal Stephenson, is
recent, having been published in mid 1999, and remains the only
financial cryptography novel I have come across.
Cryptonomicon is an achievment, with a deserved 5 random bits of
entropy, and it will become the novel against which all others are
In brief, Randy Waterhouse and his startup companions embark on
laying fibre around the Phillipines. Whilst building, new
opportunities arise, chief of which is the combination of a local
Sultan who wishes to build a data haven, and a rumour of a mountain
of lost gold.
What lifts this book out of the ordinary, and indeed, camoflages the
fairly simple plot, is the two intertwined threads separated by two
generations. Randy's grandfather and a WWII team of crypto scientists
work on dampening the Axis' ability to detect the Enigma cracks,
coincidentally laying foundations for Randy's attempts to
historically decrypt his forbears' trail. This historical story is
fascinating, it takes the Enigma story well beyond what has been
The crypto content is superb. Mathematical basies, Turing and his
bicycle, entropy, ciphers, are all woven into the story in a fashion
that anyone with high school mathematics could understand.
Cryptonomicon has a deeper underlying significance that most will
have written off as plot. Along the chase, Randy and his mates
discover the opportunity of setting up a private currency, nominally
based on the alleged gold. In crisis-ravaged Asia, where currencies
fell as systemic failure swept through the banking system, gold-
backed currencies, issued over the net, and cryptographically
protected from all attackers, is the perfect entrepot forthe issuance
of private money.
Recall that private currencies disappeared about a century ago, as
the newfangled Central Bank idea, born out of Britain, swept the
civilised world to mark the 20th century as one of government money
and government inflation. For various reasons which we'll gloss over
here - read the book - the time of private currencies has come again.
But it was not in the prediction of a new financial world that the
subtelty of Stephenson's research, and indeed unnamed advisors,
shows. It is in the fact that the model he presents for a gold-backed
currency is state of the art, in an art that was forgotten a hundred
years ago, and indeed was only poorly understood then.
Readers could even be forgiven for accusing the art to be stateless,
if it wasn't for the existance of at least one tiny Internet private
currency, backed by gold. It was these guys, the e-gold private
currency, who airshipped me a copy to read and respond. But there is
no response possible, as Stephenson got it right. Prospective private
currency issuers now have a novel that will save them from countless
mistakes, and I now have an answer to that question, "so, what is it
that you're doing that takes you so far from home?"
In all the fictional writings of cryptology, the Enigma machine takes
pride of place. Enigma, is no different, but touches little on the
Robert Harris, author of Fatherland, presents a story of spies and
intrigue set amongst the paranoic secrecy of Bletchley Park. Like
Cryptonomicon, the historical protagonist is a mathematician at the
core of the code breaking effort.
This story is cryptologically valuable for its description of
Bletchley Park, even to the workflow and passage of the information
through the now quaint series of human I/O devices, computers, and
As a novel, it is well written and entirely readable, falling within
the class of WWII / spies / detectives, and I rate it with 3 bits of
The Last Lieutenant
Corregidor features yet again in this novel about the collapse of the
island fortress and the plight of the last remaining coding officer.
Showing more of the Allies side, The Last Lieutenant, portrays a
story of espionage against the communications infrastructure of the
Americans in the Pacific. A lot of background, a lot of machinery,
and an inside view of the messages sent. Little actual cryptography,
but worth some 3 bits of entropy.
If you like daring war stories, this one has it all!
A Fire Upon The Deep
I think Vernor Vinge would have to be my favourite science fiction
author, just pipping out Stephenson. A Fire Upon The Deep is a tour
de force of 90's science fiction.
It actually has very little crypto in it, so it is hard for me to
award it more than 3 bits of entropy. The main players ship out of a
port with a third part of a one time pad. The other two parts ship
via other means - a security precaution.
The one time slice never makes it to its destination, but is used
later in a last ditch effort to establish comms with the good guys,
whilst being chased by the bad guys across the universe.
This is not a funny book, but Vinge's humour comes through with a
single crypto joke which still makes me laugh. To enjoy the joke,
you'll have to buy the book.
This book is about the machine, and therefore deserves its title.
Written by Michael Barak, The Enigma is the story of a con man who is
offered a 'dirty dozen' deal: go to Europe and steal an Enigma, and
all charges will be dropped.
It's actually quite readable as a story, but the crypto component is
low to non-existant, unless you like reading descriptions of how the
Enigma was constructed. For its irrelevance to the search at hand, it
only gets one bit of entropy, but read it nonetheless if you come
across it (quite difficult as its out of print, I found my copy at
Roy's book club).
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