Digital Horseshit

I ranted about this to friends (and on a while back, but I continue to run into people who think Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown (author of The DaVinci Code, which as much as I despise the Catholic church, is largely a load of claptrap) is a techno-thriller. It is, but only in the same sense that medieval tales of people with their feet growing out of their heads are travel journalism. It’s also surprising to me how many people on technical web sites like Slashdot and Beyond Geek are discussing it as if it’s a decent novel.

I am hardly a book snob, but I’ve just subjected myself one of the single stupidest novels imaginable, one I’m dismayed to see praised by a good proportion of the Slashdot crowd, which tells me more than I wanted to know about the proportion of wannabe techies to real techies on that site.

Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress purports to be a techno-thriller, but in reality it’s technically ignorant and the cheapest form of thriller, on the level of of moronic action movies that pit a patently impossible “irresistible force” against a nonsensical “immovable object” and ask us to enjoy the resulting fireworks.

Brown starts by describing a secret supercomputer (insert appropriate technical mumbo-jumbo here) that can break any code by brute force. In the digital world, encrypting text means performing a series of complex mathematical algorithms on it. The faster the computer, the more complex, and therefore the harder to break, the algorithms will be. Decrypting the text with the password, or key, usually takes about the same amount of work that it took to encrypt the text, sometimes a little more.

Decrypting by brute force means trying every possible key — usually out of trillions of trillions of possibilities (a 128-bit key generates roughly 3 x 10^38 possibilities). So to decrypt by brute force “any possible code,” the fastest computer in the world has to be trillions and trillions times faster than the second-fastest computer in the world — patent nonsense. And there’s no use in debating the theoretical possibilities, in any case, since at the beginning of Chapter 7 Brown gives you the speed of this astounding supercomputer, that is reading and decrypting every message in the world: 150 messages a day. In other words, it couldn’t keep up with the mailing lists I read.

So having created this ridiculous machine, he then asks us to believe that someone else has invented a code that cannot be broken by brute force. This is mathematically impossible; any code with a key length shorter than the message it’s encrypting can be broken, although it may take so much time as to make the decryption practically impossible (although why is that a problem for his supercomputer?).

The computer is then attacked by a virus, since apparently, even though it’s built to decrypt messages from (presumably hostile) unknown parties, it tries to execute the content of the messages as code. Add to this nonsense his usual plot line — a murder, a mysterious message, a beautiful woman and her academic boyfriend who proves capable of heroic (if not patently impossible) physical feats, and the wise mentor who turns out to be the villain — and you can save yourself the time of reading the book.

His ignorance about technical issues is astounding. He literally cannot even tell a bit from a byte: In Chapter 120, using the same know-it-all tone in which he declaimed so much nonsense in The Da Vinci Code, he solemnly describes the Enigma machine, which the Nazis used to encode text in blocks of four letters, or “four-bit alpha groupings” as he would have it. Except that “four bits” is not enough to represent even one letter; he means four bytes. And in any case, the Enigma machine encoded in groups of five.

The climactic scene of hackers intruding beyond his set of firewalls, described in a flurry of semi-technical garble that resembles nothing so much as a drunken John Cleese declaiming Mock German, makes you long for the realistic endings of movies like Mission: Impossible and The Peacemaker. It’s true: he’s managed to write a book that is stupider and less believable than the worst action-movie blockbusters.

Where to end? The chips in his supercomputer are sometimes described as made of “titanium-strontium,” but more often as silicon, and the computer overheats and sets the chips on fire. (Silicon burns at around 1000 degrees Centigrade, which is a hell of a lot of “overheating,” and if it got to that temperature while still functioning, what in heaven’s name are the wires made out of that they hadn’t melted already?) The burning *releases* oxygen, which I’m sure is a surprise to most chemists. And when the heroine smells the smoke it’s producing, she panics because she recognizes the smell of a deadly poison! So how does she know what it smells like? And if she’s smelling it, why isn’t she dead?

The catalog goes on:

  • Email is “entirely intercept-proof,” which aside from being patently ridiculous also makes you wonder what exactly his supersecret supercomputer is doing with its time if it can’t intercept email (Ch 4).
  • Brown, who has presented himself as such an expert on Catholic history that he can challenge Vatican orthodoxy, misstates the order of the Roman Catholic Mass for plot convenience (in a typically overwrought, italicized sentence at the end of Chapter 91). Certainly many Catholic practices change in different cultures and times, but to think that it’s possible to distribute the host before consecrating it is to miss the entire point of the Mass.
  • A villain’s shots “ring out” when required to for dramatic effect (Ch 81), even though at other moments in the same chase he’s using a silencer (Ch 93). The fact that a single chase scene covers twelve chapters tells you a lot about the book; the fact that twelve chapters comprise only 40 pages tells you more.
  • A hacker who types source code into a running binary and gets results. It’s hard to explain to a non-programmer how stupid this is, but it’s something on the order of remixing an audio CD while it’s playing (Ch 29).
  • The New York Stock Exchange is threatened by a terrorist plot in which “all records of who owned what would disintegrate permanently,” apparently because NYSE has no offsite backup (Ch 7);

And the writing. It’s awful! Everything is breathless! He can hardly put a compound sentence together, when he does half the time it’s a run-on. And others. Are fragments. Just for. Dramatic effect. Until you want to strangle him.

With all the perfectly good techno-thrillers out there, written by folks who know what they’re talking about, it’s a shame that such an ignorant and foolish book is becoming so popular — and more so that it has not been roundly and loudly denounced by the technorati. As Dorothy Parker once said, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

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