book-reviews

Digital Fortress

by Dan Brown

Rating: ★

A woman (called Susan, if you want character depth) has a dream about DB proposing to her, only to wake up to find she is DB's fiancé, and he's on the phone. Susan wants DB to come over and have sex right now, but he can't because of a super-important mission that means he has to postpone their sexy getaway for a day. Oh, and the woman is an NSA cryptographer with a IQ of 170 and sexy legs, and she can't stop thinking about DB for more than a page. DB has an eidetic memory, (she reminisces while waiting for a door to open) speaks 'six Asian dialects' (actually naming any would be overkill), as well as Spanish, French and Italian, and his lectures are standing-room only. DB is 'dark' and 'rugged' and has sharp eyes and wit and is real good at sports and likes to drip water all over the place while ordering bagels.

DB's also apparently a goddamn idiot, because (Susan continues to reminisce, in narrative, while this door opens) he's never heard of the NSA. You know, the largest US intelligence agency. Extremely famous. It's not like he does translation work for government agencies, there's no reason you should expect DB or his colleagues to know that sort of thing. He (a linguist with lots of experience with 'Asian dialects') also calls kanji a 'language', and is happy to provide translations of characters without context. Nonetheless, they paid him for some work, and he meets their boss on the way out the door with a fat cheque.

Despite having just been in a room all day with lots of male codebreakers he couldn't understand, DB is fascinated to find that the female head of crypto is also hard for him to keep up with, though he manages to get a handle on that because she instantly falls in love with him. Yes, this is Susan, still narrating.

It went on like that for weeks.

I'm only 10 pages in and I agree, this book has been sucking DB's dick for far too long. Also, holy infodump, Batman, there are a lot of errors in this book. Oh, finally, the goddamn door's open.

Oh, hey, in case you were wondering, Dan Brown completely doesn't understand public-key encryption. It also seems like he's never sent or received an email, either, since he also thinks it's in widespread use protecting everyone's messages. Buy hey, what do I know, maybe Dan Brown has to type long encryption "pass-key"s (is this a mashup of 'key' and 'passphrase'?) every time someone sends him an email.

So, we have a big secret universal codebreaking machine which is -- wait for it -- brute-forcing everything. I'll give due credit, this at least is an approach which would be applicable to a lot of ciphers, and just building faster hardware is indeed the sort of thing you could see an intelligence agency attempting. Though of course they seem to have built it with unicorn hair and leprechaun gold, given the key sizes they start throwing around later on.

There was no such thing as an unbreakable code

Oh dear. Susan seems terribly ill-informed for the head of cryptography at the NSA, which has produced one-time pads for decades. Does the concept of 'information-theoretically secure' not exist in this world?

Oh god, the whole plot is going to be them working over this nonsense, isn't it? Yes, it's very important that we scan our ciphertext to make sure it's not a virus. Wouldn't want to have TRANSLTR execute a dangerous subroutine! Oh, look, it rejects encrypted messages that look 'unknown'. How the fuck do you write this stuff?

Actually, it becomes a fairly ordinary thriller. There's ever more nonsense, a lot of which sounds like Brown misunderstanding and technobabble-enhancing things that really exist, such as Susan's tracer program written in a 'crossbreed' (?) programming language, or his conflation of the Skipjack block cipher with NSA-backdoored standards. The plot progresses through (a) DB running around Seville being a wiz with languages and (b) Susan having every male in the book lust after her, including a cut-and-paste jerk. For some reason the jerk is the one who defends things like basic civilian rights to privacy and judicial oversight, and our sympathetic Susan is the one who defends the NSA's right to do whatever it wants whenever it wants. That's right, the bad guys in this book are the people who don't want the NSA to have access to everyone's communications. Susan's boss is also madly in love with her, and tries to have DB assassinated for this reason. Yawn.

There's really nothing to recommend in here. The technical core to the plot is all nonsense -- decryption shouldn't involve executing code from an external source, unbreakable ciphers have been known since WW2 -- and is littered with just enough real elements to make it clear that it's Brown misunderstanding things rather than ignoring them for the sake of a story. The self-insert nature of his character is blatant and slightly terrifying, and the treatment of the female characters is rather icky throughout. The writing is very simple, the dialogue dull.