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Sci-Fi Books Media Book Reviews

Digital Fortress 217

carl67lp writes "With all the hype surrounding Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, I decided to travel to the bookstore to purchase the novel. However, while looking at the "New in Paperback" section, I happened across Brown's Digital Fortress and read the back cover quickly. It was exactly what I was looking for: a thriller with science (mathematics and cryptography), technology (a 3-million processor supercomputer), and intrigue. I devoured the nearly-400-page book in less than two days. But I left feeling a bit disappointed when looking back on the overall picture." Read on for Anderson's reasoning.
Digital Fortress: A Thriller
author Dan Brown
pages 384
publisher Griffin Trade Paperback
rating 7 out of 10
reviewer Carl Anderson
ISBN 0312263120
summary An excellent, if slightly flawed, exploration into the world of government cryptography and those who try to defeat it

The premise

The first page ("Prologue") is enough to draw you right in. A Japanese man in Seville, Spain, is dying, and in his last act he attempts to communicate with fellow tourists. We immediately wonder, What is he trying to say? How does this relate to the premise of the book?

Flipping the page literally flips across the Atlantic Ocean, to the National Security Agency (NSA) and to beautiful, intelligent Susan Fletcher, head cryptographer at the NSA. She is involved with a university language professor named David Becker--a man who will figure deeply into the story.

A mysterious phone call sends David to Spain and a phone call from Susan's boss, Commander Strathmore, brings her to NSA headquarters. It's there that she learns of a potentially fatal threat to the NSA's codebreaking supercomputer, TRANSLTR--an unbreakable encryption. Strathmore briefs her that a disgruntled former employee, Ensei Tankado, has threatened to release this encryption scheme to the highest bidder. If Tankado does so, the NSA will be crippled--a fact proven by the revelation that TRANSLTR normally spends minutes decoding a message, but has spent more than half a day trying to break Tankado's algorithm.

Tankado isn't stupid--Strathmore says he has an accomplice who will release the code in the event that something happens to Tankado. Unfortunately, Tankado is the Japanese man who has died in Seville...and thus the NSA is running out of time to locate Tankado's pass key to break the encryption before his accomplice can release it to the world.

Meanwhile, Becker is still in Spain, under orders--from Strathmore, it turns out--to do just that. He realizes that Tankado's ring is the "key" to the mystery, and thus he begins a frantic search that leads him from a French-Canadian writer in the clinic, to a fat German tourist and his red-haired "escort," to a punk rock bar on the outskirts of town. Did I mention he's being followed by a deaf assassin the whole time?

What I liked

As I mentioned, Digital Fortress has all the elements that I was looking for. It had just the right amount of main characters, and everyone had a proper place in the book and in the story. I'm appreciative of the tidbits of technical information here and there--mentions of PGP, NSA history, and other such morsels were well placed.

There was also a smattering of sexual energy (although no real "sex scenes") and humor here and there. Who said computer geeks can't have a good time?!

I'm also a fan of subplots in books, that magically mesh together near the climax. Dan Brown deserves praise in this regard: minor characters who initially make you question their presence are brought nicely into the fold and given purpose.

In any book like this, little puzzles and questions come up as a matter of course. The reader is challenged to solve them just as the characters are. In this book, there are many such puzzles: What does the inscription on the ring mean? Who is Tankado working with, and how? What is the pass-code for the encryption scheme? Why is David Becker being hunted down? I delighted in trying to come up with answers to these questions as I read the book, and was pleasantly surprised to see I was wrong in many respects.

What I didn't like

In any mystery or thriller, the idea is to keep the reader guessing as long as possible, through plot twists, diverging plot lines that reconnect later, and the like. Brown does a fairly good job here, but this is where the book has its weakest points. For example, it is revealed early on that Tankado and the dead Japanese man in Spain are the same person. While this is perhaps unavoidable to push the plot along, I found it strange to have this happen so quickly. Later in the book, the author flips back and forth between who could be Tankado's accomplice, and who has committed a murder in Crypto. This flip-flopping is done poorly and leaves the reader thinking, "I already have my mind made up and you're not doing very well dangling red herrings." I had the bad guy pegged a couple of chapters before it was revealed, although I will admit that I was surprised at a particular turn of events afterwards.

Although this book was published in the late '90s, the technology aspects are still relevant--but this book gets some technical facts incorrect, or at least a bit off. However, they're fairly minor and don't detract from the book too much.

Some plot points are just too far fetched to be believable. For example, Susan's fiance, David Becker, tries to outrun a taxi--driven by the deaf assassin--while on a motorbike. The professional assassin fires several shots at Becker and misses every time, even though the bike is significantly slower than the taxi and the shots hit the bike body itself on several occasions.

Finally, some of the people in the NSA seem too stupid to be working there. In an effort to not give away spoilers, I can't be too much more specific than that, but suffice it to say that the "solution" is something that a high school science student wouldn't have much trouble figuring out.

Final thoughts

I tore into this book with high expectations. I finished the book with mixed feelings. As I look back on it, I can't help but feel that there was a lot of untapped potential and some glaring mistakes that could have been avoided. But I'm also pleased to have read what I consider a fairly good book, one that has served to heighten my interest in the genre, and made me even more ready to read The DaVinci Code.

