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The Hacker Hemingway

Midway through Neal Stephenson's new novel, a rambling and revelatory 918-page meditation on cryptography with digressions on dental surgeons, fiber-optic cables and the proper way to consume Cap'n Crunch cereal, one of the characters posts a long e-mail detailing a trip into the Philippine rain forest. The set piece is most remarkable for what it reveals about the character: an intelligent, self-deprecating, witty outcast just beginning to learn that he doesn't need a handheld GPS device to learn where he stands.

When it comes to depicting the nerd mind-set, no one tops Stephenson. His predecessors in the cyberpunk science-fiction movement (writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) depicted hackers as moody James Deans in leather. Stephenson lays out the way they really think and act--awkward, chatty mensches whose insistence on logic makes them borderline nut cases. That, and his sense of the techno-future--an imaginative vision blasting off from the launching pad of scientific truth and Silicon Valley buzz--has made him compulsory reading in the high-tech world, the hacker Hemingway. "Everybody reads Neal Stephenson here," says Mike Paull, a manager in Microsoft's hardware division. "He's our inspiration."

Stephenson broke into print in 1984 with a little-noticed satire of mega-universities called "The Big U." (Though he disavows it, his admirers don't: "I would eat a live iguana to have another copy," one fan writes on Amazon.com.) Then came "Zodiac," a tale of ecoactivism that won the hearts of tree huggers but didn't sell, either. The breakthrough was "Snow Crash," a manic depiction of a future dominated by virtual reality and speedy pizza delivery. The artificial world he created, the Metaverse, was quickly recognized by the cyberspace crowd as the most sensible depiction of Where It's All Going, given sufficient bandwidth and the proper business plan. Suddenly, Stephenson was the techie's darling.

And though the cast of "Cryptonomicon" includes all sorts, the brainy characters stand out. "This has been the century of the nerds," says Stephenson. "You start out with people like Marconi and the Wright brothers, odd kind of characters, and within 40 years, we're fighting a world war using airplanes with radios in them."

A visit to Stephenson's comfy Seattle house sheds light on the author's own mind-set. Though the slim, close-cropped 39-year-old husband and doting father of two throws off no wonky vibes, he does have a passion for industrial-strength tinkering. "It's part of my personality to mess with stuff," he says. On his rear deck, he's got a half-finished 28-foot kayak. His basement looks like a hardware store; lately he's been fortifying his home in case an 8.0 temblor hits the Northwest. Stephenson is also into rocketry, outfitting his projectiles with electronics, sensors and a homebrewed invention to separate the rocket stages. "They've all crashed," he admits cheerfully.

Unlike his high-flying novels. He produces them in longhand, transferring the text to a computer running the geek's delight: the Linux operating system. "Cryptonomicon" is his most ambitious, a Pynchon-esque tour de force with a David Foster Wallace playfulness. Its dual plots include a World War II tale of codebreaking, espionage and Nazi gold; and a contemporary tale of a software startup trying to establish a Data Haven on a remote Pacific island. (There was a third plot but Stephenson, warned that he was pushing the limits of bookbinding, is holding it for a sequel.) The opening scene, involving a prewar currency crash in Shanghai, came from former Citicorp CEO Walter Wriston, whom Stephenson sat next to at a dinner party.

The book even has a built-in hack. At one point two characters in a jail communicate with Solitaire, an actual cryptosystem based on cutting a desk of cards. Since "Cryptonomicon" includes Solitaire's computer code, electronic versions of the novel can't be shipped out of the country, because munitions law forbids the export of strong ciphers.

Stephenson's publisher hopes "Cryptonomicon" will be his breakout book. The tech set will devour it, of course--it's cracked Amazon's top 10 list before publication--but its ambition, style and depth might well win over newbies, too. One early reviewer griped that its digressions "might appeal to NSA chiefs, computer nerds, and budding entrepreneurs, but ordinary readers are likely to balk." Extraordinary readers, however, should seek out the best novel ever written on a Linux box.