Customer Reviews: Digital Fortress: A Thriller
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on December 30, 2004
First off, I loved A & D and liked DVC. Second, I am a computer programmer with experience in cryptography. So this book really hurt me.

This book is painful to read. Most of the facts, much of which are crucial to the plot, are just flat out wrong. Dan Brown does not know very much about computers, cryptography, guns, or intelligence work, and it shows. His research was pathetic. This alone will turn off many technically-savvy folks.

Aside from that, the plot, while containing a few surprises, has very predictable twists, and any intelligent person could chart out the whole plot after about 30 pages. Even still, the pacing makes for interest, until the end. The climax was one of the worst I have ever read in any techno-thriller novel, and that is saying a lot considering how crowded this field became after Tom Clancy made it big. At best, only a cheesy early 80s movie would try to bring the final scene to celluloid (think "Wargames", but dumber). It's like a comic book.

If the gentle reader of this review is really interested in a good techno-thriller involving computers and cryptography, read "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson. He is a real live programmer and cryptographer, and also a fine writer.
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on August 10, 2004
I would give this book 0 stars if the system allowed. It is that bad. Had I read this book first, I would never have read the rest of Dan Brown's books. I enjoyed "The DaVinci Code" although it too was filled with many historical errors that were easily overlooked and did not distract from the story, this book was just poorly researched and written. From the undeveloped main characters to the thin plot line, this book became one that I put down often as it was unable to hold my attention for any length of time. I found myself (my spouse did the same when she read it) skimming over the text looking for something that was just not there. The last 20 pages or so were just a blur of indescribable babble.

Without giving away any of the plot, if there is one, let me throw out some of the really bad things that made my grey matter quiver. First, two really intelligent main characters (she with a 170 IQ) who couldn't find their place in the story. If this were a movie, people in the audience would be yelling at the screen "Look out, the killer is right behind you!" The setting - Fritz Lang meets Dr. Strangelove. I really hate it when an author tries to bend truth to make the story work. For example, when the power goes out in the Crypto center there doesn't seem to be any sort of emergency lighting installed. Well duh my author, did you ever see those little battery boxes with lights on them over every exit door? They are required by law in every building constructed since Sherman redid Atlanta. Foreign Nationals with a known history of hateing the USA, working, evidently without supervision, in a top secret 'Umbra' installation. A sprinkler system protecting a billion dollar computer system? Hope those weren't government plumbers who did that installation. Burning computer chips that give off oxygen? Did my science teacher have that wrong 50 years ago? A fire so hot it melts steel but leaves the female lead unharmed? I haven't seen attempts at plot twists this bad since those old movie serials back in the 1940's and 50's.

Sorry Mr. Brown, I would have to say that if there is an ultimate code in this book, it is the one between authors and professional reviewers who give any book put in front of them a "wow factor" and claim the author to be the new Tom Clancy. I should have taken a clue from the first review in the paperback, written by David Pogue, "..._and if Dan Brown's gut-churning story were any realer,..." What the heck is 'realer' anyway?

Pass this one up. Don't waste your money. Save a tree or something. Wait for the next Clancy or Cussler.

Ron Rutherford
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on November 11, 2004
Wow, where to begin. This is the second Dan Brown book I've read and I'm guessing it'll likely be the last. To begin, if you plan on reading this book, forget suspending your disbelief, rather tie up your disbelief, take it out back and shoot it lest it resurface while you're reading the book.

Yes, this book contains an impressive amount of plot holes, factual errors, non-existent technology, etc. The NSA (which is in fact bigger than the CIA and the FBI) is portrayed as an organization with no more than perhaps 20 employees, none of whom come in on weekends. Employees with 170 IQs who act as if they had a 70 IQ. 12 gauge printer cable? The NSA has full-time employees that work as translators -- they don't hire temp college professors to read Chinese/Japanese. Programmers/mathematicians DO NOT MAKE an exorbitant amount of money working for the NSA -- they are still subject to the federal payscale. X-eleven, not 'X11'? Brute force code-breaking as the primary decryption method????? VSLI, not VLSI??? Tracer programs which don't have to be executed, but act on their own? Ugh.

I can overlook these things if they appeared in a well written, taut storyline. In his defense, Dan Brown doesn't include a preface to this book espousing the accuracy of the books' general facts as he does in the prefaces for Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. So you have to take it as FICTION and not non-fiction. He does claim to have corresponded with former NSA employees during his research for this book. Having a bit of experience in the industry, I would say that either Dan Brown had no such correspondences with former NSA employees, they fed him misinformation deliberately, or Dan Brown was informed the basis of his entire book was nonsensical by these former employees, so he decided to throw all their suggestions in the trash and continued to write this book anyhow.

