Saturday, December 25, 2004

A not-so-short review of Dan Brown's "Digital Fortress"

Sometimes, certain authors produce books which are interchangeable. Occasionally, they go one step further, where the reviews of their books are almost interchangeable. Here's Language Log on Dan Brown's The Davinci Code:

Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better. Why did I keep reading?

And here's me on his Digital Fortress: "Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggering, clumsily, thoughtlessly... etc.," and so on to the question: "Why did I keep reading?" At this point, Language Log and myself diverge.

LL was on a trip to London from San Francisco, with only banal flight magazines as the reading alternative. It's an maddening experience, I know, but at 15 hours top, relatively fleeting. But in Sài Gòn, good English fiction is rare. - and after a couple of months, you feel the lack.

You can ship your books over here, but that costs money. You can borrow it from the generous, but it helps if they have good taste in reading as well. You can buy it from the photocopied booksellers, but I think Ben Elton and Michael Moore are better scriptwriters than authors. Finally, you can read the books left behind by visitors. There are the second hand bookshops for the detritus of unsatisfied backpackers, and departing teachers sometimes leave their books behind as well. There are gems in castoffs: that's how I got my hands on some Ian Rankin novels. But more likely than not, books are left behind because people decide they aren't worth carrying back, such as Dan Brown's "Digital Fortress".

Yes, the style is bad - unnervingly bad. It provides a good example of the "No-Style style" decried in the Washington Post piece Plotting Along: "Flat. Straightforward. Prose drained of all primp, prance and poetry. Sometimes the authors write in long, plodding paragraphs. More often, they use short-spurt grafs. Sometimes in choppy sentence fragments. Other times with no verbs. Or maybe. Single. Words." But also (as is common with most of the "no-style style" authors) the characterization is appalling. You have your good people, and your bad people and occasionally your bad people masquerading as good people. The heroine is an überwomen (with a 170 IQ and "good legs"), but surprisingly unmemorable. Cliches like the "pizza-eating geek" are common (without any implication that cheese and keyboards don't mix). The most interesting thing I remember is that the assasin is a death mute, and needs to be text-messaged his assignments.

I haven't even mentioned the plot, so here goes. A Japanese cryptographer (a character who gets killed in the prologue - another staple of Dan Brown's work) is reputed to create an unbreakable cryptogram. Since he left the NSA on unfriendly terms, that organization tries to break it. But it turns out to be a virus, and starts infecting all the NSA computers. One sub-plot involves the heroine's fiancee going to Spain to search for the cryptographer's ring, which contains the key. Among other things, the book pretends that Spain is the sort of impoverished country where a stabbing is always fatal. (Which must make it poorer than Việt Nam, I guess.)

In reading this plot, we learn that the knowledge Dan Brown has about security can be fit in a small lighter without draining out the fluid. Folks, a virus is one type of program that runs when it isn't supposed to. Reading a file (which is what the NSA would be doing in cracking the cryptogram) is not the same as executing it. Reading a file is safe. A good operating system would have the ability to distinguish between these. Smart people (such as those working at the NSA) would also know the difference. This is the firm that produced the Security-Enhanced Linux patch. Dan Brown doesn't know the difference. In the story, files loaded on the NSA superprocessor have to be passed through some sort of virus-checker. One of the baddies (masquerading as a goodie) bypasses this and loads the file, and in doing so, infects the system. One thinks that Dan Brown imagines a 2 million processor version of MS-DOS 3.1.

Verdict: 3/10.