Although he's only written four other novels, Neal Stephenson is an acknowledged master of taking an idea and exploring it to death. Snow Crash, his 1992 breakthrough, was a book about language in its purest forms that used a near-future virtual reality as a starting point from which to explore the universe of information-transfer methods. The Diamond Age, winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, was ostensibly about nanotechnology, but also managed to explore Victorian mores, the reasons behind poverty, and the elusive ability to think for oneself. Now, with the publication of Cryptonomicon, Stephenson explores nothing less than the various methods the universe uses to encode meaning in everything from human DNA to human emotions. The story itself oscillates back and forth between WWII and the present day, from the Allied military cryptanalysts of Detachment 2702 trying to break the Axis codes without tipping their own hand, all the way to California high-tech geeks trying to start their own Pacific-island data haven. In the '40s, we have U.S. Army/Navy math genius Lawrence Waterhouse deducing the secrets of the universe, Axis maneuvering orders, and the random-access memory from a pipe organ while aided and abetted by Corporal Bobby Shaftoe, USMC, a combat-hardened, decorated, morphine-addicted certifiable badass from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, whose job is to fake Allied screw-ups worldwide so the Japanese and Germans won't suspect that their information has been intercepted and decoded. Back up at the millennial end, there's Waterhouse's grandson Randy, who's pretty good with computers, and who supposes he might as well use this skill to become incredibly rich, and Shaftoe's son Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and granddaughter America, who are ridiculously competent deep-sea salvage divers. To keep these incredible characters from becoming too large for the story they inhabit, Stephensonan author who believes that a smart person should know a little about everythingfleshes it out with a quasi-Jesuitical Catholic conspiracy, an exhaustive and hilarious start-up business plan, more various and sundry geeks than you're aware even existed, Pearl Harbor, a rambling essay on hosiery and furniture fetishism, Alan Turing, Ronald Reagan, Douglas MacArthur, detailed human-horniness-versus-efficiency graphs, and a sunken Nazi submarine filled with gold bars. And there's always cryptography, hidden meanings, and subtle subtexts. This takes slightly more than 900 pages, every one of which presents a new idea or challenges an old one. Stephenson doesn't just capture the reader's imagination; he holds it at gunpoint and forces it to perform hard labor in order to get his points across. With Cryptonomicon, he's produced a book that's lush and thought-provoking enough to stand with the similarly hefty tomes of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.