Book review: Gee-whiz excitement and geeky humour in Dan Brown's new Robert Langdon novel Origin

Dan Brown prefers literature that is instructive, and his latest thriller Origin delves into everything from Winston Churchill and artificial intelligence to abstract art and the Sagrada Familia cathedral. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTimes) - Dan Brown has thrown off the doldrums of Inferno with a brisk new book that pits creationism against science, and is liable to stir up as much controversy as The Da Vinci Code did.

In Origin, the brash futurist Edmond Kirsch comes up with a theory so bold, so daring that, as he modestly thinks to himself in Brown's beloved italics, "It will not shake your foundations. It will shatter them". Kirsch is of course addressing The World, because that's the scale on which Brown writes.

And Kirsch is right. Millions of people learn of his shocking, religion-flouting ideas. Entire belief systems are thrown into jeopardy. Action is triggered - the kind that sends Brown's hunky, beloved Harvard symbology professor, Robert Langdon, chasing all over Spain on Kirsch's trail, accompanied by the inevitable beautiful and brilliant woman.

As one admirer says to Langdon, the full flap this generates "reminds me of the Vatican denouncing your book Christianity And The Sacred Feminine, which, in the aftermath, promptly became a best seller". No need to be so modest. The book the Vatican fought in real life was The Da Vinci Code. It sold tens of millions of copies in dozens of languages, and has led to Brown's selling hundreds of millions of books (not to mention movie tickets) around the world.

The voice speaking to Langdon about his popularity is that of Winston, Kirsch's A.I. avatar. Winston's sensibilities are so highly developed that he sounds wiser than most people - which is a good thing, since he has to lead Langdon to many of the hoops through which Origin makes him leap.

Origin grows out of questions raised by scientists who adopt atheism in a world where strict creationism has less and less relevance. The novel doesn't paint Kirsch as an enemy of religion, though its prologue does show him arriving threateningly at a scenic abbey in Montserrat to challenge three religious leaders just after a meeting of the Parliament of the World's Religions.

We soon cut to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, in Spain, where Langdon sports the white tie and tails he wore nearly 30 years ago as a member of the Ivy Club at Princeton. Being fit and studly (and who would want it otherwise?), he swims enough daily laps for the tails to fit. A large crowd has been summoned by Kirsch to hear his earthshaking announcement, and of course the 40-year-old genius wants his favourite professor to be present. So Langdon kills time staring aghast at the modern art, which Brown describes in detail. This book does some spectacularly funny stalling in order to postpone the moment of truth. It also plants a bitterly troubled assassin in the crowd. An assassin who means to do God's will and deludes himself by thinking (in italics, naturally): "I have returned from the abyss." Does anyone think Kirsch will get through 100 pages of introductory fanfare and make his big announcement unscathed?

Now Langdon, still in tails, dashes out of the museum alongside its director, the beautiful Ambra Vidal. She happens to be the fiancee of Spain's Prince Julien, who will soon be king. (Brown has made up his own Spanish royal family.) Her clout, Kirsch's money and Winston's disembodied smarts empower the two runaways to go anywhere in their search for... what? Touristy sites to keep the book interesting, for starters. Barcelona is big on the agenda because its Gaudi architecture eerily embodies Kirsch's theories about the intersection of science and nature; because it poses fabulous challenges to Brown's fascination with logistics; and because everyone seems to have forgotten how hard it is for a man wearing tails to clamber all over the place without getting tied up in knots.

The Sagrada Familia, the towering, incomplete Gaudi cathedral, is one of several inspired physical embodiments of the serious ideas this book means to contemplate. (Brown and serious ideas: they do fit together, never more than they have in Origin.) Here in this unfinished building, God and science mysteriously coexist in bizarrely engineered turrets and the flora and fauna sculpted to climb the foundations.

But in the world of quantum computing, where Kirsch's earlier pioneering work had broken boundaries, the divine was harder to apprehend. The book's final destination reveals the essence of what Kirsch saw and created, and it inspires awe. Getting there is worth the roundabout journey.

Part of the fun in reading Brown comes from not taking him too seriously as a stylist. He brings to mind Joseph Heller's Yossarian in Catch-22, who has the job of censoring letters and turns it into an arbitrary game. There are Brown sentences that could happily lose their modifiers: "The grisly memory was mercifully shattered by the chime of the jangling bar door." There are phrases that beg you to ask friends to fill in the blanks: "Clear and penetrating, ---- - ----." (Like a bell.) There's an air of overstatement that's more gleeful than egregious, but it can't be mistaken for good.

And the hyperbole is sometimes the stuff of giggles: "I am not exaggerating when I tell you that my discovery will have repercussions on the scale of the Copernican revolution." If Brown didn't mean that, his books wouldn't be so well worth waiting for.

Then there are the tricks. All that symbology he and Langdon bring to the game is never without its gee-whiz excitement. Brown has told The New York Times that he loved the Hardy Boys books, and it shows. The hunt here for a 47-character password yields the niftiest feat of gamesmanship in the book, as does Langdon's self-important analysis of what looks like an exotic symbol on a car's window. It appears to be something that not even an expert of his calibre has ever seen before. It's not.

Brown loves winking at Langdon, the literally dashing version of himself, and inviting readers to share the joke. And for all their high-minded philosophising, these books' geeky humour remains a big part of their appeal. Not for nothing does Kirsch's Tesla have a license plate frame reading: "THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH." Brown continues to do everything in his playful power to ensure that will happen.

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