book reviews / Scientific fiction

Book Review: Decoded


by Mai Jia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

I  wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read Decoded by Mai Jia (Farrar Strauss & Giroux 2014) when it showed up on my Vine list, but a few details persuaded me to select it:

  • it is the story of an autistic math genius–Rong Jinzhen
  • it centers around cryptography–a fascinating subject to me
  • it promised to examine the mind of this inspired genius–making it character-based rather than plot-based

There were a few characteristics on the blurb that actually made me NOT want to read it:

  • betrayal–a friend of the math genius worked for an enemy of China in the same field as Rong Jinzhen
  • key to the human heart–I feared that would get in the way of the story parts I was intrigued by

I’m not into stories that delve into emotions and grand ideals from one unknown person’s perspective. Despite these, I selected the book and finished it in one day. It was wonderful.

Decoded is the story of intellectual issues that shaped the life of one man–Rong Jinzhen. It is written as though by a journalist investigating the rise and fall of a Chinese intellectual treasure named Rong Jinzhen. He is an autistic genius conscripted to serve his country’s most hidden intelligence unit as a cryptographer. We experience Rong Jinzhen’s life through the journalist’s notes and eyes. There are significant biographical elements, but an equal amount of analysis of cerebral topics like math, cryptanalysis, what makes a genius–as though the article will eventually be published in an intelligence journal. Along the way, the reader gets a deep understanding of life in Communist China through the lives of Rong Jinzhen and his family and co-workers.  The story is quite narrative, exactly as notes might read before melded into a printable story. It is so well done, I am not convinced Rong Jinzhen is not a real person.

What struck me also was the effort the author made to share Rong Jinzhen’s joy of learning. He not only is a genius, but revels in the amazing ability he has to connect dots, find patterns, and problem solve. This is his adopted father explaining the topic of leap years to his new son in a way that shows respect for Rong Jinzhen’s atypical approach to learning:

“When I said that you were wrong just now, I was speaking theoretically–the fact is that you ignored the existence of leap years. On the other hand, if you look at it from the point of view of mathematics, it would be impossible to say that you were wrong because there are acceptable errors in any calculation.”

“According to my knowledge, the time it takes the earth to complete one orbit of the sun is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. So why do we need leap years? There is a simple reason [which the father explains for 200 more words]

Readers of this book are treated to a joyous smorgasbord of cerebral sustenance. If you aren’t an admirer of the human brain, you might not appreciate this book as much as I did. As the author says:

“I say not working is most exhausting because your mind is empty. It is very much like dreaming; the past can take advantage of your weakness and burst in. Work is the means by which the past can be forgotten, and even the reason for it  to be cast off.”

One feature I particularly liked: The author, when discussing any country other than China, uses letters or fake names. This keeps politics and geopolitical discussions at arms-length.

This is the second book I’ve read by a Chinese national (the first was Gao Jianqun’s Tongwan City)–I thoroughly enjoyed both. It is highly recommended for those who enjoy lots of creative thinking and problem solving in their plots.

More intellectual stories:

Born on a Blue Day

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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21 thoughts on “Book Review: Decoded

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  5. It is hard to avoid the thought that the hero of Mai Jia’s debut novel, Decoded, first published in China in 2005 and now translated into English, has more than a little autobiography in his makeup. The main character, Rong Jizhen, suffers a solitary childhood: he is an isolated outsider who is recruited to a secret military cryptography unit. Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu) spent 17 years in an intelligence unit of the People’s Liberation Army; and according to his publishers, he was so isolated as a child that he lost himself in keeping a diary which grew to 36 volumes, testament to a dramatic alienation and an obsession with writing. Both are in evidence in Decoded.


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