Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

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Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A computer-cryptography thriller in alternating US and Spanish settings. The action moves quickly and although the story is not wonderfully innovative, it is diverting enough to provide some mild entertainment for somebody who is in dire need of this and can suspend critical faculties. Writing is even worse than in 'The Da Vinci Code', though!
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 512 Date: July 2004
Publisher: Corgi Adult
ISBN: 0552151696

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Writing quality is often perceived to be less important for 'genre' books, where plots and settings play a more important part. But even a 'genre' book needs to have a modicum of quality. Sadly, 'Digital Fortress' does not. It's the debut novel of Dan Brown that has been re-issued due to the phenomenal popularity of the The Da Vinci Code and it is a blatant, mercenary and seemingly successful attempt to discount that popularity and generate some more revenue from a an earlier effort.

'Digital Fortress' is a thriller and thus I'd better start with a bit of plot. The plot is just about the only saving grace of the novel, and the factor that earns it its only star above one.

A code is created: an unbreakable algorithm that would enable everybody (including of course all the world's baddies bent on destruction of any of the pillars of the USA's civilisation) to effectively encrypt and thus once and for all hide their electronic communications from the prying eyes of the authorities. The code is named 'Digital Fortress' and its creator threatens to unleash it unless the National Security Agency admits that it is in possession of a powerful parallel computer that enables it (without anybody but NSA knowing) to decode all other, currently used encryption algorithms.

Enter Commander Strathmore, a deputy director of operations of NSA, patriotic, committed, efficient, no-nonsense, passionate about homeland security and with no scruples in the name of the common good. He is able to throw aside all the moral doubt in the service of protecting innocent American women, children and Wall Street ownership records. Working with Strathmore is Susan Fletcher, very clever and very attractive 38 year old head of Cryptography department of the NSA. The cast of major characters include also David Becker, Susan's boyfriend and a polyglot professor of linguistics at the Georgetown University.

Unfortunately, persuasion, bribery or violence towards the code's creator are out of question as he's dead, struck by a heart attack in the prologue of the novel.

David Becker is then sent by Strathmore on a mission to Seville to find the key to the code while he and Susan try to unravel the mystery at the US end.

Will 'Digital Fortress' get into the hands of the baddies? Will it prove to be undoing of National Security Agency? Will Susan, David and Commander Strathmore live to the end of the story and will any of them or other characters prove to be something else that they seem to be?

The story alternates between the US and Spanish setting, with a few (unnecessary) glimpses of a Japanese angle. The action moves quickly and although the story is not wonderfully innovative, it is diverting enough to provide some mild entertainment for somebody who is in dire need of this.

Brown uses very short chapters - some of them are half-page long and while for the most of the book it is rather annoying, it works well during the final climactic moments. There are several attempts at twists and turns and while the ones concerning the nature of the code work quite well, the ones concerning the character's switches from 'baddies' to 'goodies' and vice versa are very, very predictable.

The final de-coding is an exercise in idiocy: the suspense stems mostly from seeing the utter inability of supposedly crème de la crème of NSA cryptographers to work out a clue even I managed to work out as soon as it was revealed. A thriller about codes that doesn't leave you gasping with admiration 'I would have never worked THAT one out!' is a bit of a downer, really. But apart from that and without getting too picky, the plot is all right and would get solid three, maybe even four stars from me.

Where 'Digital Fortress' fails is the way it's written. Brown is - just about - capable of telling the story, relating the events and moving the action forwards in a sequence of more or less neat cliff-hangers. But his characters are completely unreal, his description is embarrassing, his dialogue even more and his sentences often crummy and cumbersome.

That is how David Becker, Susan's boyfriend is described 'His strong jaw and taut features reminded Susan of carved marble. Over six feet tall, Becker moved across a squash court faster than any of his colleagues could comprehend. After soundly beating his opponents, he would cool off by dousing his head in a drinking fountain and soaking his tuft of thick black hair. Then, still dripping he'd treat his opponents to a fruit shake and a bagel'. What the ... .???

