House of Cards

July 6, 2004 4:52 AM

A few days before I left Australia, my mother gave me a copy of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. She described it as "a good thriller, but rather silly", both of which turned out to be true.

For those of you who haven't read it -- and I'll be as spoiler-free as possible -- the book is a modern-day detective story firmly rooted in what is presented as a thorough research by the author into the early days of the Catholic church, the Knights Templar, a couple of secret societies, and the question of why modern religions seem to dislike women so much.

To his credit, Brown manages this intermingling of modern plot and historical/religious theory rather more seamlessly than Neal Stephenson achieved in Snowcrash. (Comparing the two books on any other level would be such an apples to oranges comparison that I refuse to even bother, except to say that Snowcrash is still cooler than you will ever be.)

As the story progresses, and the plot (and historical conspiracy theories) get stranger and stranger, maintaining your suspension of disbelief is necessarily based on your belief in the depth of his research. "The premises are true," says the author. "so just go with me on where I go with them." Science Fiction works similarly. The author courts the reader's belief by basing fantastic future technologies and societies on existing technologies and trends. This is why computers in 60's SF shows looked like computers did in the 60's: otherwise nobody would have recognised them.

On yet another tangent, The Da Vinci Code crystallises why I was never comfortable with the term "Speculative Fiction" to replace "Science Fiction". Code is most certainly speculative, but if shoehorned into the corpus of S.F, it would stick out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, my problem with Code came around page 273, when Brown veered into an area in which I have a more than passing interest. One of the main characters is a cryptoanalyst, and this is her internal monologue:

Da Vinci had been a cryptography pioneer. Sophie knew, although he was seldom given credit. Sophie's university instructors, while presenting computer encryption methods for securing data, praised modern cryptologists like Zimmerman and Schneier but failed to mention that it was Leonardo who had invented one of the first rudimentary forms of public key encryption centuries ago. Sophie's grandfather, of course, had been the one to tell her that.

(I'd also dispute the claim that the Da Vinci's cryptex is public key encryption, any more than a padlock or a safe is. The cryptex is essentially a combination-lock with a built in booby-trap. The message is physically secured, not obscured. With the right tools and some patience, you could get at the message without knowing the key.)

Anyway, Schneier and Zimmerman? While they're both well deserving of praise, their presence in that paragraph is just so terribly incongruous. Diffie and Hellman proved modern public key encryption was possible. Rivest, Shamir and Adleman produced the first workable implementation. Schneier is best known for writing a book describing how it works, and Zimmerman for producing a popular program that let people make use of it.

It's like skipping the Wright brothers, and focusing on the guys who designed the fuselage on the 747.

It would be easier to overlook this if the name-drop served any purpose other than as a shout-out to crypto nerds. It's not as if Bob Bookreader is going to think "Aha! The writers, respectively, of Applied Cryptography, and PGP!", A small part of one percentile of the book's audience would have the vaguest clue who the names belonged to, and those people would also understand why it's wrong. For everyone else, you may as well have skipped the names entirely. Surely that's worth the two minute Google search to find out who to credit?

Maybe I'm being unreasonable. I probably am. But speaking entirely for myself, this paragraph disturbed enough of my suspension of disbelief to make me uncomfortable for the rest of the book. If a single paragraph aside into crypto could jar me so much, how would I feel if I were an art or religious history nerd reading the novel? Would it be the literary equivalent of the way computers in movies always have big blinking text, a count-down to the end of the world, and "It's a UNIX system! I know this!"?

I'm trying to remember who I heard give advice that you should never consume fiction based in your area of expertise for anything other than its comic value.

Note: From my referrer logs, I just noticed this got linked from Crypto-Gram. I don't really dare go see under what circumstances I was linked, because I suspect it'll depress me. Regardless, I'd like to apologise to Bruce Schneier for the tone above. I have a great deal of respect for Schneier and the research he's done in crypto, something I don't think comes across at all in the course of this rant. I still think the name-dropping was incongruous, because it was talking about pioneers rather than practicioners, but maybe I could have been lighter on the bad analogies.

12 Comments

yes, it is generally very annoying to all art and history nerds out there too. that and the celestine prophecy. crap books both.

(an history and philosphy nerd who works as a programmer)

Honestly, I read the book and found it to be really crappy. The references that are hard to swallow, the thinness of the facts, etc...

Besides, it read like some hack aspiring to be a movie someday, what with all the seat-of-your-pants type endings. The chapters don't flow, and the scenes are all too improbable, and the characters are just a tad bit thin...

If we wished to discuss it, we could profitably begin with the slander that "modern religions seem to dislike women so much," which seems to this Christian to be based merely on the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which have a direct lineal relationship, are not goddess-based, and neatly ignores the hundreds of millions of female members of these religions and their status within, contributions to, and feelings about their faith.

Funnily enough, I believe there *is* going to be a film of The Da Vinci Code.

FWIW I enjoyed the book. It's not supposed to be a serious treatise on the Holy Grail and secret societies, nor does it claim to be. It's just one of those entertaining easy reads.

(Hmm... now that I think about it, I hated the book partly because I prefer Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. A bit heavy, though.)

In Moral Ed. class last year, we were given handouts filled with usual jingoistic propaganda along the abstinence line our government so heavily favours. We were supposed to read that propaganda - erm, I meant article - and then proceed to tell the teacher why we now are irrevocably convinced we will never have sex before we are married with a flat of our own. The article cited the Kinsey Report and attached some false claims to the findings of the Kinsey Report - to which I had much to howl about and cry foul, for sure.

In any case, The Da Vinci code: S-U-C-K-S.

Strange. I randomly selected both The Da Vinci Code and Snow Crash to read (well have read to me in the car via audible.com).

I also found myself reading Dan Brown's earlier book which has exactly the same recipe for Robert teaming up with a girl who's father just died etc etc.

Dan Brown is entertaining enough, but Snow Crash defintely had the cool factor as did my other recent audio book, Pattern Recognition.

Has anyone read Digital Fortress? I bet geeks could really have fun with that one ;o)

You say that Rivest, Shamir and Adleman produced the first workable implementation of public key cryptography but, strictly speaking, they were not the first.

Clifford Cocks, a mathematician at Britain's GCHQ, invented the first working implementation in the early 1970s, about three years before Rivest, Shamir and Adleman independently developed it at MIT. The work was not published at the time so whilst many know of RSA, few know of 'CC'.

Normally I would feel pedantic mentioning this (in fact I still do), but you are emphasising the inventors of public key cryptography. One may as well be accurate when taking to task others for inaccuracy!

None of this diminishes your point though.

Ben, I've read Digital Fortress. If we let Charles read it, it should probably be rationed, lest the cyber-gibberish drives him insane. It is just so bad (from a technical perspective) that I couldn't be bothered to write any specific criticism.

The sad thing is, that even though my geek side suffered, I actually quite liked the book as a thriller.

I thought it was a good/average airport thriller. But it seemed somehow... careless. He used millennium as a plural. Twice. When they left the airfield, they went "to Kent". Dammit, they were already in Kent. Couldn't put it down though. The religious angle could have been Raelean for all I cared, it was only a plot device anyway.

For more demeaning of the Da Vinci code, this stylistic critique is quite entertaining:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000844.html

"Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better."

btw, the IMDB link induced a knowing smile even before I clicked it. :)

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