Of course, it wouldn't be fair to compare this book to any of Dan Brown's later works. An author matures as he or she writes more books, and thus I'm certain that many of my quibbles would have been ironed out in future books. I'll have to find that out when I read DaVinci.

While it might seem that I had more bad to say about the book than good, I'd say that the reverse is actually true--the "good" goes all through the book, but there isn't really a way to quantify it.

I'd wholeheartedly recommend this novel to anyone who has an interest in technological thrillers, spy novels, or thrillers in general. It's a very accessible and enjoyable read, and I'm glad I bought it.

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Digital Fortress

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:00PM (#8332616)
    Now that's good fiction.
    • Dude, you clearly never met the researcher who was my Stanford University instructor for Discrete Numerical Analysis.

      She was from Denmark, and had done some kick-ass work calculating the volume of ocean water contained in coastal fjords or something. But all most guys in my class could think about is the fact that she was the most jaw-droppingly hot woman anyone had ever even imagined. Seriously : true blonde, striking figure, perfect complexion, high cheekbones, peircing blue eyes, georgous smile. She t
  • Not a bad read... (Score:5, Informative)

    by detritus` ( 32392 ) * <[awitzke] [at] [wesayso.org]> on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:01PM (#8332622) Homepage Journal
    I read this book about a year ago, and i have to admit it was definitely addicting in the beginning, but after about the halfway point the auther i think tries to outsmart himself with too many plot twists and other such tricks to mislead the reader. Overall a good read, and i'd recommend it, but the newer books such as The Davinci Code are much cleaner and a better overall read. On the other hand the author, while making a few glaring errors, does a fairly decent job of dumbing down all the tech for the average reader to understand while still getting the gist correct, which is a nice change :)
    • I got the feeling in the book that the author had twisted his plot one too many times. I had the feeling that perhaps the author himself had realized the mistake and just hurried through the end.

      It is strange, I read the book in January, and was so unimpressed that I can't remember anything other than a book beginning with promise and failing to impress.
    • by sam1am ( 753369 )
      On the other hand the author, while making a few glaring errors, does a fairly decent job of dumbing down all the tech for the average reader to understand while still getting the gist correct, which is a nice change
      I have to agree completely with this; it was reasonably accurate and "dumbed down" enough that even my mom got the fundamental ideas, and we were able to have a (much better than I would have anticipated) discussion on cryptography after she read it.
    • Uranium? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rwiedower ( 572254 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:18PM (#8332846) Homepage
      Did anyone else get the correct number long before the fictional protagonists did...and wonder why, if these people were so smart, they didn't know the difference between the two bombs? I mean, all the NSA people I know are uber-trivia nerds and would've nailed that number in ten seconds, tops. It made an otherwise interesting book hopelessly simplistic imnsho.
    • After reading several comments, i have no intention of ever buying this book, but i would be quite interested in what the dumb solution in the end was...
    • So now your average person thinks that brute-forcing keys (>64) is possible.

      There's dumbing down, and then there's completely missing the point...
  • Dear author (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:01PM (#8332624)
    Dear author,

    It was exactly what I was looking for

    No it wasn't. You were looking for The DaVinci Code. Remember now?

    Helpin' out,

  • binary (Score:2, Interesting)

    by OpMindFck ( 204177 )
    I read this book a while back and IIRC the genious computer programmer character has some sort of revelation at the end that inviolved binary. Like, "I see now, these are all powers of 2!"
    Is it just me or shouldn't that be the first thing she noted about whatever system it was?

    Like I said, it's been a while since I read the book and it didn't exactly stick with me.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:04PM (#8332659)
  • One of those... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rigmort ( 584960 ) * on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:04PM (#8332660)
    It was one of those books that almost discredits the author's other works simply by placing huge doubt on the author's research skills.

    The cover blurbs mislead the reader into thinking it's the next book by the best-selling author, when in reality it was written before the best-sellers and dug up to cash in on Brown's popularity.

  • by ENOENT ( 25325 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:05PM (#8332670) Homepage Journal
    magically flips across the Atlantic Ocean, almost like a scene change in a movie, but it's amazing how well this movie technique translated into a novel.

  • by duckpoopy ( 585203 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:05PM (#8332677) Journal
    might as well skip it now...
  • hated it. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shelleymonster ( 606787 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:06PM (#8332679) Homepage
    Digital Fortress was a very fast read. Much like The Da Vinci Code, it's a well-paced, by-the-books thriller that fans of the genre will find entertaining. But, the technical mistakes are so glaringly bad, that I just spent most of the book being annoyed. I thought a book with cryptography as a plot point would be interesting and maybe even challenging, but there's nothing about cryptography anywhere. There's only a giant brute-force-and-ignorance hammer, no real problem solving. It really surprised me how off he was with some of the plot points and technical aspects since TDVC was so well researched. If you liked TDVC, skip DF
    • Re:hated it. (Score:3, Insightful)

      by seafortn ( 543689 )
      I have to say that the errors in DF are not much of a surprise, given the serious errors in TDVC - in which the author pretty much cribs some far-fetched theories from 20+ year old books, reports them as fact, and ... profits! The reason people here on /. are surprised about errors in digital fortress is that they don't have the background to see the errors in TDVC - and probably the same is true vice versa for religious scholars who didn't see any error in Digital Fortress...
    • Read it when it was first released so I don't remember the exact details of why it pissed me off so much other than the plot was complete crap, the crypto 'science' anything but, and the lame ending. Hell call it Swordfish the Book. Okay maybe it wasn't that bad.

