Friday, September 23, 2011

REVIEW: Digital Fortress

Note to Dan Brown: If you insist on making your heroes look like idiots at the end of the story, do NOT talk up how super-intelligent they are at the beginning.

As you can tell from the note above, I didn't like this book. It's nominally about cryptography and computer security, which is something with which I have a passing familiarity. Now, if you knew nothing about either you'd probably come away from this book thinking it was an entertaining read... even a thriller. But for me, Dan Brown's treatment of these subjects is about as accurate as The Flintstones' treatment of archaeology.


I am going to shamelessly include SPOILERS in this review, as I cannot possibly spoil it any worse than the author already has. DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW if you are completely ignorant of computers. You might actually like this the story... just remember that it's a juvenile fantasy, and that the "facts" and events depicted within have no relation whatsoever to reality.


Here's the summary: the NSA (National Security Agency) has a big honkin' supercomputer that can break any code. A Lone Genius writes an unbreakable encryption algorithm which he puts on the Internet in encrypted form (encrypted by itself, no less), and offers the passkey to the highest bidder. The NSA wants to get their hands on the passkey so they can surreptitiously re-write the algorithm to include a back-door so they can easily read any encrypted message that's encoded by what is sure to become a world-wide standard.

Now, even this far into the story we see a glaring hole. You see, what's being auctioned is simply a passkey to unlock the program that's already in the hands of the bidders. There's no way the NSA could possibly re-write the algorithm and get it into the hands of the bidders. These "super-geniuses" display astounding ignorance even to contemplate their course of action. A twelve-year-old as enough savvy to say, "OK, so you re-wrote YOUR copy. What's that got to do with the guy in Japan who downloaded it last month?" Dumb and dumber.

Back to the story: the NSA director has been using the big honkin' supercomputer to try to break into the code, with no luck, so he sends Joe College Professor (who's not a cryptographer and not an agent, but who is inconveniently dating the plucky Crypto-Geek-Babe) to Spain to retrieve a ring on which the password is engraved from Lone Genius, who's just died most inconveniently. Apparently this is high priority because if anybody knew what the password on the ring meant then they'd have an unbreakable code.

They shouldn't have bothered. The ring, which occupies our attention for all but the final chapter of the book, is a red herring. The program isn't encryption code after all, it's a computer worm, and it's intended to expose the NSA's top secret databases. Lone Genius was going to blackmail the NSA then turn it off with the passkey. If only he hadn't died. But the passkey was never on the ring. The clue to the actual passkey rests in orphaned code within the file itself, which I don't feel bad at all about revealing since Dan Brown never mentions it once until the final chapter, thus cheating you of any possibility whatsoever of solving this on your own merits. He then proceeds to misunderstand how code is 'orphaned'. It's just code that through inattention or bad editing never gets executed. Often the entry point to the routine is simply commented out during debugging. Orphaned code may be fragmentary and distributed about the program. In this case it can be retrieved in its entirety and assembled in order, on the first try. Meh, we'll let it slide because this is deliberately orphaned. Then we are treated to Joe College Professor telling them how to solve the puzzle while all the geniuses at the NSA (including his crypto-geek-babe girlfriend) scratch their butts and whistle Dixie. This yields a puzzle truly worthy of the Riddler, which you are to guess the prime difference between the elements responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, this riddle is just thrown in at the last second with none of the foreshadowing that marks a great thriller. Then you get to spend several pages shouting at the moronic imbeciles who populate this story as they spin around in circles and chase their tails until (literally) the last possible second. Meanwhile we're treated to the visual representation of Internet "sharks" circling the NSA databank just waiting for the shields to drop so they can get at all that juicy classified data (I'm not joking).

It doesn't help that the thing reads like a screenplay. Most assuredly Dan Brown had the big screen in mind when writing this turkey. It's all Hollywood, from the quick-cut bite-sized chapters to the condescending "VR" (visual representation) of the "sharks" circling to the last possible second saving of the day. We have a stalwart hero (the professor) tossed into the middle of things he doesn't understand; the beautiful girlfriend; some steretypical comic relief in the form of "Jabba", the tech guru who programs with a soldering iron (I'm still not joking); a couple of black hats; an evil minion; a chase scene... hell, we even get giant explosions. It's as if Dan Brown had watched every Bond movie ever filmed in the company of an adolescent, and made a note every time he heard the kid say, "Cool!" Then he put it all in one book. The result -- needless to say -- sucks.

There's more to complain about, but I don't think I'll bother. I read the book all the way through because I was willing to step into an alternate reality where computers worked the way Brown describes. If I knew he was going to throw away EVERY SINGLE CLUE and pull a completely different ending out of his ass... one where his main characters suddenly become blithering idiots... I would've gone outside and done something more worthwhile, like waxing the grass.


  1. I take it you haven't read any of Dan Brown's previous works. Don't. The reason they read like films is because they are films now.

    Also, how do you program with a soldering iron?]

  2. Hi, Graham!

    1. I've read most, if not all of them. If you're intelligent and observant and still like them, it's probably because you view them as occurring in an alternate universe where Dan's facts aren't completely skewed. For instance, I had visited many of the places listed in "The Da Vinci Code". I strongly suspect I visited more of them than Dan Brown did. You might enjoy my review of "Deception Point"

    2. Poorly.