Sunday, April 08, 2007

BOOKS: Digital Fortress

Thanks to my new iPod nano and, my commute was sped along this past week by listening to Dan Brown's Digital Fortress in audiobook format. Digital Fortress, published in 1998, was Brown's first novel, and initially didn't make much of a splash. His earlier novels have enjoyed a renaissance since his fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, put him on the map big time. I had thoroughly enjoyed Angels and Demons (his second novel) as much as The Da Vinci Code, and looked forward to Digital Fortress. Though I don't think his first novel equals the other two, the man knows how to twist a plot, and I often found myself lingering in my car even after I'd arrived at my destination, just to hear a bit more. This book is more "techie" than the other two, and while there was a European travel element, it lacked the rich (pseudo)historical detail that gave the other two added dimension. (He did still leave me wishing to see Sevilla, but then I'm a very easy sell on European travel. He didn't create the same intensity of desire as DVC left to see Paris, London, and Edinburgh, or as A&D left to see Rome.) In retrospect, it's easy to see this book as a warm-up to his later works, an early working out of characters, motives, and plot twisting.

The one real distraction for me, as a software engineer, was the inaccuracies, not only in many minor details, but in two major plot premises that sorely tested my willing suspension of disbelief. While Dan Brown is clearly fascinated with cryptography, he also has a lot to learn, and clearly didn't do his homework on this one. (Tom Clancy sets a high bar when it comes to accurate detail.) The premise of the book (and I'm not giving much away, as this comes out very early on), that the NSA has a secret massively multiprocessor computer that can break any code by trying all the possible keys, is quite farfetched. The massive super-computer isn't totally unimaginable, but the notion that it would be so hard to write an "unbreakable code" is loopy. And another key point (again not giving much away), that the NSA's most top secret computers are connected to the Internet, such that their top cryptographers can send and receive Internet email from the most top secret computer, well that's just flat-out ridiculous. Frankly, it's easier for me to believe that Christ might have had a wife and children than it is to believe that the NSA's top secret computers are Internet-accessible.

Despite these large flaws, and the fact that I was often several steps ahead of the characters (NSA's top cryptographers miss an obvious anagram?), I never had it all figured out, and Brown still had interesting surprises in store. From the very first, he knew how to write a rollicking roller-coaster of a tale.

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