      "Oh they're almost through the 4th firewall" (probably paraphrased) was one of my "favorite" moments.

      • well, at least swordfish had two redeeming qualities....:)

        The whole "VR" display thing near the end of the book was annoying. One would think that if the number of attackers kept increasing exponentially (sp) that sooner or later it would have been DOS'd out of existence and nobody could get to it...
    • What tidbits hey did have in there about encryption were absolute rubbish. He talks about "rotating plaintext" as the way to prevent a brute force attack. Folks, the "plaintext" is the content of an encrypted message! How can you "rotate" the content?

      Plus, you *do* have to know the algorithm to do a brute force attack. Brute force means you "try" all of the possible keys, in order, until you find the right one. How can you do that without knowing the algorithm????

      Hated it.
      • The plaintext is the source, unecrypted. By "rotating it," he could have meant using a transposition cypher. That is, changing the positions of the characters rather than substituting one for another. If so, a brute force atttact based on the assumption that the characters are in the right order, only modified will fail because it's trying the wrong method.
    • by akb ( 39826 )
      I got the book for Christmas, I read about half of it while traveling and didn't even bother finishing it. The tech was annoying and all the plot devices were as subtle as hitting someone over the head with a hammer.

      It does sound like the guy is young and gotten better since this book, I've been wondering whether or not to give Code a read.
  • stride (Score:5, Interesting)

    by spoonyfork ( 23307 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <krofynoops>> on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:06PM (#8332690) Journal

    I read The Da Vinci Code like a lot of people then went back and read the rest of his works in reverse chronological order. I am fairly confident in saying that Mr. Brown has improved as an author markedly with each new publication. I would also argue that he has finally hit his stride with the 'Code because all previous books suck.

    That said, I am eargerly awaiting his next work, it should be a pretty good read.

    • I dunno. I liked the thriller aspect and the puzzles aspect of The Da Vinci Code, but the prose itself was mundane, even dull at times. And the attempts at sexual tension in DVC were not all that impressive to me, at least not in the first third or so of the book when I was still asking myself "why am I still reading this?"

      I am now working on Angels & Demons, and I have to say the prose is much more "literary" and easy to read; but the plot is less wonderful, at least so far. I think the initial hand

    • >>That said, I am eargerly awaiting his next
      >>work, it should be a pretty good read.

      Guess what - you've already read it!

      All his books that i've read have the same type of characters, the same story arc, the same 'big twist' at the end.

      It's like he's got a template that he fills in names, places, objects, and conflicts.

      His prose is easy to digest, but after reading 3 of his books (The DaVinci Code, Digital Fortress, Angels & Demons) I don't think I'll read another one. I can see his twis
      • All his books that i've read have the same type of characters, the same story arc, the same 'big twist' at the end. It's like he's got a template that he fills in names, places, objects, and conflicts.

        What, like this?:
        -mystery man dies with secret message
        -beautiful government code jeenyus teams up with some dude
        -they take twice as long as the reader to crack simple problems (EVERYONE knows that Dav Vinci wrote backwards, don't they?)
        -the protagonist is followed by an assassin with a deformity of some

  • by sqlrob ( 173498 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:06PM (#8332691)
    As I look back on it, I can't help but feel that there was a lot of untapped potential and some glaring mistakes that could have been avoided.

    This is a good summation of how I felt about DaVinci Code. Great premise, middling implementation.
    • Of course the premise wasn't actually his. The original source, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, was much more fun because it does a better of job of blurring the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction and therefore sucks you in. Of course the authors present it as fact but that's just part of the fun.
  • by guido1 ( 108876 )
    it is revealed early on that Tankado and the dead Japanese man in Spain are the same person. While this is perhaps unavoidable to push the plot along, I found it strange to have this happen so quickly.

    And now I know that they're the same, even before I meet Tankado. Thanks, friendly book reviewer! ;)
    • And now I know that they're the same, even before I meet Tankado. Thanks, friendly book reviewer!

      Are you kidding? (I know you were, I saw the emoticon.) As soon as he wrote the name "Tankado", I immediately thought "must be the dead guy in Spain." Once the reviewer confirmed that, I knew there was no way I'd ever waste my time reading this book.
      • This is the second time a /. reviewer has put a spoiler in the review. Whats up with these guys?

        • This is the second time a /. reviewer has put a spoiler in the review. Whats up with these guys?

          There's no such thing as a spoiler in a Dan Brown novel. You know what's going to happen three pages before he gets around to telling you. After you catch on to his use of the oldest of all plot twists (the bad guys are good guys and vice-versa), you know how the book will end by the time the secret antagonist is introduced as the protagonists friend. THe mechanics of how the story gets there are so amateurish

  • by TimeZone ( 658837 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:08PM (#8332718)
    Doesn't sound like the author really understands cryptography or cryptology. It's the people that do the important work of breaking a code, not the uber machine that just automates the process once the system's been broken.
    • Doesn't sound like the author really understands cryptography or cryptology.

      You must be mistaken. Brown even offers thanks to two ex-NSA cryptographers who helped him via anonymous remailers. So this book MUST be accurate.

      Based on the results, I suspect Brown's anonymous benefactors were actually a couple of 9-year-olds who thought it would be funny to fuck with him.

