Digital Fortress — Dan Brown
Review by Zack Hersh
Snowden on steroids — Digital Fortress is an exciting and wild ride through the NSA and the controversial issues of privacy, but past the plotline, the writing falls short
“Who will guard the guards?” The premise of this book is interesting enough: the National Security Agency’s top code breaking machine, the massive and multimillion dollar TRANSLTR, encounters a code it cannot break, called Digital Fortress. It turns out that Digital Fortress is actually unbreakable encryption software that, if released to the public, would be able to encode any digital message or data, effectively protecting it from any unwelcome “snooping” done by say the NSA. This software was created by a former NSA employee, Ensei Tankado, who was outraged by what he thought to be corruption, injustice and abuse of power in the NSA. More specifically, their everyday intrusion into people’s private lives. At the threat of releasing this software to the world, which would cripple NSA intelligence and power devastatingly, and the fact that the code is already inside TRANSLTR, preventing the mighty machine from doing anything else until the code is broken, Digital Fortress essentially holds the NSA hostage.
Only the secret passkey can abort the code, and that is where Susan Fletcher, the main character, and her fiance David Becker come in. Susan is the NSA’s head cryptographer, or code maker and breaker, and is brought in to try to uncover the passkey in a race against time, before Tankado auctions it off to the highest bidder worldwide. At the same time, Becker is sent to Spain, where Tankado had just died of what appeared to be a heart attack, to try to find Tankado’s personal copy of the passkey, all while being persecuted by a mysterious and relentless assassin. For the sake of national intelligence, the passkey must be uncovered before it is too late.
By this point, it should be quite clear how interesting the plotline of the book is. It is twisted and dynamic, with many layers, sides, and surprising or big reveals. But the complex and captivating plot was basically all the book had going for it, and was the only thing that would keep readers. Past the story, the writing fell short. It was mostly hollow and not very sharp, only really descriptive of actions, meaning along the lines of “Then he did this. Then this person did this. Then this person did that”. Of what would be expected of a professional author, especially one as accomplished as Dan Brown, who has found success with other bestsellers like Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, his prose is of egregiously low level. Much of the story was written in a very disappointing way. Then again, this was his debut work. He has since had time to figure some of these issues out.
Each chapter, the story jumped around from different places and characters, which was not only somewhat distracting and introduced numerous additional, and sometimes unnecessary, characters and subplots, but also caused the book to read more like a screenplay than a novel. With the exception of the intricate and well developed plotline, the writing was not of the highest caliber. For example, at a highly climactic scene, when Becker is running from the assassin and encounters a dead end, Brown Writes, “And then it just stopped. [Paragraph] Like a freeway that ran out of funding, the path ended.” This poorly executed simile was just one example of many literary letdowns found within the book’s 500 pages, and took away so much from this moment in the story. Readers may find themselves thinking more about the writing they’re reading instead of becoming immersed in the story, which is a shame, because the plot itself is quite rich. As the plot thickened, the writing did become somewhat more readable and engrossing, however, this high point is the baseline of quality where most writers would be looking to as a starting point, not as a peak. Readers who can ignore and look past errors, questionable decisions, and little irritations may enjoy the book because of the captivating story it tells, but otherwise, Digital Fortress would mostly likely not be a worthwhile read. Readers could instead discover the plot through Sparknotes, or through a simple plot summary.
The book is in the end, wasted potential. The plot is engaging and captivating despite the way it’s written, and tackles and explores the hot and controversial issues of privacy and NSA in a very neutral and unopinionated way, shining light and casting reason and sympathy on both sides of the issues through various characters and their respective views and experiences. There’s so much room for this book to be exceptional in many dimensions, but unfortunately it’s execution ends up being disappointing. It’s a job half done. The story, themes, and ideas are there. But the writing itself is not quite there yet. This stole so much from a book and story with so much potential and possibility. Unfortunately, despite all of the positive attributes Digital Fortress has, readers will more likely than not end up disappointed with it. Digital Fortress has a really neat premises and ideas, however, ended up being wasted potential and a disappointing read. More of a first draft than a final, published piece.