Digital Fortress

Reviewed: October 10, 2003
By: Dan Brown
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
372 pages, $20.00

It's always neat when a title has more than one possible meaning. The digital fortress in question could have referred to the headquarters of the National Security Agency, where Susan Fletcher was employed as a top rank cryptographer. Indeed, when the book opened I thought that was what it did refer to.

Within the first thirty of so pages, however. it became clear that digital fortress was something else, a program for an encryption algorithm so complex that none of the usual methods for decoding information traffic would work on it.

The major method in use is simply called "brute force", Set an incredibly powerful array of computers to work on a problem, runs that theory, and there is no code that cannot be cracked. The system used to run such an operation is appropriately named TRANSLTR. When Susan arrives at work to discover that TRANSLTR has been running for some fifteen hours on its latest job, as opposed to the ten minutes or less it ought to have taken, Susan knows that the NSA has a problem.

Just how much of a problem she doesn't know until later. At the very beginning of the book we saw a man die. Ensei Tankado was a renegade programmer whose belief in the free flow of information and the right to privacy was deeply offended by the existence of TRANSLTR, so, as the story goes, he wrote the code for Digital Fortress, planning to sell the rights to the highest bidder and render the NSA and other such agencies obsolete.

But he died before any sale was made, meaning that the program was out there and no one had the key to it. It was both useless and dangerous.

This is where the story of the dedicated professional (Susan) trying to solve a technical problem gets a new dimension.

David Becker is no spy. A foreign languages professor who does some occasional translation work for government agencies, Becker has no particular background in skullduggery. It matters to the story that he is Susan's significant other, but that does not seem to be important at the time. Tankado died in Spain. The NSA needed an innocuous Spanish speaking person to go and collect his personal effects, David was available and Susan's boss, Commander Strathmore, sent him on the errand.

That's where this novel becomes one of those "gifted amateur in way over his head" stories than can be such fun in the right hands. Becker soon finds out that this is no simple pick up and delivery mission, that someone else is after the same thing he is, and that bodies are piling up in his wake a killer seeks to eliminate everyone connected with the Digital Fortress secret.

Ah yes, the secret. It's not what we thought it was. There's another possible meaning to the book's title and once that becomes clear we are on our way to a  tense countdown of s finale.

Dan Brown does a nice job of balancing the technical stuff and the adventure. There was quite a bit of technical and cryptographic material in this book, but Brown packs it all in  without making it cumbersome. He also strikes a deft balance between the male and female protagonists, giving neither the lead role. David may do most of the running around but he has some thinking to do as well. Susan's role may be more cerebral, but she still sees some action.

All in all, Digital Fortress was an enjoyable read, the first book by the writer who is now on the bestseller lists with The DaVinci Code.