    • It's the people that do the important work of breaking a code, not the uber machine that just automates the process once the system's been broken.

      Two points:

      1) There are plenty of encryption schemes that are (as far as anyone has been able to prove) mathematically unbreakable. Which means that only brute force can decrypt a message. There are some difficulties presented by the problem of random number generation, but even so most of the encryption deployed today is ultra-secure. 56-bit DES is breakab
  • by happyfrogcow ( 708359 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:09PM (#8332727)
    I first read The Da Vinci Code and thought it was really good. I've never read anything in this genre though, so I can't compare. I then read Angels and Demons, which is an earlier event in the life of the same main character from The Da Vinci Code. It was also written before the Da Vinci Code. This was obvious too. It seems the author has been slowly refining his writting skills, which lead to the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. I'd suspect his earlier works (such as Digital Fortress) are not as well thought out.

    However, I do recommend both of these books, just maybe in chronological order.

    minor spoiler, no names or real details given...
    M y disapointment is that the "catch" is the same in both books. Someone close and assumed to be trusted turns out to be the bad guy.
    • Yeah, the first time it was a nice twist. Now after reading his 3 other books I can spot the "surprise" bad guy from the first page he appears on. And that line in Angels and Demons, early on, about how you can slow yourself down in a fall with a big coat or something like that... I mean, foreshadowing is a good technique is used carefully but ...
  • by beacher ( 82033 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:09PM (#8332731) Homepage
    In the DaVinci code, Brown resolves his puzzles/riddles within 2 pages. It drove me nuts to have all of my boggles nicely wrapped up in a nice tidy bow within 30 seconds. Sometimes I can't stand authors who pander to those without an attention span or to those who only pick up the book and read only two pages at a time.
    • The last 2 page trick is not necessarily catering to the people who have short attention span. It is the "formula" for a thriller - Keep the reader guessing and finish it all off in a sudden burst of information.
      An example would be the "Focaults Pendulum" by Umberto Eco, similar topic to Davinci Code, involves Templars and stuff. The first few chapters are full of (obscure ?) Medieval history references and trivia (which are funnily enough explained much later in the book).So you need a high attention sp
  • Boooo (Score:3, Informative)

    by NilObject ( 522433 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:09PM (#8332733)
    I read the DaVinci code and enjoyed it for it's creativity and it's suspense. I read the first few pages of Angels & Deamons and threw it away. Why? Because they're exactly the same. They start out exactly the same way. Ergh.

    So, I saw Digital Fortress and figured I'd give Dan Brown another chance. I've always loved techno-thrillers and I thought this might not dissappoint. BBZZZZZT!

    What a lame piece of crap! Anyone at least marginally knowledgeable about computers and cryptology and security will want to slap Dan for the inconsistencies and falsities littered throughout the book.

    And the code at the back is really lame. Booo hiss!

    Stay away from it if you like good literature.

    Go get "Hackers" or "At Large" or any other of the good books if you want to actually like the book.
    • I second the view that Digital Fortress is a lame piece of crap. Dan Brown did not do even the most basic research before writing Digital Fortress. Bruce Schneier's book Applied Cryptography has been around a long time. Even if you don't understand the C code and the mathematics, you can get a pretty good picture of why some algorithms are unbreakable, in practice. But Brown does not seem to have read anything about cryptography. He simply waves his hands and writes "quantum computing". He might as

  • Avoid this book (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PingXao ( 153057 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:13PM (#8332777)
    I read it last month. I keep most of the books I read when I'm done. I threw this one out. It wasn't a bad read, but I agree with the reviewer that in the end it just wasn't satisfying.

    One concept the book deals with that I thought was good was the belief by many intelligence pros that they need to "protect" the citizens from things that cannot be spoken. Hogwash. I'm sure the NSA does valuable work but when they start to trample the Constitution it's time to say ENOUGH. The fouders of the U.S. thought the people should always distrust the government and retain the means to change it if and when it became opressive or tyrannical. If the government accrues too much power to control information and the ability to track what every single person does and says and buys every moment of every waking day then it becomes impossible for the people to exercise that power. It is truly Big Brother-esque.

    The book did a good job of exploring both sides of that debate. The guy who wrote the Digital Fortress algorithm was someone who didn't believe that governments should have the right to spy on its own citizens without at least telling them that it was doing so. Central to the plot was an extortion scheme in which the perpetrator, Tankada, wanted only one thing: For the gogernment to come out and publicly admit that it could, in fact, decrypt and read everything that was being sent via encrypted email.

    The book still sucked.
    • Re:Avoid this book (Score:4, Interesting)

      by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @07:37PM (#8333776)
      . . .For the gogernment to come out and publicly admit that it could, in fact, decrypt and read everything that was being sent via encrypted email.

      Which is sort of stupid, because it can't. The NSA can, of course, read almost every single conventional email sent, because these aren't even slightly encrypted.
  • Da Vinci Code (Score:5, Informative)

    by gwernol ( 167574 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:14PM (#8332792)
    I was dissapointed by The Da Vinci Code which I read last year. Brown is pretty much a hack writer and seems to be more interested in a whiz-bang plot than developing anything deeper or more interesting. His characters are flat and don't really develop - the hero of Da Vinci Code is Indiana Jones without the bravery. The research behind the book seems very much like a bunch of vaguely-related conspiracy theories that the author read about and decided to write a pot-boiler around.

