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on June 26, 2004
I put the Da Vinci Code down after two chapters and said "Never again". This was a bad hangover promise and I then read Digital Fortress in entirety. This time I am keeping the hangover promise. No more Dan Brown for me.
Dan Brown isn't writing for software engineers, computer techs or anyone who has the most basic computing knowledge here. Don't rip him apart for this. He is writing at a level for a young teenage (possibly pre-teenage) market or someone who wants to read a book (any book) but doesn't want anything too demanding.
He has his market. This is obvious with sales achieved. Just don't expect anything good from him until he writes from the heart rather than the wallet. The last time I read anything as poorly structured and unbelievably trite throughout was a supposed literary offering by Jeffrey Archer (British author, convicted criminal and complete arse).
Here's a thought... Almost everyone with a TV in the US (or even the world) has caught an episode of CSI. If you haven't... This TV show follows the activities of the forensic department of the Las Vegas police. In each episode one forensic expert will explain to another forensic expert, in great detail, what they have discovered even when the second expert has witnessed the procedures which have lead to the scientific conclusion of the first expert. You would hope that both experts would know what/how etc and may get a little ticked off when their colleague is telling them what they already know. They 'hmm' and nod... and on to the next scene. This is how Digital Fortress works. It's a TV plot for a show about experts but with an ignorant/inexperienced audience in need of education. So Mr Brown employs the CSI device of "expert telling expert what they already know" and letting the reader/viewer listen in. It's bloody annoying in CSI and it's a badly used and abused device in Digital Fortress. Even worse when the audience knows the information is flawed or downright incorrect.
I rarely regret reading a book of any sort but this left me shaking my head in disbelief. How did this drivel sell so many copies?
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on June 22, 2004
I always try to give an author more than one chance. After wasting a few hours of my life on "The Da Vinci Code," hours I'll never get back, I had almost decided not to bother. As usual, first instincts are best followed.
For some reason, Brown seems to think that reciting facts about his characters constitutes character development. As a result, all of his characters are one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. The reader will be unable to identify with any of the characters and at the end of the story we don't really care what happens to them. The dialog is at best stilted, at worst insipid. Add a weak plot (I had it figured out by the end of the third chapter or so) and a contrived ending and you come up with another complete waste of time.
Further complicating matters is Brown's psuedo-factual style. As in "Da Vinci," he cites events that did not happen and conditions that did not exist as factual. His attempts to elevate populist mythology to the level of actuality fail miserably. He can't seem to decide whether he is going to write purely escapist fiction grounded in a factual if somewhat far-fetched base (e.g. Ian Fleming) or whether he is going to write explorations of what-if scenarios based on real-world situations (e.g. John LeCarre or Tom Clancy). The result is a muddy hodge-podge that defies even the most dedicated attempts at suspension of disbelief. You don't have to be a supercomputer or cryptography nerd to realize that Brown's suppositions on NSA and their attempts at uber-machines for code-breaking are pure bunk. For those with some familiarity in the field, the story and its fallacies are merely annoying.
I will now be able to safely skip whatever else Dan Brown and his publisher decide to subject upon us.
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on May 25, 2004
This is only my opinion, but I have trouble calling this a thriller. It certainly is no longer cutting edge (published in 1998), but that's not the author's fault. The rest of it is. For the first 200 pages, the action moves forward with all the speed of a dead horse. You aren't sure what the point is, and you don't care. What the action lacks in thrills, it makes up for in melodrama. There was one endless scene where the pretty heroine-crytographer is pulled back and forth between two men that is reminiscent of that old silent serial (Perils of Pauline? for you movie history buffs). The dialogue is ghastly and the description is nonsensical. His jet black eyes were like coal? She was conservatively dressed in plaid pants? What was the author thinking? There is a whole lot of disgusting stuff we don't need to know, like a detailed description of the hero's several visits to a filthy public restroom. Finally, if a character is speaking a language other than English, the author should be sure to get it right. I can't tell you about the Spanish, but the German was pretty bad. I'm not paying full price for the DaVinci Code after this.
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on May 24, 2004
I found this book to be well researched, but it was like decorating an abandoned house with fine artwork. Every turn of the page had this combination of exquisite details hanging on the story structure of a harliquin romace. The heroine is supposed to be smart, strong, and beautiful - and yet she is also weak willed, sits at her computer for hours mooning over her boyfriend. She is the leader of a think tank, but cant effectively handle male sexual harrassment with anything other than ineffectual bad humor. She whines, she ignores the obvious clues to problems, and gets pulled along on an adventure that hinges on the very intellegence of her oh-so-convienently intellegent in just the right way handsome boyfriend.
Mr. Brown is so focused on her beauty, in fact, that he includes erronious details that have no effect on showing her as an intellegent being at all. He describes her dress, for example: her shirt is white and see through. She wears high heals in one chapter for emphasis on the look of her legs, and suddenly flats when its convienent for her to run. When she is attacked, its not as a threat to her life, but implies a rape waitng to happen aka: skirt bunched up arround her hips, or the wet t-shirt contest he forces upon her by the steam in the belly of the about to explode machine. He forces you to look at her as a sexualized creature, only incidentally indicating she is intellegent, but never actually allowing you to SEE this supposed intellegence. She is a facade.
