Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Tobias Hill: The Cryptographer (2003)

Published: Faber and Faber, 2004

In all the history of literature, the number of central characters in novels who are tax inspectors can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. And of these, four will be satirical, leaving The Cryptographer unique as a thriller with a tax inspector heroine. Anna Moore is good at her job, and when the UK Inland Revenue discovers discrepancies in the accounting of John Law, the richest man on the planet, she is chosen to investigate. The novel is set a little in the future, and John Law became rich beyond even Bill Gates' wildest dreams after inventing the electronic money software that caught on. So why has he set up a clumsy accounting scam for what is by his scale peanuts, a few million dollars? Her investigation seems to be successful, the money owed to the Revenue paid, butt with the question about motive unanswered Anna herself is left unsatisfied, and she becomes as fascinated by Law as he seems to be by her.

Billed as a thriller, The Cryptographer is far more gentle than that suggests. While the plot is basically that of a science fiction thriller, it is not really what the novel is about; Hill is much more interested in the characters. This interest is shared by Anna herself. She wants to understand Law to the extent that she loses satisfaction in her work. It is clear from the way the novel is written that the author was an established poet as well as - and indeed before - a novelist. However, The Cryptographer is not as self consciously literary as the work of another author where this is also apparent, Lawrence Durrell; it is actually reminiscent of recent work by William Gibson, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.

The title most clearly refers to the way in which Law made his fortune. The architecture for his software currency is, to someone who works with computers, not particularly convincing, on either the security or usability fronts. There is no provision mentioned, for example, for a portable equivalent to cash, just software that is installed on each user's computer. The software is supposedly kept secure by periodic updates which change the security, distributed from a central server which updates the security without human intervention. This immediately suggests attacking the central server, and finding a way to subvert the update process as a means of breaking the security. Alternatively, work on persuading your own local client software to accept a spurious update, because then you have another way to subvert the updating mechanism. It is unlikely that such a system, when at the centre of something as high profile and valuable as a widely used currency, would stand up to large scale hacking for long.

This literal interpretation of the title is not the only possibility nor the most important. The Cryptographer is not a book about technology, but about the connections between people, like an Iris Murdoch novel. Language is itself a kind of code, a representation of what we mean to say that is decoded by our interlocutor, and this is especially the case when the discussion is not really about what we want to talk about. In this case, both Anna and Law have professional lives intimately connected with money, even more so than is usual, and yet neither is particularly interested in money itself. Their initial contact is entirely professional, yet each is drawn to the other. And they quickly understand each other well, even though there are important aspects of their lives that the other does not know: when Law goes missing, Anna is able to find him even though she doesn't know that he is divorced from the wife he was still living with.

Overall, I found this an impressive novel, though I am at something of a loss to explain why. Gentle, with hidden depths and attractive central characters, it is not a demanding read but still a genuine work of literary art.

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