    For a much more interesting book that uses similar material to go a lot further, try Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum [amazon.com]. Eco uses the background of holy grail consipracists to weave a tale rich in detailed historical research, amusing characters and that is layered with meaning. You get the what-is-going-to-happen plot and structural and metaphorical complexity. I suspect that Brown may have read Foucault's Pendulum before he wrote Da Vinci Code, because some of the similarities are noticeable.

    Summary: Da Vinci Code is a fun enough airport novel. I enjoyed reading it but in the end didn't feel I'd gained anything for having read it.
    • Don't forget, Brown stole a lot of stuff for The Da Vinci Code from the book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail", and to a lesser extent "The Templar Revolution". He just put some nifty fiction story on top of it. Most over-hyped book I've ever heard of (besides Harry Potter.....just don't get me started on those).
  • by dexter riley ( 556126 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:17PM (#8332827)
    He realizes that Tankado's ring is the "key" to the mystery,

    NSA Chief: Aha! The ring is mine! Now our supercomputer with the clever acronym can decode this vitally important document! (hands document to flunky) What does it say?

    NSA Underling: (Turns ring and presses buttons on blinkenlights panel.) It says..."Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

    NSA Chief: Ovaltine? A crummy commercial? Son-of-a-bitch! Here, try it again! (hands new document to flunky.)

    NSA Underling: (repeats procedure) It says..."All your base-"

    NSA Chief: (pulls gun from holster and shoots his underling.)

    NSA Underling: AIEEEEEE! (Underling expires.)

    NSA Chief: (Shakes fist to heavens.) Curse you, fat German tourist and his red-haired "escort"!!! Cuuurrrse yoooouuu!!!!
  • ... is, judging from your description, about at the same level as his knowledge of religious history. How nice.

    Really, given Brown's infatuation with silliness in DaVinci and the way he misses the boat in this one (unbreakable encryption? Just use a 4096-bit key; it'll take Moore's Law at least a couple years to catch up...), I have to wonder if the reason he doesn't do steamy sex scenes is because the technology is too advanced for him...


  • by callipygian-showsyst ( 631222 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:19PM (#8332854) Homepage
    I read the book on an airplane a few weeks ago. (Orlando to Kansas City!)

    I was able to suspend my disbelief at an "unbreakable code" not bothering any of the cryptologists. And I was able to swallow, for the sake of the plot, some external person able to write a file of encrypted text that would (somehow) infect the code-breaking machine with a virus.

    I was was even able to overlook the author's mistaken description of what "public key" asymmetric cryptography was. (He obviously missed the whole point of it when he failed to mention that it's useful because you don't have to have a secret channel to transmit your key to the other party!)

    However, when they talked of using "Streaming Quicktime" to send video messages across the world, that's when I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Nobody in the world would use "Streaming Quicktime" for a remote video feed.

    • I was able to suspend my disbelief at an "unbreakable code" not bothering any of the cryptologists.

      What do you mean? Plenty of the cyptography systems currently in use are mathematically unbreakable - or at least, many experts haven't been able to find flaws. The only flaws known are related to specific implementations of random number generation, and are not inherent in the encryption algorithms themselves.
  • Generally this book is badly researched, but there are one or two things that really stand out.

    First the main character Susan is supposed to be a top brain at the NSA. The only problem is that she's thick as concrete. I'm not saying she's slow on the uptake, merely my cat could have figured out the general plot before her.

    Inventing new types of computers and math seems okay, but keep it on planet Earth. This stuff is too far fetched for most anyone to absorb and stay in a state of suspended disbelief.
  • Throughtout the book she was constantly coming in from the point of view that the NSA was correct in trying to snoop into everyones data?

    This was shown with SEVERAL diatribes about how if only the people knew the real dangers they wouldn't be upset about email taps and wire taps..

    I found the book to be readable, but overly ambitious in scope, and the periodic totalitarian outbursts were a bit much for me.
  • by bziman ( 223162 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:27PM (#8332945) Homepage Journal
    A couple of years ago, I picked up Digital Fortress when it first came out. It was an interesting story, though I thought the book itself could have used some improvement. There is actually a code on the very last page of the book, if you happened to notice. When I discovered it, I e-mailed Dan via his web site with the cracked code, along with some of the things I noted about the book, including a few spelling mistakes. Dan has e-mailed me several times (apparently I was one of the few people who caught the code at the time), and he even sent me snail mail thanking me for the proof-reading. If he is still graciously accepting reader feedback, then it is no wonder his books have gotten so good over the past few years. I haven't started on the Da Vinci Code, but I'm looking forward to it.


  • I recommend the James Bond books. Sure, they are dated, but the provide an interesting glimpse into spycraft as it was 50 years ago.

    Some notes of interest:
    -the books have almost nothing to do with the movies
    -the books are short, about 150 pages
    -not much action in the books
    -Bond is not bulletproof like his movie counterpart

    I get the feeling as reading these books that Ian Fleming writes about what he knows, and the material seems well reasearched, whether it be about rocket engines or toxic flora.

  • by JackAsh ( 80274 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @06:28PM (#8332953)
    A few months back I read the DaVinci Code. I was impressed enough with the research the author did that my girlfriend went and got me Deception Point, and I got myself Digital Fortress. I read the both of them, and having now read 3 Dan Brown books I feel I can make a few generalizations:

    (Spoiler warning!)

