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Customer Review

on 4 May 2014
‘Twas the week before Christmas… and doing a normal book review seemed a little anti-festive. So this week, I’m featuring a book by Dan Brown. He’s author who has been pretty universally panned by critics – including me – yet has sold millions of books that “promote spiritual discussion and debate” and act “as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith”… according to him, at least. Whether those aims also apply when he’s pretending to be a woman, I’m not sure… at least cross-gender pseudonyms have a decent literary heritage.

So let’s turn our attention to Digital Fortress, Dan Brown’s first solo novel published in 1998. It has the geek factor in abundance – it’s about cryptography, tries to make arguments about government surveillance, and features a massive supercomputer. Given Brown’s ouvre, you’ll not be terribly surprised if I tell you it’s a codebreaking supercomputer. Called TRANSLATR. Yep, Dan Brown was missing out the final vowel years before Flickr and Tubmblr came along. But I digress.

This is a story about a code that TRANSLATR can’t crack, and a blackmail attempt on the back of that. It’s also about a frustratingly dim cryptographer who doesn’t know the etymology of the word “sincere”. And, this being Dan Brown, there’s a “dramatic” scene in a Catholic church. There’s no earthly reason why the scene has to be in a church, but I guess Dan Brown likes writing about them. And it does divert him for a little while from making irritating errors like confusing “bits” and “bytes”.

But, by some distance, the most irritating part of Digital Fortress was the final thirty pages, where the solution to the whole central conundrum of the book was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out. And, despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of obscure chemicals like freon (in a series of scenes that couldn’t have screamed “Chekhov’s gun” any louder had the phrase actually been included), the central characters are suddenly unable to recall basic facts about basic elements. For a military organisation, there’s an awful lot of insubordination and fraternisation – relationships which end up looking a bit freakishly incestuous (a fact that the characters appear content to ignore).

Now, without wanting to give the game away, how many top secret military installations do you know of which conduct their business under a glass roof? How many buildings do you know of which feature no emergency exits? How did the designers of a military base for cryptographers not see that securing the doors with passwords might be a little… insecure?

Look, I don’t mind suspending my disbelief to some extent when reading a novel. But the degree of idiocy in this book made me half-expect the final word to be “and it was all just a dream!”

Brown has a line he uses in interviews about readers “getting on the train”, by which I think he’s referring to suspension of disbelief. I sort of see where he’s coming from. I get that he tries to write forceful, driving plots where the facts around the edges don’t really matter. But in this volume in particular, the problems with the plot are so big that, to use his metaphor, my train was derailed. Repeatedly.

In the end, I guess one knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book. It’s mind-numbing easy-reading tosh. Sometimes, that’s just what you’re after, just as sometimes, we all have a craving for a pot noodle. But good grief, you’re probably in as much trouble if you think this is good literature as if you think pot noodles are high gastronomy. But heck, it’s Christmas – and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one star.
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