Regardless, the ultimate downfall of this book is BAD WRITING. The characters are flat and annoying. Their actions are contradictory to their personalities -- for no other purpose than to move the 'plot' along. I think Dan Brown has a Word-a-Day calendar and he uses that new vocabulary word several times in the 10-15 pages of writing he produces that day. Words such as 'andalusian' are used several times in a 3 'chapter' span and then never again surface throughout the book.

Most frustratingly, Dan Brown apparently never learned similes are functional and get the point across, but should not be used often as they can be extremely annoying and counterproductive to getting a point across. Towards the end of the book all these sentences are seriously used in less than 2 full pages:
- "The commander rose through the trap door LIKE Lazarus back from the dead."
- "Freon was flowing downward through the smoldering TRANSLTR LIKE oxygenated blood."
- "Susan was standing before him, damp and tousled, in his blazer. She looked LIKE a freshman coed who'd been caught in the rain. He felt LIKE the senior who'd lent her his varsity sweater." [nice double simile, huh?]
- "Her gaze was LIKE ice -- the softness was gone. Susan Fletcher stood rigid LIKE an immovable statue." [another one] "The puddle of blood beneath Hale's body had spread across the carpet LIKE an oil spill."

Believe it or not, there are more in this 2 page space, but I'll stop here. Yes, the writing is THAT groan-inducingly bad. These two classics in the book make me laugh every time I think of them -- "Like in a cheap hollywood movie, the lights went out in the bathroom just as she heard the scream," and "any more interesting than last night and I'll never walk again."

Ultimately, I did finish the book -- one reason I gave it 2 stars instead of one. A small reason was because I hate leaving a book half read, but I finished it more so to see how much more ludicrous the book would become. There's a good premise in the book, but a better writer was needed to coax it out. Dan Brown is not that writer.
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on June 14, 2005
I sure hope that the technological errors in Digital Fortress are not a reflection of Dan Brown's research abilities. Some of the errors were so glaring that I wanted to throw the book out the window. But I'm used to seeing similar problems in movies, so I thought I'd go along for the ride. But here are some of the biggest blunders:

1. The NSA commander wants to patch some encryption code with a backdoor and replace the version on the web with his own. This won't work because no one in security trusts code that doesn't match a hash from the original author. This is how code is authenticated. Is standard practice. His patch would cause the hash to fail. Also, everyone else who really wanted the encryption code already downloaded the original version - just like the commander did. They aren't going to get a new one. What BS!

2. A $2B computer designed to crack codes would have separate code and data spaces in memory. It would be impossible for an encrypted communication to infect the host with a "virus" or "worm" because the communication would only be in the data memory space. Just because Microsoft doesn't use secure systems architecture doesn't mean the NSA wouldn't! More BS!

3. No one hand-solders CPUs even if they are in a $2B computer... And especially if there are 3 million of them! It's called "wave soldering"... Brown obviously connects hand-soldering with extreme technical know-how because he later has the head computer geek hand-soldering a chip inside a running mainframe. Can you say BS!

4. When a computer overheats, the temperature tolerance of the CPU may be exceeded by a few degrees, especially in highly sensitive, high-performance equipment. Silicon, by it's nature, changes in resistance dramatically when the temperature exceeds operational parameters. If it gets too hot, the circuits slow down. There's no way a "virus" or a "worm" could cause anything other than a system shutdown due to temperature variations - and a really sensitive system would automatically shutdown when the temperate range was exceeded by a few degrees. There's no way in heck the system would continue to run until it reached a temperature where the silicon would explode! Come on - I thought Brown did at least some research.

If anything, these errors make me think that Lewis Perdue actually did Brown's research for Da Vinci Code - but not willingly...
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Ok- first off... I really did enjoy this book. However, now that I have all 4 of Brown's novels, I have noticed a certain formula that Dan Brown uses.

1- Use the word "Incredulous" as often as possible (although he kept the word to a minimum in "Digital Fortress" less than 10 occurrences).
2- The bad guy MUST be known by a term/phrase instead of a name (here he is known as "North Dakota").
3- The bad guy is double crossing the good guys... and you are NOT supposed to suspect this.

4- The novel must take place in the course of one day.
5- Your hero must wake-up and not have a clue that he will spend his entire day many miles away from home, while being chased by bad guys.
6- All good guys must be experts at something very arcane.
7- The ending must be weak.

If you follow these steps you too can write a Dan Brown novel. ORRRR you can use this formula to figure out the book you are currently reading after about 100 pages.

