Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Review of Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Most people know Dan Brown as the author of the international hit The Da Vinci Code, a novel that has sold more than 40 million copies and spent nearly three years on the New York Times Bestseller list. However, as you might expect, that wasn't just beginner's luck. In fact, even though most people probably hadn't heard of Dan Brown before 2003, the truth of the matter is that he had written three novels prior to that: Digital Fortress, Deception Point, and Angels & Demons.

Like the 40 million other people who helped make Dan Brown a household name, I devoured The Da Vinci Code in record time and I loved it. So I was really looking forward to getting acquainted with Brown's other works. I started with Digital Fortress because that's what my library had at the time.

Digital Fortress starts off excitingly enough. We begin in Seville, Spain where a Japanese man is dying in a very public park. He is trying to get his last words out before he expires, but can't manage anything intelligible. We learn later on, however, that he was able to pass along a seemingly innocuous gold ring to a bystander.

Next, Brown shifts the setting back to the U.S. where we meet the two protagonists. One is Susan Fletcher, a beautiful cryptographer working at the NSA, and the other is her fiance, David Becker, who is a very popular linguistics professor at Georgetown University. Brown spends a bit of time here introducing the characters and letting readers get to know them before launching into the main action of the book. Before we know it, David gets a phone call from Susan's boss, Trevor Strathmore, asking him to go to Spain immediately to try to locate the Japanese man's ring. Meanwhile, Susan goes to NSA headquarters where she learns of the possible existence of an "unbreakable" encryption called Digital Fortress. This is dire news indeed, because if something like Digital Fortress actually did exist, it would be a huge threat to national security.

Soon, David and Susan will become embroiled in adventures and situations that put their very lives at risk. David learns that finding the ring is no small task, since no one seems to remember who the Japanese man actually gave it to, but Strathmore won't allow him to come home without it. He starts tracking down leads and is soon being chased all over Seville by an assassin who is equally interested in finding the ring. Meanwhile, Susan learns that the Japanese man, Ensei Tankado, had an accomplice, and that accomplice might very well be one of her colleagues at the NSA. She starts to unravel Tankado's mystery, but the closer she gets to the truth, the more endangered her life becomes.

On the whole, there were quite a few things I liked about the book. First, Brown keeps up a fast pace and there are action-packed scenes throughout. This is what The Da Vinci Code was like, and is one of the things that makes Brown so readable. Second, I liked the premise of the story. It was very intriguing and had me interested right from the beginning. The combination of codes, codebreakers, supercomputers, computer viruses, and potential national security risks sounds like it could definitely make for an excellent plotline in a thriller or suspense novel. And third, the two main characters of Susan and David were rather likable. This is of course a critical aspect to any book. I don't know about you, but I can't read very far into a novel if the main character is wholly insufferable and unsympathetic in any way.

Despite these positive aspects of Digital Fortress, however, there were quite a few things that put me off the book as well. For instance, there were numerous factual and conceptual errors throughout the text. I've never been to Spain, but I've read other published reviews that say Brown's descriptions of the city, its people, and their customs are way off base. In fact, the criticisms are so harsh that they make me believe Brown wrote about Seville without actually having been there and without having done much research into the area. These kinds of errors and omissions are rather unforgivable in this day and age.

Another thing I've heard is that practically none of the computer stuff that Brown talks about is even in the ballpark of being accurate. Apparently, IT professionals and other computer whizzes have torn Brown's plot to shreds and have pointed out lots of details that simply don't make sense. Again, since the basic premise of the book involved computers and their capabilities, I find that the major errors and omissions regarding these topics are unforgivable as well.

Although I don't know the publishing history of Digital Fortress, from what I understand, the book was first available in electronic format. Then, once Brown started experiencing major success with The Da Vinci Code, either he or his publishers jumped at the chance of getting his older works back into circulation. Because of the extensive criticism (some might call it nitpicking), I am left to wonder if Brown wishes he could have consulted with a computer systems expert prior to re-releasing the book. I'm sure many of his readers wish he could have.

Overall, I have to say that I found the book to be ok. I didn't love it, nor did I totally despise it. It's not something that I would go out of my way to recommend to a friend, but at the same time, I wouldn't dissuade a friend from reading it if she or he already had a copy of the book. Since I don't know much about computers, Brown's mistakes didn't jump out at me and prevent me from enjoying the book. And the same thing is true about the Seville parts. I've never been to Spain, so I would have had no way of knowing on my own whether Brown's descriptions were accurate or not. Since I didn't read the criticisms of the book until after I had completed it, they didn't color my opinion one way or the other while I was reading.

I have to admit that if I hadn't read any criticisms after completing Digital Fortress, I probably would have given it a much stronger recommendation. But I find it to be a total copout on Brown's part to try to fudge his way through some of the details. It seems like he's counting on his readers not to notice or care, and that just makes me like the work a little less than I would have otherwise. So take this into consideration, then decide for yourself if you want to read Digital Fortress or not.

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