Here is The New Yorker on Decoded (“This unusual spy thriller has neither page-turning plot twists nor a master villain”) and here is The New York Times. The book is not bad, which I realize is damning, and it suffers in comparison to Cryptonomicon, a novel whose explanations of cryptography are brilliant. Both novels, interestingly and perhaps significantly, start with the parents or grandparents of the nominally central characters. There are comments in Decoded about the nature of stories:
It all happened so long ago that everyone who saw her suffer and die is now dead themselves, but the story of the terrible agony that she endured has been passed down from one generation to the next, as the tale of an appalling battle might have been.
How much are we to trust stories “passed down from one generation to the next?” Maybe only as little as we are to trust that cryptographic protocols have been properly implemented. The woman giving birth in this passage was part of a rich clan that, like most rich clans, can’t maintain its structure over time, since, “very few of the young people who had left were interested in returning to carry on the family business.” The family doesn’t get enmeshed in the new government, either, at least until the “hero,” Rong Jinzhen, comes along.
I’m looking for some evocative quote to give a sense of the writing, but it feels flat and there is very little dialogue. Perhaps I’m missing something as Tyler Cowen finds its compelling. Perhaps I’m blind to the novel’s psychology. But the book is too easy to put down and forget.