Run, Langdon, Run!
Given that I have 3 degrees in English literature, reading Dan Brown novels is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. At least, usually it’s a pleasure. I think I only read The Da Vinci Code after I had seen the film. All the plot twists were, therefore, spoiled for me, but I nevertheless enjoyed reliving the puzzles and the riddles that Professor Tom Hanks (I mean, Robert Langdon!) had to solve in order to uncover the “truth”.
Then I read Angels & Demons, and that was a far more exciting thriller novel – mainly due to the fact there is a literal ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, and so Langdon is in a race against time to find the bomb somewhere in the Vatican. I had read these two books in the wrong order, but Brown does not seem to be big on character development when it comes to Langdon, so it does not really matter how you read them.
Sometimes I do wish Brown had put a little more effort into giving Langdon a bit of a character arc over the course of the five novels – something to make him seem more like a real person and not just a plot device. I then read The Lost Symbol and Inferno when they were released, and they both served as satisfying episodes in the ongoing adventures of Robert Langdon. Now we come to Origin, the latest book.
In the Beginning, There Was a MacGuffin…
The book begins with Edmond Kirsch, a former student of Langdon’s who is now a billionaire and owner of a successful computer company. He sets up a meeting with three prominent religious leaders from around the world: a bishop, a rabbi and an imam. This sounds like the beginning of a joke… Kirsch claims to have made a scientific discovery that proves how human life began on Earth, and his discovery also disproves God.
He shares his discovery with the religious leaders, and wants to gauge from them how the faithful of the world will react when they hear it. We, as readers, do not hear what Kirsch’s discovery is, but Brown repeatedly tells us how shocked the religious leaders are by this news. They plead with Kirsch not to share his discovery with the world. He tells them he will release the news in 1 month. In fact, he intends to do it in 3 days’ time.
3 days later, Langdon visits the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, where Kirsch is planning to present his discovery to a group of special guests, while live streaming the video online. Of course, the presentation does not go as planned. The majority of the Robert Langdon stories begin with a murder: however, this book takes quite a while (about 100-plus pages) before the murder we all know is coming eventually happens.
Thou Shalt Give Langdon a Beautiful Female Side-kick
Dan Brown is not a ‘great writer’ in the literary sense. He follows a very specific formula when he writes his novels and, although formulaic, the stories are usually entertaining. One of the main ingredients in his recipe is a female protagonist that Langdon inevitably ends up working with. And she is always described as “beautiful” – there are no plain janes here, even if they are museum curators, like the Spaniard Ambra Vidal.
Vidal is said to have dark hair and dark eyes, and spends the novel running across Spain in a white dress with a black stripe. I’m calling it now, that if they ever make a film of this book, you can bet that Penelope Cruz will most likely be cast as Vidal. However, the problem with her character is that, unlike her predecessors who helped Langdon solve mysteries, she does not seem to have much of an impact on the plot.
This sort of encapsulates my general disappointment with this novel. Brown has written a decent Robert Langdon adventure, but it falls short of the standard set by the previous four books. The plots of Brown’s books are usually very intricate, but this one seems quite thin once you analyse it. The main plot here is that Langdon and Vidal must crack a computer password that will allow a video to be released online. That’s it.
Artificial Intelligence, Literally
There is also very little doubt that Langdon will crack the code and the video will be released. The reason a reader might be confident of this (besides Langdon being the Hero, and the Hero Always Wins) is because he has help from a supercomputer called Winston. At the start of the story, Langdon is given an earpiece from Kirsch that allows Langdon to talk to an artificial intelligence that Kirsch created. His name is Winston and, as the book suggests, he is like “Siri on steroids.”
This appears to be part of Brown’s efforts to be savvy with technological developments, but Winston’s powers are so great that he really makes Langdon’s whole quest a bit too easy. Langdon is able to keep in contact with Winston throughout the novel, and the supercomputer is able to manipulate matters in order to make the plot work in favour of Langdon and Vidal. It is an extremely literal example of deus ex machina.
And when the moment finally comes that the whole book has been building up to – the release of Kirsch’s video – there follows 30 pages (I am not joking) of what reads like a science essay. I have not read the books Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, but these 30 pages by Brown seem to be a good summary of their general thesis. So, Origin may not be much of a thriller, but at least you’ll have learned something by the end.
- By reading this novel, you will learn a fair bit about Antonio Gaudi, the Palmarian Church and get an overview of scientific topics stretching from the primordial ooze to artificial intelligence.
- The novel is not up to the standards that Brown usually sets for himself. There are less plot twists, less puzzles and riddles for Langdon to solve, and just less tension for most of the time.