The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Friday, 28 May 2004]

Review: Digital Fortress

The Da Vinci Code has been getting a lot of good word of mouth, and it is high on The Core Dump Reading List, but alas the greedy publishers will apparently not release it in paperback until the Sun turns into a dark and stubbly ball of coal, so Digital Fortress became a stand-in. (It doesn’t make economical sense to buy a title in hardcover instead of waiting a little bit and spending the same amount of money on three paperbacks.)

Unfortunately, Digital Fortress is very much Tom Clancy with a hangover, and also suffers from utterly cringe-worthy technobabble. The basic plot is that the NSA has built an über-mega-super computer that can brute force encryptions. The existence of this machine is of course top-secret, since the Bad People of the world are happily sending encrypted emails back and forth, which the NSA can then decrypt and use to Stop Evil.

But a twisted super-hacker has come up with a form of encryption that can not be brute-forced. The goal of this super-hacker is to release his encryption formula and thus stymie the NSA, bringing safely encrypted communications to the masses. So far so good.

The code required to break this super-secret encryption is engraved on a ring, which becomes the story’s McGuffin. Facing this incredible threat, the NSA of course sends a college professor who occasionally contracts to do translations for them to retrieve the ring. Because why would you send one of your crack teams to deal with a threat like that?

It should be noted here that perhaps the NSA did have some reason to send Captain Unprepared, but that must have been explained toward the end of the book, where this reader never got. Digital Fortress turned unbearable way too early to get through.

Two things turned me off to Digital Fortress: 1) The plot, while very tightly paced, is very thin and littered with million-to-one odds that always go the protagonist’s way, and the motivations of the characters plain don’t work; and 2) The aforementioned technobabble. Apparently the NSA has built this super machine, but are completely paranoid about it catching a virus. So, hmm, it runs Windows, then? Didn’t know Windows scaled to 30,000 processors. Plus, you’re running an algorithm on data, not executing the data, so how could you catch a virus? But apparently the threat of Netsky.B is keeping the NSA up at night. Sigh.

It makes you wonder if publishing companies have absolutely nobody who knows how to turn on a computer around to run these sorts of things by?

Apart from the technobabble, Digital Fortress feels like the work of a writer who is still learning his craft, and it’s probably a more than fair bet that this particular novel was actually rejected but then retrieved from the circular file and rushed to print in order to capitalize on the wild success of The Da Vinci Code. Which really doesn’t do a service to readers or to Dan Brown himself, except to fatten his bank account a bit.

Nevertheless, still waiting for The Da Vinci Code.

Music: “Minors” by Voodoo Child [Opens in iTunes]

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