September 10, 2005

A five-letter password for a man obsessed with Susan

I owe my loyal readers some comments about the novel I dutifully read on the plane flight from San Francisco to Boston on September 1. I will provide the promised commentary in what follows. It isn't pretty.

You may remember that in my earlier post Don't look at their eyes! I mentioned that in preparing to read Dan Brown's Digital Fortress I was expecting a novel about cryptanalysis, probably one in which on the first page a renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Well, a renowned male expert at something (cryptography) does indeed die a hideous death on the first page, and a renowned expert in something else (foreign languages) does indeed then get a surprise call to face an unexpected plane flight and some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures (though he has to do it without the company of the good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex; there is one, but she stays three thousand miles away across the Atlantic).

There is of course a ghastly sadistic foreign hit man (an obligatory ingredient for a Dan Brown; this one is Portuguese, but otherwise just another mysterious cold-blooded death machine like the Arab in Angels and Demons). The happy couple do get access to a double bed at the end and do have strenuous sex, and there are some pretend threats from the female. So no real surprises at all.

In short, to call this novel formulaic is an insult to the beauty and diversity of formulae. The relation to the later Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code is one of what algebraists call homomorphism: the names have been changed, but the two books have the same structure, from the opening assassination down to the final pyrotechnic special effects.

The most striking thing about the book for any linguist will be that the male lead is a linguist (Robert Langdon, the corresponding charismatic academic in A&D and DVC, is an expert in religious symbolism). But Bill Poser has already commented about that right here on Language Log, quoting the most astonishing statement about the hero's academic life: "His university lectures on etymology and linguistics were standing room only, and he invariably stayed late to answer a barrage of questions. He spoke with authority and enthusiasm, apparently oblivious to the adoring gazes of his star-struck coeds." But there is no follow-up to this wishful thinking for academics.

If you are star-struck, and do want to attract the attention of some male linguistics professor, nothing would work better than a challenging intellectual puzzle involving linguistic material. And the truly depressing thing about Digital Fortress is that its research is so feeble and its puzzles are so stupid. Dan Brown literally does not know bits from bytes (he thinks an encoded message presented in groups of four letters separated by spaces can be called a "four-bit code"). He doesn't understand the difference between source code and compiled programs. He thinks there are 256 ASCII characters. His figures for time taken to break encryption keys on a parallel machine make no sense (the problem is exponential increase in difficulty, and you don't fix that by setting up some fixed number of processors to run in parallel). He thinks once a "virus" has been disabled in a "data bank" that it has crawled into, a chief technician has to shout shout "Upload the firewalls!" (he doesn't know the difference between loading a program into core and uploading a file from one computer to another). Just about everything he says about computers, processors ("titanium-strontium"??), data banks, viruses, algorithms, codes, ciphers, decryption, and everything else technical is nonsense (see the remarks by Robert M. Slade archived here).

The stupidity of the NSA staff in the novel is unbelievable. On page 408 a clue is unveiled to a vital "pass-key": PRIME DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ELEMENTS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI. The anwer is supposed to be the prime number 3, the arithmetical difference between 235 and 238. Hiroshima was destroyed with a U-235 bomb. There is another isotope of uranium, U-238. Dan Brown is very careful to build into the exposition a claim that "the Nagasaki bomb did not use plutonium but rather an artificially manufactured, neutron-saturated isotope of uranium 238." This is utter nonsense: as all sources confirm, Fat Man was a plutonium bomb with plutonium 239 as the crucial fissionable material. (Plutonium is made in a breeder reactor by enriching the stable and non-fissionable U-238 isotope of uranium with extra neutrons; that must be the source of the nonsense Dan supplies.) But just assume the false claim about U-238 for purposes of reasoning within the confines of the book's imaginary world. The fact is that the assembled eggheads spend half a dozen chapters debating what the sentence could possibly mean, looking at each other in bafflement and running through encyclopedias and following false leads as if none of them had even a high school knowledge of science.

At one point late in the book, Commander Strathmore, the immediate superior of female lead cryptanalyst Susan Fletcher, confesses that he is madly in love with her and has been so, madly and obsessively, for years, ever since he met her. To the chagrin of his wife, he is so in love with Susan Fletcher that he cries out for her in his sleep. And right after Susan learns about his love, in order to escape from (a) his groping her and (b) the imminent explosion of the NSA's giant computer in a ball of flame (its "titanium-strontium processors" having ignited), Susan has to guess the five-letter password that activates his secret personal elevator. Think about it. A five-letter password that might have been chosen by a man obsessed with love for a woman called S U S A N. And we are supposed to be in suspense about whether Susan will guess it in time.

I had hoped to have some more amusing stuff for you on inept use of language (other than the aforeblogged strange eyebrow stuff). But the problem with this novel is not that it is written badly. Its use of language seems to me slightly better than the more famous novels that followed it. The problem is that it is so utterly through-and-through top-to-bottom brainless. The fact that reviewers have praised this drivel for "realness" and being "masterful" and very close to "the truth" is really quite scary.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 10, 2005 12:36 PM