    His plots and characters are paper thin. These books are the literary equivalent of your standard hollywood blockbuster movie (and by this I mean Independence Day, not LOTR).
    The main villain is always the guy closest to the character, a boss, confidant, etc. Motivation can be sexual, power, take your pick.
    The books are written so as to be ported directly to the big screen. You can almost see scene transitions between paragraphs. One of books chapters actually ended with "camera pan left, fade to black" (just kidding! :) )

    The research for Digital Fortress was not as good as for DaVinci - we had the usual confusion between data and executable code (gee, you'd think government cryptogurus would know not to execute code contained within a suspect file), as well as exploding supercomputers, the ability to bypass every single security control by a clueless manager that should NOT be touching said supercomputer, etc. There's an actual 7 layer firewall somewhere that graphically displays the 7 walls, hacker attacks, and even displays each layer falling and the attackers getting closer and closer to the core of the system! Sure it's all explained away in some way or another, but it really makes no sense once you step back from it.

    The plot for Deception Point was overly contrived and is designed as an excuse for shooting and chasing people around over a two hour movie, and does not stand up to the inspection of the reading pace of a book.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I loved the books, they were fun, and even if the suspension of disbelief was a bit thin in some spots I would not hesitate to recommend any of them to almost anyone - it's just that Burger King is also tasty every once in a while, and seeing stuff blow up on screen while people chase each other is cool too.

    -Jack Ash
    • by Optigrab ( 744658 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @07:36PM (#8333766)
      I totally agree - after reading DaVinci Code and Digital Fortress, I can pretty much sum up Dan Brown's formula as the following:

      - Start off with an interesting hook and quickly diverge into two (or more) concurrent plots. Minimal character development is necessary.
      - Devote alternating chapters to each plot
      - End each (short) chapter with a 'cliffhanger' style situation. This gives the 'page-turner' feel because there's always some unresolved situation that haunts you during reading.
      - Don't worry about factual accuracy. Better yet, ignore accuracy altogether if it hampers the plot.
      - Make the two concurrent plots collide during the last chapter or two of the book and tidy up the situation entirely too neatly.

      It's not that either of the books is a bad read - I've read much worse... it's just the formulaic predictability that makes me want to stay away from anything else he might churn out :(
  • and I didn't like it much. The plot wasn't so bad but the technical aspects were kinda laughable and annoyingly repititive
  • It sounds like much of the book's tension hinges on the unbelievable damage that will be unleashed on the world if there exists a cipher that the NSA cannot crack on a whim. I think I'd have a hard time appreciating the book because I'd be rooting for the cipher to be released to the world. I simply don't agree that it's important that the US government be able to read everyone's mail, in fact I think it's important that people be able to keep secrets. Yeah, there are bad people who will do bad things, b

    • In reality, I'd be very, very surprised to learn that the NSA can break all or, frankly, any of the major ciphers that exist now.

      They can't. DES (56-bit) can be brute forced in a reasonable amount of time with specialized hardware; the EFF wrote a book on this. 64-bit encryption can be brute forced in a much longer time using distributed processing. 128-bit encryption, which is pretty standard for many apps, is many orders of magnitude larger than anything current computers can tackle.

      And if they tru
      • They can't.

        Probably not. Oh, I agree that they can't brute-force a 128-bit key, but brute force is not the only way to attack the problem. I do wonder if perhaps they can break AES. The selected cipher, Rijndael, was recommended by the NSA as their top choice, a decision that surprised a lot of the cryptologic community, since it was the candidate that had the narrowest security margin (in terms of gap between number of rounds known to be breakable and number of rounds used). Further, since the final

  • This book was really good, and any true Geek should enjoy it, as it's based on our favourite enemy (okay, second favouite, not including microsoft..), the NSA.

    Although I really enjoyed this book, I must say it was not up to par with the Da Vinci code, and there is a good reason, this was Dan Brown's FIRST book. For his first novel, it was excellent..

    And remember folks:

  • Why is David Becker being hunted down?

    Maybe someone's jealous of Posh Spice?
  • This book was to me very formulaic. It became apparent to me that Dan Brown, while he does produce some great stories, pretty much rehashes the same themes over and over. The extremely clever main character, the sinister secretive organization, the sexual undertones, conspiracy type theories, unexpected complex plot twists (the hes a good guy, oh no now hes a bad guy type, or is he? kind of thing). At times I almost feel he did a search and replace on the character's names and the "CIA" with all reference
  • Digital Fortress suffered from, as others noted, "idiot plots" in which the main characters have to think and act like idiots in order to propel the book along in order to create suspense. I find idiot plots highly annoying, because anyone with the purported intelligence of the main characters does the *stupidest* things or misses the *blatantly obvious* solutions to the problem. And I don't exactly consider myself genius material; we're talking on the order of "not interviewing primary witnesses to an ev
  • Not impressed (Score:2, Insightful)

    by JLSigman ( 699615 )
    I started to read Angels and Demons and found it laughable in it's giving away of things early and the actions of the hero. After the third, "He didn't know he'd use this knowledge several hours later" I gave up and canceled my hold on The daVince Code.
  • I read four of his books (Angels and Demons, Point Deception, DaVinci Code, and Digital Fortress) over a vacation about a month ago. I was pretty entertained by all of them. They are fast reads with pretty quick plotlines. They do definitely repeat the same basic plot structure. His writing kind of reminded me of Dean Koontz (repetitive plot structures/characters) After a couple of Koontz's books, I couldn't remember the difference between them. When I'm at the bookstore and can't find a new author, I'
  • I am constantly disappointed by how many people choose to read this kind of crap. I read DVC with my book club, and it was just plain bad. I don't even really have a problem with a nice, mindless read from time to time, but 400 pages of it? Dear god. And people go out of their way to read more than one of his books?

