by Dan Brown
Dan Brown has established a very successful formula for his thrillers, entwining religious and scientific ideas with art and conspiracy theory. His latest, Origin, published in 2017, is no exception. It addresses two questions, posed by both science and religion for hundreds of years (in the case of religion, thousands):
Where have we come from? Where are we going?
‘Edmond’s presentation was skating dangerously close to becoming a public denunciation of faith in general. Langdon wondered if Edmond had somehow forgotten that he was speaking …. to the millions of people around the globe who were watching online.’
In Origin, computer scientist Edmond Kirsch, futurist, atheist and friend of Robert Langdon, Brown’s familiar hero, believes he has the answers. He plans to announce his discovery in a public presentation from Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. The museum’s durector Ambra Vidal, who also happens to be engaged to the heir to the Spanish throne, Prince Julian, has helped him set it up.
[[Knowing that the museum’s director is NOT called Ambra Vidal, and that the present king of Spain – Felipe, son of Juan Carlos, has been on the throne for four years rather spoiled the background for me. But if that doesn’t bother you, read on!]]
Kirsch’s mistake is that, before the broadcast, he shares his discovery with three clerics, one Roman Christian, one Muslim and one Jewish. His subsequent murder pits Langdon against the assassin of a sinister religious cult. As in other Brown novels, the Professor has the company of a young woman, in this case Miss Vidal, whom he is accused by the media and the palace of kidnapping. Aided by an advanced quantum computer called Winston, Langdon and Vidal go on the run, determined to discover the password that will launch Kirsch’s pre-recorded revolutionary announcement to the world.
‘Langdon nodded in mute disbelief. …. Bishop Antonio Valdespino was now the ONLY living person on earth who knew what Kirsch had discovered.’
The only surviving member of the clerical trio, Bishop Valdespino, friend and advisor to the king, has secreted Julian from the royal palace for his safety. Meantime, coteries of religionists, police, royal guards and on-line conspiracy theorists are doing their best to confuse everyone, to the point that the reader is quite unable to distinguish the goodies from the baddies.
‘But it was too late. His brain was shutting down. As the blackness set in, the last thing Langdon heard was an odd sound . . . a series of recurring thuds beneath him, each one further away than the one before.’
The chase – with fast cars, boats and helicopters – leads to a dramatic confrontation amid the splendours of Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece, the Segrada Familia of Barcelona. Indeed, much of the narrative here is a tribute to Gaudi, and the story features not only his famous basilica but also the Park Guell and the Casa Mila.
Dan Brown tells us at the beginning that all the organisations, the art and the science mentioned in Origin are real. Maybe, but what he does with these elements is sheer fantasy. The supreme strategist, Winston, reminds me of the story told by Stephen Hawking in one of his interviews. The first question by scientists to the first intelligent computer: Is there a God? brought forth the answer: There is now! *** He is much too advanced – and human – for his own good.
There are lots of surprises and twists. However, the resolution of the plot doesn’t come as a great surprise and Kirsch’s world-shattering announcement is a bit of a disappointment. Readers of Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus will probably recognise the build-up of ideas.
Origin proceeds at a frenetic pace. It is not entirely to my taste as a work which entwines art with science and religion. Nevertheless, I cannot deny its appeal as a page-turner of the thriller genre.
*** I don’t think Hawking was the first person to tell this story but for the moment I can’t remember who did.