|Digital Fortress: A Thriller|
|publisher||Griffin Trade Paperback|
|rating||7 out of 10|
|summary||An excellent, if slightly flawed, exploration into the world of government cryptography and those who try to defeat it|
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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