Of course, tweaks the formula for each of his books. However, "Digital Fortress" is clearly the little brother of all Brown's books. The plot is interesting and while the it certainly is a "Page Turner" you notice pretty quickly that everything doesn't quite add up. Like when the deaf guy notices all of the people entering the street because he HEARS a bell being rung.

As others have pointed out, Brown has taken quite a few liberties with computer programming. Even though it took me two tries to get through FORTRAN, I had very little trouble figuring out a few of the mistakes.

For the most part I enjoyed the novel. Since I know the Brown "Formula" it didn't take me very long to predict EXACTLY what would happen... but hey, sometimes a little predictability is ok!
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on November 25, 2004
Forget about the fact that the author knows nothing about computers, programming or cryptography. This is often the case in popular literature. What makes the book really droll is its ineptitude in addressing much more basic issues, such as:

The author believes Spain is a backwards country. The swipes at Spain provide some of the most enterteining bits in the book. Here are just two of the many: "Getting an international connection from Spain was like roulette, all a matter of timing and luck". And "A punctured lung was fatal, maybe not in more medically advanced parts of the world, but in Spain, it was fatal."

The author believes oxygen is released during combustion: "She sensed [the fire] rising faster and faster, feeding on the oxygen released by the burning [computer] chips."

Basic confusion about measurments is obvious in the description of a 'vast' underground facility: "Susan stared as the dazzling facility. She vaguely remembered that 250 metric tons of earth had been excavated to create it." This would correspond to less than a 5x10x5 meters hole. Was the NSA headquarters located in somebody's basement?

But funnier still is the clumsy writing:

Brown is tone-deaf when it comes to the musicality of the language. A collision is described as a "bone-crushing crash".

Hackers breaking into a system elicit one of the many inane similes employed by Brown: "Jabba spun toward the [monitor]. Two thin lines had appeared outside the concentric circles. They looked like sperm trying to breach a reluctant egg."

The main character makes a toe-curling reference to a night of passionate love, to her fiancee: "Susan smiled coyly. 'Any more interesting than last night and I'll never walk again.'"

In the middle of a chase scene Becker runs into the Seville cathedral. A brief description of the cathedral is given, which seems lifted from a local travel brochure, ending in the delicious "To the left and right of the altar, the transept of the cross houses confessionals, sacred tombs, and additional seating." Additional seating!

My real questions are how can such garbage get published, and who is Nelson DeMille who proclaims, on the cover, Dan Brown to be 'pure genius' and 'the most accomplished writer in the country'. What country? Spain, perhaps?
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I doubt this will be a popular review, but I feel obliged to tell it like I see it...or read it, in this case - and "Digital Fortress" is a waste of time! I have now read all of Dan Brown's books and am a big fan. Brown tackles unusual subjects, conducts impeccable research on his topics and writes fabulous suspense thrillers, with the exception of this one. His characters are cardboard, totally without depth. The plot could have been believable but it is not written in a credible or logical manner. The action is chaotic - and there is too much action and too little substance here.
The National Security Agency, (NSA), has a top secret, totally invincible code-breaking machine called TRANSLTR, especially effective against advanced electronic terrorism. A disgruntled ex-NSA employee, Ensei Tankado, is a genius computer programmer and author of encryption algorithms. He has written a program that creates unbreakable codes and is using this program to blackmail NSA. Tankado wants a public disclosure of TRANSLTR. This multibillion dollar wonder machine that supports the CIA, FBI, DEA, IRS, etc., and traces & monitors drug cartel shipments, corporate money transfers and terrorists chatter on the Internet, also grossly violates human rights. It is able to open and read everyone's email and reseal it without public knowledge. The US government has the capability, with TRANSLTR, of violating the privacy of computer users around the world. And Tankado is sworn to protect the peoples' right to privacy. Sounds like a terrific plot, right? That's why I bought the book.
Enter Susan Fletcher, the beautiful, talented, brilliant NSA cryptologist and mathematician who steps in to investigate the unbreakable code that threatens to render TRANSLTR useless. What she uncovers should be shocking and terrifying, but it isn't. It's blatantly unbelievable. The theory is realistic, but the people who take action, and their different rationales, are totally ludicrous. How could people like this be in charge of national security? I could understand a bad apple, or even two - but there are just too many wackos populating this novel, and all with mega-responsibility. It would be horrifying if there were a secret code that would cripple US intelligence systems. But Brown tampered too much with a potentially great plot. He has Susan's boss, Commander Strathmore, deputy director of NSA's CRYPTO facility, send Susan's fiance to Spain on a Top Secret errand...and the fiance doesn't even work for NSA! He's a foreign language professor! Apparently Strathmore has his own agenda, which is ridiculous and totally weakens the storyline. There is unnecessary globetrotting, too many needless murders, silly dialogue, uncalled for disasters, etc., etc. If Dan Brown were not the author, I would have closed the book before the halfway mark. I kept waiting for the author to make some sense out of all the malarkey.
There is so much potential here for a super suspense techno-thriller. And the issue of where to draw the line between national security and personal freedom is a wonderful one to explore. Unfortunately the novel contains too many special effects, unbelievable subplots and flat characters...and all the above mentioned needless action. The fascinating information about real life technologies, cryptography and the battle for privacy in cyberspace is lost in the mega-murders and catastrophes that plague this novel. If you are intrigued by the subject matter, then by all means read the book, and you may even enjoy it. It seems that other reviewers have. I don't often award 1 Star, but I really believe that that's all this novel deserves. I find Dan Brown's other books to be excellent - across the board.
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on August 7, 2004
I quite enjoyed reading Dan Brown's Da Vinci code. I found the whole cryptography/art history/chatolic church them quite fascinating. But at the same time I felt my qualms about the the lack of development of characters and the unimaginative plot where overrun by the sheer volume of interesting data that was being used in the story.