Mr. Browns work research is extremely well done, but I came to his works to read a story, not a harlequin romance. If he intends to write more stories about 'strong' heroines, he needs to learn more about how women, and relationships, work before hanging such a masterpiece of research on such a shoddy structure of a storyline. I do not reccomend reading this.
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on May 2, 2004
I'm struggling for adjectives to describe what a wreck this book is. The plot is transparent, the technical facts are repeatedly, stupefyingly wrong, and it's written at a level that's surpassed by most schlock romance novels.
It's bad enough that the author confuses the number of characters in a string with the number of bits of information that string holds (clue: an ASCII character has 8 bits of information, not 1!), but he does so repeatedly and makes it an important part of the story.
The central plot point is that a cryptographer has invented a new encryption scheme, and has used the only implementation to encrypt...the only implementation. The NSA is trying brute force key searching (guessing all possible keys) to find the decryption key, so that they can decrypt the program and learn how it works. Brute force key searching is only valuable if you already know the encryption algorithm. Ergo, the key is worthless to them because even with it, they couldn't decrypt the secret because they didn't have an implementation of the algorithm (or even know what it was). A classic, and unsolvable, chicken and egg problem.
I could go on, but I'll just say if you want to read something that won't insult your intelligence, look for something by Neal Stephenson (_Cryptonomicon_ is excellent).
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on April 23, 2004
Being a Computer Science Major, I usually stay away from technothrillers, but having reading Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, I was optimistic. Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. While Dan Brown's other books may be well researched, this one was not. The numerous technical mistakes, impossible programs, and bad jargon forced me to forget everything i had ever learned about computers just to continue to the next page. The characters flat and one dimensional: the fiercely independent hacker, the loyal workaholic, the innocent professor, the list goes on and on. Further, to force the already shaky plot forward, Brown relies on a seemingly miraculous series of well intentioned, but otherwise stupid individuals. Finally, Brown's thesis for the novel seems to center on the innate good of the NSA and their ability to spy on the communications of every person in this country. He constantly derides the EFF as a bunch of crazy liberal hackers, who are hoplessly naive.
Overall, I believe this book has soured me on all of Dan Brown's work. He's lost a reader here.
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on April 20, 2004
I would call this novel an interesting, easy read if not for its plot holes and many factual inaccuracies.
The main plot relies on the idea of an unbreakable code, the Digital Fortress. Unfortunately the idea is nonsense -- their 'rotating cleartext' would ensure only that the message couldn't be read. The government's supercomputer could break a code with a 256-character key in 12 minutes, but were able to break a code with a 1-million bit key after only 3 hours... Even if a supercomputer could break a code as complex as the first in 12 minutes, the second would take many lifetimes of the universe to crack.
Similarly, if the virus code had a 256-character key, no one trained in cryptology would allow the supercomputer to run for hours on end, since once it failed to recognize plaintext the first pass through, it would simply fail.
Despite the fact that the main characters were cryptologists working at the top secret NSA, typical cinematic-style passwords are used frequently - thee major codes are as short as 1-5 characters!
Let's not even get so far as to consider the implausibility of a virus in an encrypted message (since the data is treated as data, not an executable). That's too much to expect of a novelist, right... even if the book is "the most realistic techno-thriller" as quoted on the back cover?
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Digital Fortress" hints at being a thinking man's technothriller - using codes and human intuition instead of fighter jets and nu-cue-ler subs. Instead, it's full of implausible characters and uninspired plot twists, and worst of all, it never stops reminding you how smart it thinks it is.
THE PLOT: a disgruntled/now dead programmer has created a seemingly unbreakable code: "Digital Fortress", setting off a fierce hunt for its code key. While the key to DF is distributed on the internet, it's encrypted by the DF. Whoever unlocks the code will have access to the ultimate protection against decryption. Hostile governments, organized criminals or terrorists will be able to communicate freely over the internet completely immune to detection. Fearing this, the NSA (the US agency responsible for signals analysis and cracking codes) sends free-lance genius Dave Becker to Seville, where the programmer died. Strathmore, the NSA's head code breaker hopes that DF's creator left some clue to the code key behind. Unfortunately, Becker isn't alone on his hunt...
Meanwhile, back at the NSA's high-tech HQ, Susan Fletcher, our hero's brilliant and sexy NSA genius of a girlfriend, tries picking up the mystery from her end of the Atlantic, where TRNSLTR, Strathmore's newest codebreaking supercomputer, is busy melting itself down trying to crack DF. Unfortunately, it looks like somebody is after Susan's as well - from the inside - and we get the hint that she shouldn't feel as safe as she does when Strathmore is around. Back in Spain, Becker quickly learns that DF's creator had worn a ring when he died - but it's missing. Quickly guessing that inscriptions on the ring say more than "one ring to rule them all", our hero tracks it across Spain, learning how quickly it moves from owner to owner. Unfortunately, whoever owns the ring (even briefly) is marked for death by a mysterious assassin - a deaf killer who never misses, and catalogs his kills on a Palm Pilot.
