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Nice idea; shame about the execution
on 30 May 2010
Ok. We all know that when it comes to works of fiction, there are times when one must suspend disbelief, especially where techno-thrillers are concerned. But Digital Fortress contains so many errors of fact that the moderately knowledgeable reader would be forgiven for feeling insulted by the author's evident lack of respect for his audience, while the even more knowledgeable are likely to throw the book against the wall in exasperation...
The characters are like cardboard cut-outs, so ill-defined that one does not even gain a mental image of them. Supposedly brilliant-minded people behave like idiots: an allegedly level-headed head of a national cryptography section behaves like a moonstruck teenager; a professor of languages allow himself to be coerced into rushing off to Spain on a wild-goose chase, with only the haziest idea of what he is looking for; while his fiancé, the outstandingly brilliant and beautiful (yawn) Susan Fletcher spends most of her time standing around being absolutely useless as well as outstandingly dim. I know that a high IQ doesn't automatically equate to a high level of common sense, but when Susan reacts to the phrase `Who will guard the guards?' with the words, `I don't get it,' you have to wonder what else she doesn't get. Later on she reacts to the news that her boss has faked a call to security with astonishment: `Susan couldn't get over the artful maneuver the commander had just executed. He faked the call!' Duh - well, in the circumstances that's the first thing I'd have thought of...later on Susan is equally at a loss when faced with a very simple, obvious anagram: NDAKOTA is TANKADO - yet it takes her several attempts to figure it out. Remember, this is the head of Cryptography in the NSA...near the end, when the team are trying to work out Tankado's pass code that will halt the destruction of the system's firewalls, Susan is equally useless. It takes her and the rest of the supposedly super-intelligent team 20 pages to work out what we lesser mortals did within oh, about 2 seconds of the clue being revealed...!
I don't know enough about computers and cryptography to comment on those aspects of the book, although even to me a lot of it seemed highly unlikely. But where the author really lets us down is in the details which, computers and cryptography apart, form a large part of the book. One of the major protagonists, David Becker, is supposed to be a language whiz, speaking a number of languages fluently, yet he apparently doesn't know that it is not polite to address a German whom one has just met as `du'. Mr Brown claims (I believe) to have studied in Spain, but his descriptions of the country suggest that his level of knowledge about Spain is rather low. Mr Brown seems to dislike Spain and its people, to the extent that he portrays Spain as some kind of third-world country where health care is backward and international phone calls are difficult, rather than the advanced modern country it really is, with excellent health care and facilities. He certainly doesn't seem to know Seville too well, considering that he makes a gigantic boo-boo in describing one of the city's most renowned landmarks: the Giralda has no steps inside, instead having a series of ramps. And why would a city banker in Seville be wearing a `cheap black blazer' to go to mass? Is that what city bankers wear in, say, New York? I don't think so.
But the biggest boo-boo of all comes when the staff of the NSA are trying to work out Tankado's pass code (I'm giving the game away here because I can't believe readers will be so dim that they can't work it out long before the denouement). They've finally twigged that it has something to do with the elements involved in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They eventually conclude that the elements in question must be isotopes of uranium: uranium-235 and uranium-238. Their search of the internet reveals the `common misconception that the Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb. In fact, the device employed uranium, like its sister bomb in Hiroshima.' Say what? Uranium-235, which was used in the Hiroshima bomb, is indeed fissile (meaning that it can sustain a chain reaction) but uranium-238 can't, so is not fissile, and therefore cannot be used to make nuclear weapons without some serious tinkering. The website accessed by our heroes goes on to say, `... [the] Nagasaki bomb did not use plutonium but rather an artificially manufactured, neutron-saturated isotope of uranium 238.' Uh, that would be plutonium-239, then.
So the Nagasaki bomb DID use plutonium, but 239 minus 235 wouldn't produce a prime number, so Brown had to fudge the facts a bit (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here; even back in 1998, when this book was first published, it was very easy to get hold of information, whether via the internet or in a public library, about the composition of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs). The fact that these so-called geniuses take 20 pages to solve the puzzle destroys any suspense as the reader thinks, oh, for heaven's sake, get on with it - it's not rocket science (all during their agonised deliberations I kept wanting to shout `It's three! THREE!' just like a kid at a pantomime shouting `IT'S BEHIND YOU').
With more attention to detail this could have been a half-decent thriller. But the reader is asked to suspend disbelief so often and accept so many unlikely things that it simply doesn't work. Nice idea; shame about the execution.