    If you've already read through all of the classics in Western literature, then by all means, read something by Dan Brown. I'm warning you now, you'll feel like you've wasted a few hours whe
  • If you have read any of his other work, don't waste the time on this one. It is the same plot as Angles & Demons and The DaVinci Code. Same character types (Liberal Arts Professor type and incredible hot 150+ IQ science chick). At least A&D and TDVC had interesting premises. I found the background information far more interesting than the plots though. (Did you know that you can be elected Pope if the college of cardinals all exclain your name as though inspired by God?)
  • Brain candy. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TexasDex ( 709519 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @07:09PM (#8333429) Homepage
    That's the only way I could describe the novel. I read the whole thing, cover to cover, in about five hours time, finishing at about 2AM. I couldn't put it down.

    I have a habit of reading books several times over, but I could not get through this book the second time. Once I was over the suspense and action I found that almost half the book was stupid, implausible, fictional, inaccurate, unbelieveable, and contrary to all logic. Example: A Google search for "Rotating Cleartext" [google.com] (which was one of the major parts of the supposedly unbreakable encryption) turned up exactly two results; both of them were about the book itself.

    The major failure, though, was the idea that a supercomputer--even a really really fast one--could crack an unknown algorithm by brute force. The idea of applying key guessing to a unknown encryption type is rediculous and impossible.

    If you tried it for a long enough time you could probably decode it into an entirely different message, for the same reason monkeys could produce the full works of Shakespeare. And then if you know the algorithm, key guessing by definition will always work, although it may take centuries (not hours, as the book claims). There are more technical inaccuracies [niu.edu] that I noticed and that others noticed (especially the final firewall scene). That said, the book was a fun read for a couple of hours, and I might have some fun later illustrating exactly where the book got it wrong (Answer: A lot of places).
  • "Insiders" (Score:4, Insightful)

    by annielaurie ( 257735 ) <annekmadison.hotmail@com> on Thursday February 19, 2004 @07:15PM (#8333512) Journal
    Dan Brown has that wonderful knack that some authors have of making one feel like an "insider" or privy to information that "outsiders" don't have. With "Da Vinci Code" we were part of the secrets of the Louvre, many ancient bits of occult religious lore, and that most intriguing of all Catholic institutions Opus Dei. In "Angels and Demons" (my preferred book of the three) we're in on the hidden treasures of the Vatican library and the Illuminati--source of centuries of speculation. With "Digital Fortress" he takes us inside the NSA.

    He also entertains us by piling thrill upon thrill, twist upon turn, surprise upon surprise. I thought he did the best job of this with "Angels and Demons," which I felt I had to put down occasionally just to catch my breath. I wasn't as captivated by "Da Vinci" because I was already familiar with the central suprise of the book, and it didn't shock me. With "Digital Fortress," I guessed the meaning of the pivotal code pages before any of the supposed cryptography geniuses, scientists, and other NSA gurus did. Since I don't regard myself as all that brilliant, my guess is that any educated reader would do the same.

    Still, I'll always follow an author who gives me that "inside track" feeling. Clancy was that way in several of his earlier novels, and I'll probably pick up anything new that Dan Brown has to offer.

  • I hated it. A fluffy piece of nonsense suitable for techie posers only. I got about halfway and I couldn't stand it anymore.
  • I read it. It stank. (Score:3, Informative)

    by KE1LR ( 206175 ) <ken.hooverNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday February 19, 2004 @07:38PM (#8333790) Homepage
    I read this book a few months ago, also backtracking through Dan Brown's works after reading the absolitely riveting "The DaVinci Code".

    It was interesting to read Code's immediate predecessor, called "Angels and Demons", because it was almost like a trial run of the plot for "Code". It had almost all of the same elements - the same symbology professor, the female tagalong who happens to be an expert at all the right things and at the same time ignorant of everything the main character knows so he can "educate" her (and the reader) about it, the rogue killer, a tour of the unseen reaches a historic venue, a trip into the secret laboratories of big science and a lot of preaching about how Christianity has been twisted by the Roman Catholic Church to ensure its own preservation. Not a bad book with some good stuff in it, but not as polished.

    Then I picked up "Digital Fortress". Hmm. Let's see:

    • Cryptic but incredibly important message from a dying keeper of a "Big Secret" transmitted in the prologue? Check.
    • Nerdy main character thrown rudely into a mad life or death scramble to prevent something Really Bad (tm) from happening? Check.
    • Female character who happens to be an expert at the right things at the right time but otherwise doesn't do much to help? Check.
    • Knowledgeable, respected person who seems to be a friend but really is an Adversary? Check.
    • Big mean killer? Check.
    • Distorted picture of How Things Really Are Done? Check. [ In this case the NSA stands in for the church... must have relized the Vatican was a better target after writing this book. ]
    Overall, very unsatisfying execution of a mildly interesting premise. Since all 3 of Dan Brown's books that I've read share the same basic plot, I'm done reading his stuff.