HOWEVER: This novel was horrible at just about every level, lacking in style or substance. It's not only strikingly unintelligent, but strikingly arch. To read "Fortress", you'd think Brown learned more about cryptography and the NSA than most people cared to hear about, and thus crafted a novel based on his "insider" info about cryptography. (Brown's story heavily relies on a perceived ignorance of what the NSA stands for - an agency, he writes, that only a small percentage of Americans understand. Rather than showing that Brown is a writer who has learnt what most us can't, "Digital Fortress" proves that Brown focuses on remote subjects not likely to have a large number of experts who can effectively challenge his pretensions of realism.) Actually, I learned more about cryptography while writing a paper about the Walker Family Spy Ring in high school, and most will probably learn more about the NSA watching "Sneakers" or "Good Will Hunting". How do you like them apples?) Instead of intelligent clues, Brown's story builds on arcane trivia (the etymology of the word "sincere", certain technical details distinguishing the different a-bombs used against Japan). I was able to piece together some of Brown's clues, not because I'm smarter than most, but simply because I watch a lot of the History channel.
Getting past the "thrill" and "techno" aspects of the story, what's left is thin - Brown's ring-plot provides an excuse to send our hero across Seville, hunting the ring, making this less of a novel of any genre than a college-writing version of "Where I Went Last Summer" (complete with Spanish dialog repeated in English).
Brown's thin story is plumped, not with some redeeming characters of depth and intelligent plot turns, but with unbelievably stupid characters and unbelievable plot twists. Our hero is no action hero (he stays in shape playing racquetball), yet he manages to elude the hitman who has carved a path of precision-guided death across Seville. Susan is beautiful and brilliant - though Brown never leaves us doubting as to which half matters more (Susan is probably the least independent, most vulnerable, unintelligent and otherwise dated female character I've seen in any technothriller; even her smarts are just a convenient device to explain why she's working with the NSA.) Strathmore is supposed to be a cryptographer par excellence, yet he defies belief - he's so obsessed with DF that he rams it into his priceless super-codebreaking computer, bypassing security checks meant to protect it from viruses. He does this despite knowing that DF is obviously more than it appears (its code for heaven's sake!!). There's another NSA co-worker, a guy who's supposed to set off our alarm bells, but it's obvious that Brown only means him to distract us from Strathmore since Brown couldn't be bothered to come up with more characters. Like Strathmore, the rest of the denizens of NSA headquarters are so dim, it's inconceivable that they'd be trusted to run a third rate ISP, let alone the most sophisticated code-breaking computer in the world. (Typical for low-grade technothrillers, Brown is so obsessed credentialing his characters as geniuses, he devotes little time to writing them even slightly smart. They're stellar when it facing Brown's artificial plot challenges, but in common sense terms, Beavis and Butthead would eat these guys for lunch).
By the climax, I couldn't care whether the NSA would be destroyed by the killer code, mostly because the author had by then changed from telling a story to giving a pitch for some splashy action movie, making the novel's Hollywood aspirations annoyingly clear. In short, storm some other fortress.
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on April 16, 2004
Unbelievable, check. Inaccurate, sure. But the part that makes this novel really terrible is that it's an absolute model of "bad fiction." Contrived, predictable, cliche, and at many times, downright cheesy, the only good thing about DF is that it's a fast read and the therefore the pain is relatively quick.
Here are some questions, and these don't even include the techno-geek inaccuracies, which, not being a software engineer, I didn't catch right away:
If the kid lives in Spain, and is a regular at the club, how does he fail to realize that 100 pesetas is about 87 cents?
Why, when the lights went out in Crypto, could Susan see perfectly sometimes, but other times stumble around like it really was perfectly dark?
Is Susan a mathematician, computer scientist or both? Are math-minded codebreakers computer savvy enough to write their own complex programs like the tracer?
Would a punk teenage use a word like "weekending"?
Did the scene where David asks Susan to marry him from the van in Seville make anyone else throw their book across the room?
The best thing about this novel is that it gives hope to every other aspiring novelist in the world. If this can get published, what can't???
Just skip this one. The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons are way better.
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on April 13, 2004
The other reviewers have hit it on the nail - this book is not worth the paper it's printed on! I see that several reviewers have pointed to glaring mistakes in the computer front of this book, let me say that ALL the Japanese items in the book are COMPLETELY inaccurate and nonsensical! Prime example, in one scene he has the CEO of a Japanese company praying to the "shichigosan", explaining that it is the 7 gods of good fortune. Well, I laughed out loud when I read that, because "shichigosan" is the Japanese kids festival that is celebrated when kids are 7,5 and 3 (i.e. 7 in Japanese is shichi, 5=go, you get the point). What he meant was "shichifukujin" the 7 gods of good fortune. A tiny bit of research could have easily avoided those horrible pitfalls. Other than these faux pas, the story is staid, characters boring, ending predictable. I had actually read the Davinci Code first, which I enjoyed (but not as much as all the reviewers hyped it up to be) but was completely disappointed with this book. I his publisher reads these reviews and edits the book properly!
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