Ian Grigg's Crypto Fiction Choices

Matthew Gaylor freematt at coil.com
Tue Dec 10 11:45:29 PST 2019


Crypto Fiction

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 
covered elsewhere.

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 
machine itself.

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.

The Enigma

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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