And look at this scene-setting: 'a modern desk ... looked like some sort of alien cockpit propped there in the centre of his curtained chamber.'

The novel is also full of little niggling incredulities which frequently produced a surprised 'what?' from this reviewer.

David Becker, a university professor in Georgetown is unaware of the existence of NSA until asked to do some translation work for them - that happens 2.5 years before then novel takes place, almost certainly in the 90's, probably mid or late rather than early 90's. Excuse me, but I recall reading a big feature about NSA in a general interest weekly issued in communist Poland in the 80's. Possibility of a educated American working at a university near the centres of power not being aware of NSA seems very low.

The same David Becker who is, as we recall, a *professor* at an American university, is paid so low that he needs freelance translation assignments in order to 're-string his old Dunlop with gut'. Ouch.

The dialogue is in a class of its own: people simply don't speak like that. Even people in books. Even, even people in cheap thrillers don't speak like that.

And finally, the biggest problem with writing about characters with an IQ of 170 employed in highly responsible, management positions is that all credibility is lost if the writer makes them behave and speak like temp office juniors. I have no idea how old Dan Brown was when 'Digital Fortress' was written, but it does read like a work of a 20-something office junior.

We have to seriously doubt the alleged 170 IQ of Susan Fletcher when, after having a rather long conversation about the right of security services to snoop on the population she - repeatedly - fails to grasp the relevance of a quote that asks ' Who will watch the watchers?'.

Add to it a notion of a 'pornographic' magazine that contains pictures of women sunbathing wearing only panties, references to 'seedy bulletin boards and European chat rooms' and the fact that the only kind of laugh performed by Dan Brown's characters is a chuckle and you get a reviewer simply unable to suspend the disbelief and critical faculties - cringing, rather than chuckling throughout.

For unintentionally surreal descriptions and wooden dialogue I take off a star. For senior professionals and academics behaving like 18 year old temps and owners of 170 IQ not capable of understanding a simple quotation or the meaning of the words 'element' and 'prime' I take off another one.

All in all, waste of time unless you have absolutely nothing else to read. And are very, very bored.

You might enjoy The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi - it's a little better than Digital Fortress, which we're going to shelve alongside The Gaudi Key by Esteban Martin and Andreu Carranza.

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Claire E Smith said:

I thought your review was spot on, I only finished the book because I thought it had to get better .... how sadly mistaken I was! I really enjoyed Angels and Demons though.

James Waterworth said:

At last an honest review, too many others praised this book, when it was obviously no where near the standards of his books such as "the old dog" , how when he had built up such strong characters, he changed to this I cannot understand.

kelr101 said:

If this is the first Dan Brown book you read, then you probably would rate 3 stars. His plot is mildly interesting and does provide some light entertainment for a reader, however I am in agreement with your character analysis and comments regarding the writer's ability to understand the nature of those with a high I.Q. I'd recommend as an early read only...his later books are of a higher quality (although not necessarily brilliant).

JasonKane said:

I thought it was a dreadful book. The characters were two-dimensional and the plot poor. Even I'd worked out the puzzle, which was pretty obvious. In fact I thought it was a red herring. Da Vinci code wasn't bad as a holiday read but I think it's an awful cheek to be pushing these on its back.

crystals61 said:

Your review was great, it grasp all the problems I had with the story and explained it. The book got quite predictable and the characters did not sound very much like they had that high of an I.Q. The ending got me VERY frustrated. Seriously, if a thirteen year old can get it, characters with 170 I.Q. can.

miss_berdal said:

it\'s depressing to read this review, but i see your point...

mir_golja said:

Keep in mind that many people cannot tell the difference between a well written book, and a piece of crap. I read this book while I was in Mexico, and I am currently writing a Verbal-Visual essay on it. I give it 4/5 stars.