I decided to check out the author's previous works, Angels&Demons, Deception Point and now Digital Fortress.

I have to say this - my initial qualms about this author came right out into the forefront. He is a BAD, BAAAD writer. Terrible characterization, plots from writer's workshop 101,wild-eyed misstatements of facts and hackneyed writing.

I am done with Dan Brown.
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on February 6, 2006
If you are looking for a GOOD sotry about computer technologies that doesn't fall off a cliff, then "Digital Fortress" is not what you want to read.

This book is a major let-down. Good beginning that just deteriorates into garbage.

I did, however, just finish a GREAT book that is a true New Age Cyber-Terror Tale. Much more enjoyable, I suggest checking out "The Minerva Virus" before you waste your time with this one.
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on October 20, 2004
Do not read this book.

If you read this book, and you know anything about crypto (or computers in general) it will irritate you to no end. If you read this book and you know nothing about crypto (or anything at all about computers) then you will be tempted to use the "knowledge" gained at social functions and your computer savvy friends will laugh at you.

Dan Brown is a hack. Someone recommended this book to me because "it's about computers and it's so real!" I can't think of a suitable punishment to inflict on this person.

Save yourself the trouble and DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

The characters are unbelievable ("brilliant" cryptographers can do simple anagrams. "Brilliant" people don't ignore obvious signs of treachery,) the technology is wrong, every last bit of it -- it was the literary equivalent of "movie OS" and if I were to go into it in detail this review would run several pages. An example: "terminals" do not have local storage. Workstations do, but Dan Brown repeatedly used the term "terminal" to describe the stations in Node 3. If they were terminals, then Susan could have done all the snooping she needed to do from anywhere that had a network connection to node 3. Hell, even if they WERE workstations she could have done it from anywhere. She could have done it from Strathmores office and not had to fight her way past the doors that wouldn't open. I'm not going to go into the doors that wouldn't open. Dan Brown's imaginary world is filled with stupid engineers. Another example: there is a difference between a file that contains data and an executable file. And while you *can* cause a buffer overflow by feeding a specially crafted data file into a vulnerable program it's HIGHLY unlikely that the NSA would have that sort of vulnerability in its MOST SUPER SECURE COMPUTER EVER. But Dan Brown didn't even try to explain it like that. He simply confused a data file with an executable. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the central point of his book.

Something else that pissed me off: he spent a chapter explaining how the most brilliant people in the world didn't know that the NSA existed. Hey Dan: the "No Such Agency" jokes were NEVER funny. Everyone knows about the NSA, and trying to say that people who live in or near DC don't know about the NSA is equivalent to saying your readers are dumb. I don't like being called dumb.

I can't stress this enough: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Sadly, Dan Brown seems to have somehow become a best selling author, and best selling authors get movies made of their books. This frightens me.

Every last bit of this book was predictable. Predictable, on it's own, isn't so bad really. If an author can make the bits between plot points interesting, you don't mind so much that you could see the plot points from way off. However, when the author is lazy and doesn't care about getting his supporting facts straight -- well, that just pisses me off. This is what Dan Brown does. He's a lazy, good for nothing hack whose idea of "research" is, apparently, to watch bad movies. (He even says so in the book. There's a line that goes something like "Like a cheap movie, the lights went out when she heard the scream...." Yeah. I'm serious. DON'T READ THIS BOOK.

You know when you're watching a B horror flick and there's a killer chasing a girl, and the girl runs upstairs instead of running to a neighbors house? Dan Brown writes like that. I found myself trying to will the characters to STOP BEING STUPID!


Don't say I didn't warn you.
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