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Book Review Journal and Software Designs

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Digital Fortress – Review

by: Brown, Dan

Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 175 Fifth Ave

Location: New York, NY 10010

Copyright: 1998

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 12/3/2008

Summary: Susan Fletcher and boyfriend David Becker participate in a drama to save the National Security Agency decryption supercomputer, TRANSLTR, and acquire the program code for a super-encrption algorithm–or something.

 

This is a strange novel. First, it is 525 frisky pages long with an Epilogue. Second, it feels like there are two stories going on. There is only one. Thirdly, there is the very distinct impression that, if this were a movie, it would be one of those in which all the pictures are of nose-hairs and skin pores–the marvels of close-up cinematography. Fourthly and finally-we could go on here, the story is very unbelievable. Now, for the bad points. . . .

Assume for a moment you have worked your way through the political bureaucracy of a national spy agency like, say the National Security Agency (NSA), and are a deputy director of operations for said agency. In a moment of self-assessment, just at a gut level, you posit an answer to the question of just how stupid and emotionally unstable can you possibly be? Right. You may have a couple of quirks, a couple of ticks. True, the human brain is wired to love a dopamine high, but as a life style pursuit, such critters are quickly weeded out of staid bureaucratic institutions for obvious reasons. So, would you risk destroying your agency’s super-duper de-encryption computer system by turning off its antivirus software to de-encrypt a program you downloaded from the internet?

This is one of the problems with DIGITAL FORTRESS. The characters are stereotypes and even as stereotypes, they are still unbelievable. Granted, fiction is taking character and situation to extremes. Extremes make drama, the bathos and pathos, the elation and joy of life. However, an author must choose which fictionalized extreme dominates his or her story. DR. STRANGELOVE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Strangelove) can effectively get away with Major King “Kong” riding an atomic bomb into oblivion because the situation of nuclear annihilation between two superpowers is so extreme. But DIGITAL FORTRESS attempts to maintain a grip on a believable situation with believable characters. The situation is NSA and its code-breaking expertise. The characters are Commander Trevor Strathmore, the deputy director of operations, Susan Fletcher, the code-breaking queen of NSA, and David Becker, a professor and the boyfriend of Susan, and a host of bit-players. None of the characters are believable. The situation, the super-duper NSA computer called TRANSLTR, gets stuck in an endless processing loop and hardly anyone notices. This NSA and this computer are not believable.

The action in DIGITAL FORTRESS takes place in four locations, centered within the specially built annex to NSA headquarters. The annex houses the TRANSLTR computer. Susan and Commander Strathmore are the characters locked in a dramatic unfolding. Supporting characters include a sleazy, lecherous fellow code breaker, a computer security person who pops in and out of the pages until he is eventually killed because he gets in the way (none of that civil-service rules for removal crap here). And of course there are the security maintenance people at the headquarters building who thinks there is something wrong with TRANSLTR (it is in an endless loop), but their reactions are too late to make a difference to the final outcome for the computer system.

The other action in DIGITAL FORTRESS takes place in Europe: Tad bit more interesting because of the scenery, but just as unbelievable. Professor David Becker has been recruited by Commander Strathmore to go to Europe and retrieve the belongings of Ensei Tankado, your typical ex-NSA employee and evil-brilliant computer encryption wizard who has developed a highly sought after program for generating unbreakable encrypted information. Of course, David Becker is not an NSA employee and it not a spy. He is however the love interest of super code-breaker Susan Fletcher. Important mission? Send an amateur. But little does Commander Strathmore know…little does super code-breaker Susan Fletcher know. . . in fact, little does Professor David Becker know. Little does any of the characters in this novel know because they are made of ink and fiber.

This is definitely not a book to read. What little is exhibited about ciphers and encryption routines can be handily picked up elsewhere. DIGITAL FORTRESS is a real letdown.

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