    Someone tell me if he has anything out that doesn't follow this formula. This is why I stopped reading Tom Clancy novels ages ago.

  • Angels and Demons was *MUCH* better than TDVC. Digital Fortress was lacking in actual technical knowledge.

    From reading TDVC, it was obvious that Dan Brown had just read "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" (published 20 years ago) and written a book around some of the ideas in it.
  • I didn't read the actual review because I believe that one line sums it up best, "I left feeling a bit disappointed when looking back on the overall picture." That is exactly how I felt reading Angels and Deamons (another of his books). He writes his books like he has a movie in mind and he is thinking ahead to movie rights, which is highly likely. However, like too many big budget movies, there seems to be no real heart to the story, just one thrill to the next and once the ride stops you don't have muc
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday February 19, 2004 @08:46PM (#8334498) Homepage Journal
    Basically, I'm too cheap to buy The DaVinci Code before it's in the remainder bin. So when I saw this paperback cheap in the airport book shop I thought I'd check out the author. There ought to be some medical term for the fear of being caught on an airplane without a book.

    In any case, wooohee! Was it ever a stinker. First of all, being a geek, I recognized when he got the cryptography wrong, which was practically on every page. He got this stuff so wrong that it was literally (I mean literally literally not figuratively literally) laugh out loud bad. OK maybe snicker out loud bad, but bad. Did I mention how not good the information in this book was? Neal Stephenson this guy ain't.

    The novel itself is your basic thriller, which means the plot has more twists than a toddler's slinky. It reminded me of a stock episode of Mission Impossible. Come to think of it the author does seem to owe quite a bit to old TV shows. He apparently learned the technique for increasing dramatic tension by watching old Star Trek episodes where the crew manages to abort the self-desruct sequence ... wait for it ... at the last second. There's lots of expository dialog where characters tell each other things they already know so the author can bring the readers "up to speed". I won't even go into how unbelievable the characters were. If I want adolescent fantasies, I'll stick to my own, thank you.

    The writing faults are, I suppose, largely first-book kind of missteps. But really if you are going to write a techno thriller, you need to do better research. Robin Cook, Michael Crichton and Neal Stephenson seem to manage. From the dedication, I take it that Mr. Brown's education in crypto issues was from a couple of "ex-NSA cryptographers", whose identity he does not know and whom he never met, but corresponded with through anonymous remailers. Riiight. Maybe his next work will be about Nigerians smuggling money out of the country with the help of people they met through e-mail.

    I suppose naivete is forgivable, but what's worse is that the author, after "informing" his readers on the technical aspects of cryptography, goes on to give an equally trenchant explanation of the politics of crypto ... did you know that EFF was a bunch of misguided do-gooders bent on putting us at the mercy of terrorists? It's bad because many people reading this book will form their ideas about issues of privacy issues and cryptographic technology based on the "information" and misguided opinions expressed in this book. This leaves me a bit conflicted, because this book was so bad I enjoyed it -- in a Plan Nine kind of way. So I got my money's worth in a way, but I really can't in good conscience recommend others to read it.

    That said, there are few places where the author demonstrates, despite being a lazy ignoramous, that he may actually have some writing talent. His description of the NSA's super-secret code breaking machine (I mean the physical, not the technical description) is memorable in the way that good authors, by an act like telepathy, put an image in your head. He compares the appearance of the machine to a killer whale rising out of the floor, but the image is, of course, appropriately phallic. So perhaps this guy's later books are better.

    There's certainly room for improvement.
  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 )
    I've read all of Dan Brown's books except Digital Fortress; I'll be sure to check it out. :P

    His writing style has drastically improved from Angels and Demons (at least in Deception Point, which I finished last night, er, this morning at 4am. :P He did a really good job with his character development and personality creation in DP, which I personally think were the biggest shortcomings in the first two books. Deception Point is certainly less egotistical as the first two books, as the main character (as des
  • My girlfriend has been reading his books, and as I am a giant geek and read everything, I read them. His other two were better-- the glaring holes were too big for me to suppress my "that's not the way it works" reflex.

    Never mind the fact that you can't "replace the code on the web" without also somehow magically replacing any version that's already downloaded... I about lost it laughing when the big computer exploded. Sure, maybe the cooling system could rupture and leak or something, maybe-- but he had
  • Have you ever TRIED to shoot while moving?

    Even if you're only walking, it's horribly difficult. A good shooter uses both hands when firing a handgun, because firing one-handed adds tremendous difficulty.

    Now imagine the target is moving (which has less effect on your aim than your own motion), you're holding the gun in one hand, and steering with the other. You're paying attention to the road so you don't die, and the gun isn't even lined up with your eyes so you're not aiming, you're guessing.

    I used to
  • I read Da Vinci Code, and I considered it an "ok" book. Fluffy, fast, but reasonably accurate, and I could tell he had done some research.

    I only knew this because I own and have read a lot of "occult" material - that is, I have plenty of books on Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Shroud of Turin, plus Roslin, Kabbalah, several books on Leonardo Da Vinci, etc. In short, this book could have been researched from my library, for the most part.

    So, I knew about all of this beforehand, and it makes for an interesting

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