Language Log has done some really excellent academic snarking on Dan Brown's literariness, but I just found a couple of excerpts from his first book, Digital Fortress.
Well, now he's writing about things that I actually know something about.
Short review here, and excerpts here.
Oh. My. God.
Where to begin? The language!fail, the cryptography!fail, or the NSA!fail?
I'm not fluent in either Chinese or Japanese, but I have at least a passing familiarity with the latter.
Kanji is not a language! Japanese borrowed Chinese ideographs as part of its written system; the Chinese symbols generally have approximately the same meaning in written Japanese as they do in written Chinese, but the pronunciations are different, and of course so is the syntax and grammar. (I'm not even getting into the addition of katakana and hiragana, which are the two additional native Japanese syllabaries that are combined with kanji in written Japanese.)
Anyway, "kanji" is the Japanese word for the Chinese characters used in their writing system. That entire excerpt about the professor realizing that he was incorrectly translating symbols into Mandarin rather than "Kanji" is just... nonsensical.
Let's suppose he knows he's dealing with a stream of Chinese characters (I'll get into that in a minute). Logically, a small string of Chinese symbols ("kanji") could be either Chinese or Japanese. But anyone who knows either language would immediately figure out which it is, in the same way that a sequence of letters in the Latin alphabet could be either English or German, but anyone who knows either language would only need to read a few words to figure out which it is (or at least, that it's not in the language they recognize).
So the idea that this professor is interpreting strings of Chinese characters and giving "Mandarin" translations (by the way, Chinese has lots and lots of different spoken dialects, but they are all written in pretty much the same way!), and then suddenly suggests translating them into "kanji" (or Japanese) makes as much sense as me reading a string of text and then saying, "Oh, you wanted the German translation? I was giving you the English translation!"
The comment in the blog post I linked to above covers most of the issues with the "cryptography"; if someone is sending encrypted Chinese or Japanese text, it's going to be encrypted. If all you have to do to "decrypt" it is to convert the message into Chinese and then have someone who knows Chinese read it, it's not encrypted! That's like saying that a message in Morse code is "encrypted." Well, yes, in a literal sense, it is, but you don't need codebreakers for that.
Encrypted messages are hard to read because without the key, you don't know how to convert the signal into coherent symbols in the first place! If you can do that, then figuring out what language you're dealing with is the easy part! If they have successfully converted the code into Chinese symbols (whether those symbols are Chinese or Japanese text) which our professor can "translate," then they've done the hard part.
Having the professor then translate them "out of sequence," as the linked blog post above points out, makes no sense. Literally, it makes no sense. I cannot even figure out what process Dan Brown thinks he's describing here. Is it supposed to be Chinese ciphertext? (Kind of like trying to decipher "aHhMmA alvZ gFqoeoA" into "We attack at dawn"?) Again, it's the cryptographers who would have to do that; a Chinese linguist would not be able to make any more sense of the "out of sequence" characters than an English speaker can make sense of "aHhMmA alvZ gFqoeoA."
Lastly, the NSA. I realize the NSA is not exactly forthcoming about the details of its operations, not even to novelists who want to write fictional stories about them. But let's count the absurdities here, which can be spotted by anyone doing even a little bit of Internet research (or reading The Puzzle Palace):
The NSA hires lots of language analysts. You can learn that by looking at their public job postings. They wouldn't need to recruit some outside university professor to get Chinese translations done.
Getting a security clearance is a big deal. The NSA is not going to let a non-cleared person have access to classified material without one. They can't just grab some expert off the street and say, "We really need you to help us with this Top Secret project, but you have to promise not to tell anyone about it!" Umm, no. Yes, I know they do that on NCIS all the time. Anyone who has ever worked for any branch of the federal government falls over themselves laughing at that.
And then there's this:
"She?" Becker laughed. He had yet to see a female inside the NSA.
Are you serious, Dan Brown?
The NSA is a large federal agency. It's subject to EEO laws just like every other branch of the government, and believe it or not, Dan Brown, girls do science nowadays. And cryptography and computer programming and engineering and linguistics and all the other things the NSA is interested in. Like NASA and other highly nerdy agencies full of scientists and engineering types, no doubt there's still a preponderance of males in certain fields, but it's not the sausage-fest you seem to be imagining.
But his main character finds this so improbable that he laughs at the idea that there might actually be a female of the species working somewhere in this boys-only treehouse.
Lastly, I have to comment on the climax, which admittedly I am gleaning solely from the Wikipedia summary of the book. Apparently the villain commits suicide by standing next to an NSA supercomputer as it "overheats" and explodes.
WTF? Is this computer powered by a diesel engine or something? Computers don't explode! Occasionally, a computer that overheats can catch fire. Theoretically, the capacitors in a computer can explode, but it won't make some big Hollywood-type explosion, even in a supercomputer. You'd just have lots of burning circuit boards and maybe an electrical fire. I suppose the villain could commit suicide by standing in the fire. (Umm, cooling systems? Automatic fire extinguishers? You think maybe the NSA has them? Where they keep their really expensive supercomputers? Naaaaaah....)
Holy crap. I know this was his first book (and thus I'm really late to the party ripping on it here), but this is just so jaw-droppingly stupid I am amazed -- amazed! -- that it got published. Was there no editor, at any point, who said, "You know, that doesn't make any fucking sense"?
Kind of like Twilight, I have this mad urge to read the whole thing just so I can snark on it at length, but I don't think I could get through it.
Still, it's nice to know that if I ever want to write a techno-thriller about the NSA, computers, cryptography, and linguistics, I don't actually need to know a damn thing about the NSA, computers, cryptography, or linguistics.
Then again, since those are things I do know a damn thing about, maybe I should write a book about Mormon vampires instead. I'm totes qualified!