Dan Brown's 'Digital Fortress' was first published in 1996. Those who pick it up expecting something like 'The Da Vinci Code' or 'Angels and Demons' are sure to be disappointed - this novel concerns technology rather than fiction, being more similar to his novel 'Deception Point.' Its genre is "techno-thriller", and its story concerns a top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) code-breaker supercomputer and the staff that operate and monitor it. It does share some attributes with Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' - they both shed some light on different conspiracies, explaining the history and background of these conspiracies in a way that makes it easy for the average reader to grasp the magnitude of them.

The conspiracy in this case is one on government level, where a top-secret supercomputer under the control of the NSA is used to break any encryption in a matter of hours and minutes - even encryption that is considered to have to take years to break. Whether or not the premise of the novel is exaggerated is left up to the reader, however it would not to unreasonable to say that the average reader would believe it - criticism often applied to 'The Da Vinci Code' despite the fact they are fictional pieces. Beyond this, it explains a lot of cryptology and code-breaking history from the ancient Romans to World War 2 to the present day.

The novel appeals more to an audience who actually knows the basic ideas behind cryptology and computer security. However, the concepts that it is based around are explained in a way that makes it extremely easy for those who are not very familiar with information technology to get a grip on them. It regards the supercomputer 'TRANSLTR,' and a new method of encryption devised by an ex-NSA cryptographer called 'Digital Fortress.'

After TRANSLTR has been unable to break the code behind Digital Fortress for more than 13 hours, the staff at the cryptology department of the NSA start to panic. This is heightened by the fact that the author of this new method of encryption is offering to sell the method to the used to the highest bidder. The author, using Digital Fortress to encrypt the Digital Fortress source code, has everyone is trying not only to decrypt it, but at the same time trying to out-bid one another. The consequences of this method of encryption for the NSA are dire - it not only seems to have rendered their multi-billion dollar computer obsolete, but if it is released it will cripple U.S. intelligence operations.

The novel's main characters are the NSA's head cryptographer Susan Fletcher and her fiance David Becker, a university professor who does contract translation work for the NSA from time to time. The two of them struggle to find a way to stop Digital Fortress from being released, as well as find the key to unlock it - a task made a lot more difficult by the fact that the author of the code seems to have suffered a tragic accident. They are fighting to protect the NSA and each other's lives, betrayed on all sides by those that they thought that they could trust.

I would have to recommend Digital Fortress as being a sterling attempt by an author who's forte seems to be history rather than technology. Being full of details about the history of cryptography, the novel is both informative and entertaining. However, it seems somewhat lackluster when compared to 'The Da Vinci Code,' and the characters seem rather trite - again something which it shares with Dan Brown's other work. All in all, a good effort and a great read.

Official Information:

Title...............................'Digital Fortress'
Author............................Dan Brown
Publisher........................Corgi Books

In a word "sheesh".

Seriously this book is so bad, it really is disappointing. It gives you that seriously 1980's kind of movie feel, where everything has a nonsensical but totally technical and jargon filled explanation. The names of characters would more likely be appropriate in a science fiction story, like star wars or something. Tankado, Hulohot, Soshi Kuta? Pardon me but sheesh!

Dan Brown obviously is not as learned in the field of computer technology as he is of history and the arts. This guy probably could have used more help from your average multics luser than the two anonymous ex-NSA folks he claims helped him with the story.

The depiction of computer interfaces is typically Hollywood, and it ain't even a movie or screenplay, this is the novel we are talking about here. There is supposedly a trace program written in LIMBO, which borrows heavily from C and Pascal. What?! Sheesh.

Dido points out that the language exists. But that wasn't what I found amusing, it was like, a super techno thriller novel and you mention C and Pascal, like wow, that would amaze anybody.

Anyway, this trace program supposedly will phone home when it reaches its final destination thus making anonymous remailing useless. Like e-mail can execute code after being received by the final destination MTA.

And this TRANSLTR computer, there is no mention of what software it uses but it's so unrealistic, that just by the act of decrypting, say a ZIP file with a virus, it can get infected itself.

virus, hoooooooo scarryyyy!

The virus does not even have to be specifically written for its OS, as long as it's malicious, it will do its thing. That's why they had to use Gauntlet, another silly concept of having an antivirus filter do its work on code that is encrypted, how the hell can a filter determine if there is a virus on a pile of bits it still can't make sense of?!

During the latter part of the novel, there was a mention of X-eleven, probably a reference to X11R6, which is your basic unix windowing system, but here in the story, it's some sort of security layer. Crap.

Did I mention that they used the concept of worm in a totally incorrect way? All in all, it was a total waste of six hours of my life, which if nothing else would only be worth it if this writeup warns others of this horrible book. Save your $8, go buy yourself something else.

For a better techno thriller, try cryptonomicon.

I also find it hard to believe that what the reviews touted as one of the most realistic techno thrillers about cryptography didn't have a single mention of DES, triple DES, blowfish, twofish, RSA or any of those other arcane cryptography stuff.

Dan Brown's first book!

Digital Fortress, Dan Brown, published by St. Martin's, 1996, ISBN 0-312-99542-3

This is a great thriller, but a terrible techno-thriller.

Digital Fortress has all the page-turning excitement of his big hits, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and the same writing style. I personally find his writing style annoying. He sounds like he's trying to write a romantic, dandified adventure. But I am still reading his books. They are exciting, often interesting, and always good for killing a couple hours in situations when deep concentration is hard (I read them when I'm sick. Not a snipe -- a good bad book will help get you through a fever better than any meds). Digital Fortress actually starts to drag a little towards the end, where he tries to lay on the suspense a little too thickly, and the story moves slowly as each tense (but super short) chapter sweats tensely by. But a good thriller.

All the best books are trash. Pulp fiction, trash SF, cookie-cutter mysteries, sweaty romances -- they aren't good because of their literary merit, they're good because a lot of people can fall into their groove, and loose themselves for a little while. This is exactly what Digital Fortress is -- a trash mass-market paperback. And it's a pretty good one. But the science stinks.

All that Madalingsabihin says about the science and computer science is true, and more so. I was annoyed by the central idea of the book: 'rotating cleartext'. This is a magical method of encryption that is supposedly impossible, but then a maverick genius invents it. It is never really explained, but apparently the cleartext (decoded text of the message) 'rotates', changing periodically based on some obscure variable. This variable can be decoded by a simple text key, but the NSA's super-decoding computer is stymied. Rotating cleartext might make more sense if read to mean layered encryption, but any idiot can 'invent' that. I don't know.

So -- good thriller, bad science. Just like a hundred other thrillers out there. The problem is that after reading The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, people expect all his other works to be just as good. Very few books are that good or well researched, and Dan Brown can be forgiven for being only an 'okay' author on his very first book.

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