Digital Fortress

Reading challenge book 9 – a book with bad reviews

Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown

Amazon link here

Choosing a book with bad reviews to read is a challenge, assuming that you don’t just want to waste hours of your life (I’m looking at you, Stalking Sapphire). I considered reading a classic that got really bad reviews on release, like Lolita or Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, I had already read most of the books on recommendation lists that I’d found, and BFF begged me not to read James Joyces’ Ulysses, so I needed a new plan.

Some books are so bad that they’re funny, a la Twilight, but finding these can be a challenge.  Sites such as Amazon or Goodreads tend not to be particularly helpful unless you deeper-dive into all the review, as these books tend to get a whole bunch of good reviews too, increasing their average ratings. But then a friend suggested Dan Brown. I have a mild interest in crypto, so when I saw Digital Fortress I knew what I was going to read next.

I’m going to pause for a moment here to apologise to any Dan Brown fans still reading this and suggest that you go elsewhere. It’s possible that this review is biased by my core belief that Dan Brown is a bad author.

Let’s talk about some Dan Brown reviews. Firstly, his website. There are a couple of glowing reviews, including a claim that US intelligence analysts are calling Digital Fortress ‘entirely plausible’ (really? who said that?), but they’re not exactly from well-known publications. Or is it just me who has never followed the Midwest Book Review?

(For the sake of trying to be moderately unbiased, I should state that I did find some several positive reviews posted online, but I’m ignoring them in this review because a) they’re not funny and b) I disagree with them.)

One great review I found (great in the sense of entertaining – it totally panned the book) was on blog.cryptographyengineering.com, titled Digital Fortress – I read it so you don’t have to. My favourite quote is:

“[Digital Fortress] may be a practical joke. I’m hoping so, anyway, because the alternative – that Dan Brown spent time learning about cryptography and this is what came out – is too terrible to contemplate.”

Another that I enjoyed was from eli.thegreenplace.net – “the gross inaccuracies, exaggerations and the amount of plain rubbish in Digital Fortress is astounding.” Then there was Geoffrey K. Pullum – see quotes below.

There’s also an amusing summary of Digital Fortress on the Guardian website, written in the style of Dan Brown novel, something that’s very popular among reviewers these days.

So what did I think about the book?

I’ve already said that I have a mild interest in crypto. Sadly, I felt like I knew less about crypto after reading this book than before going in, although I did know enough to call bullshit in several places. Luckily, I have several pop-science books about crypto on my bookshelves, so I plan to make up for my ignorance by doing some more reading later this year.

Because I’m not a subject-matter expert, I’m going to quote  a portion of Geoffrey’s review, which I referred to above:

“… the truly depressing thing about Digital Fortress is that its research is so feeble and its puzzles are so stupid. Dan Brown literally does not know bits from bytes (he thinks an encoded message presented in groups of four letters separated by spaces can be called a “four-bit code”). He doesn’t understand the difference between source code and compiled programs. He thinks there are 256 ASCII characters. His figures for time taken to break encryption keys on a parallel machine make no sense (the problem is exponential increase in difficulty, and you don’t fix that by setting up some fixed number of processors to run in parallel). He thinks once a “virus” has been disabled in a “data bank” that it has crawled into, a chief technician has to shout shout “Upload the firewalls!” (he doesn’t know the difference between loading a program into core and uploading a file from one computer to another). Just about everything he says about computers, processors (“titanium-strontium”??), data banks, viruses, algorithms, codes, ciphers, decryption, and everything else technical is nonsense”

Yep, the computer-science makes no sense. There’s also a lame bit where a pass-key is based on the elements used to create the atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and everyone is completely confounded by the puzzle – and the science is wrong. Again, Digital Fortress  made me doubt myself – Wikipedia was checked – and this made me sad. 

Secondly, I wasn’t a fan of the heroine, Susan Fletcher – a hot, genius with an IQ of 170. Given that she has a top job in NASA – who no one has ever heard of in the late 90s, because it’s so top secret – she’s annoyed about having to go to work on the weekend. The words ‘get over it’ spring to mind. Also, she is surprised and confused by every twist and gasp of the plot – I think she gasps a lot, but I don’t still have a copy of the book to check so it’s possible I’m making this up. Assume that I’ve said something nasty here about what Dan Brown’s portrayal of a genius implies about his own intelligence.

Then, there’s the initial description of her appearance from the point of view of a security guard:

“The guard admired Susan as she began her walk down the cement causeway. He noticed that her strong hazel eyes seemed distant today, but her cheeks had a flushed freshness, and her shoulder-length, auburn hair looked newly blown dry. Trailing her was the faint scent of Johnson’s Baby Powder. His eyes fell the length of her slender torso – to the white blouse with her bra nearly visible beneath, to her knee-length khaki skirt, and finally to her legs… Susan Fletcher’s legs.

Hard to imagine they support a 170 IQ, he mused to himself.”

I’m still astounded by this. The security guard’s only role in the book is to describe Susan’s appearance. The level of detail… and comments on her bra… I find this seriously creepy, please-do-a-CRB- check creepy. Plus, from my admittedly limited insight into how the male mind work, I just don’t think that blokes would describe a woman like that. Dan Brown, why?

My last complaint about Digital Fortress is that it was written by Dan Brown. (This is maybe a little unfair, given that I specifically chose a book written by him, but clearly I’ve thrown all appearances of fairness and impartiality out the window by this point). It therefore has ultra-short chapters, high levels of description that I didn’t care about (see above), and an action plot where Susan’s boyfriend is inexplicably assigned to hunt down a signet ring while being chased by a killer. Yawn.

Do not read this book. The science is bad, the style is mediocre, and the ending comes out of nowhere so that it turns out the whole book was a wild goose-chase. Having said that, at least this was light relief after The Making of the Atomic Bomb

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