Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

Digital Fortress

review by John Barnes © 2004

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Author Dan Brown has caused quite a stir with his Da Vinci Code. An all-night session with that book inspired me to see if its author had any more page-turners in his portfolio. I had already devoured Angels and Demons and was ready for a bit more light, but fast-paced reading. Brown’s bibliography at Amazon.com yielded Digital Fortress along with the two better-known works and a new one that will just have to wait a while.

I have no idea how many times I have passed this book by since its appearance in 1998. I often seek out an action thriller to read on a plane trip or a sleepless night in a hotel bed in a strange city. Such things almost always disrupt my sleep patterns and a night with a page-turner is usually enough to ensure a good sleep on the second night. I found Digital Fortress on the trade paperback shelves of the local Giant supermarket and picked it up.

Okay, that’s the lead-in story. Why you ask, should anyone review a novel in the Pi Journal? Quite simply this particular book is almost pure geek. Encryption is the central theme of the story. The moving forces include ultra-secret fantastic hardware located at the National Security Agency Puzzle Palace at Fort Meade, a luscious heroine with both brains and hormones, any number of people with an overweening lust for power, a goodly dose of murder, and a hero who is capable of astounding feats while trying to stay alive.

The story begins when an alienated genius formerly in the employ of the NSA publishes a document that has been encrypted by a supposedly unbreakable code. The document is accompanied by a threat to expose the true scope of NSA’s nefarious code-breaking to the world. NSA’s fantastic supercomputer is put to work on testing the encryption scheme and the action picks up from there as our lovely and brilliant heroine is dragged into the effort to frustrate the blackmailer’s scheme...

The heroine’s NSA mentor has been on the case for some while and has been actively dispatching agency resources to pursue the inventor of the code and to retrieve the key if that is possible. One of those resources is the heroine’s lover, a Georgetown linguistics professor who slowly discovers a bit of Indiana Jones in his blood.

NSA efforts to insert “backdoors” into encryption schemes are a recurrent theme here. NSA claims (in the book at least) that such devices are needed to guard against terrorism. This is an even more timely concern than it was in 1998, but the book’s “Who will Guard the Guardians” subtext will undoubtedly resonate with those, like this reviewer, who are skeptical of the Patriot Acts.

Angels and Demons and the Da Vinci Code skillfully exploit the dark concerns of many people who feel that established Christianity has been conspiring to maintain its temporal power by sacrificing godliness. The Harvard professor of “religious symbolology” who is the hero of those two books deciphers the meaning behind many arcane objects, some of them quite beautiful, for us. Fascination with the nature of the early Church is widespread these days and Brown has used it to climb the bestseller charts.

He was just cutting his teeth on the action thriller genre with Digital Fortress, but he succeeded in drawing me from one end of the book the other in a single sitting. Twists and turns are Brown’s stock in trade and he paces their unveiling in a manner that is properly sinister, but with an “ah ha” climax that reveals human foibles without particularly demonizing them.
To say any more would reveal some plot twists that are better left for the reader to discover. I won’t claim this is Pulitzer Prize literature, but it is a jolly good read.