Book review: Dan Brown's Origin, which pits science against religion, is more spectacle than substance

Dan Brown's Origin is the fifth to feature main character Robert Langdon.
Dan Brown's Origin is the fifth to feature main character Robert Langdon.PHOTO: DOUBLEDAY

Review

FICTION

ORIGIN

By Dan Brown

Bantam Press/ Hardcover/ 461 pages/ $42.80/ Major bookstores

***

"The teachings of all religions did indeed have one thing in common. They were all dead wrong." American author Dan Brown - of The Da Vinci Code fame - has not lost his predilection for provocative pronouncements, but there is more spectacle than substance to the controversy he tries to fan in his latest thriller Origin.

The novel is the fifth to feature Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon, who we last saw in Inferno, Brown's 2013 bestseller, embroiled in a mystery involving medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

We catch up with him this time at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In a change of pace, he is struggling not with deadly assassins but modern art (one gets a sense from his dismissive descriptions that he would prefer the assassins).

Langdon is there as part of a mystery high-tech conference by his former student Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire computer scientist who, at the age of 33, compared himself to Jesus Christ for inventing a computer programme that rescued the European Union from bankruptcy.

Kirsch has earlier had an audience with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, claiming to have made a discovery that will destroy the foundations of their religions.

He now plans to unveil this discovery at the Guggenheim. But things go disastrously wrong, and Langdon finds himself on the run with museum director Ambra Vidal - who happens to be engaged to the prince of Spain - as they solve clue after clue in a race against time to help Kirsch's work see the light of day.

Brown likes to not so much foreshadow as bludgeon readers over the head with hype and we are reminded repeatedly how earth-shattering Kirsch's discovery will be.

It does not live up to these immense expectations.

Though Brown has made a name for himself as the layman's guide to art history, this lay reader finds his take on biophysics a snooze. One must lie back and think of England - Jeremy England, to be specific, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor whose theory Brown borrows heavily from.

It is a pity, because the rest of the book proves a real page-turner, zipping from ancient monasteries and musty cathedral vaults to the sleek new world of supercomputers and self-driving Tesla cars.

Brown does Spanish tourism a great service with his lush, titbit-laden descriptions of the Guggenheim, as well as Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi's Casa Mila and Sagrada Familia. The book is most palatable when he is absorbed by the cleverness of great minds like Gaudi's, rather than his own.

His tendency for overblown prose is unfortunately all too evident in moments such as the interactive conference at the Guggenheim, when the audience is assailed by the sound and vibrations of rushing water and cold mist as Kirsch shouts: "That is the inexorable swelling of the River of Scientific Knowledge!" which caused this reviewer to burst out laughing in public.

Brown's characters are often archetypal exhibits in telling, not showing. We are reminded at least four times that Langdon has an eidetic memory; clearly we do not have the same.

Distressed damsel Ambra does little more than struggle with her love life while looking stunningly beautiful. In fact, we are constantly reminded of how ridiculously good-looking these characters are, even the 63-year-old assassin with a troubled past, who despite his murderous quest is suave enough to leave barmaids "weak-kneed" in passing.

The most interesting character in the novel is a computer. Winston is an artificial intelligence created by Kirsch, who fancies the Surrealist art of Joan Miro and has observed humans long enough to learn the art of the sassy comeback. He has no looks to speak of, which is a plus.

Origin is not as original as it would like to be, so don't expect it to shake your world. Still, it makes for a pretty entertaining few hours.

oliviaho@sph.com.sg

If you liked this, read: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl (Deckle Edge, 2012, $4.95, from Amazon.com). Science and Christianity clash in this historical mystery set in 1868 Boston, as a team of students from the young Massachusetts Institute of Technology try to stop a slew of technological sabotage.