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.