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 readers last saw in Inferno, Brown's 2013 bestseller, embroiled in a mystery around mediaeval Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
He is now at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and in a change of pace, he is struggling not with deadly assassins, but modern art.
Langdon is there as part of a mystery high-tech conference by his former student Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire computer scientist who, at age 33, compared himself with Jesus Christ for inventing a computer program 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 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 the 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.
It is a pity because the rest of the book proves a real page-turner, zipping from ancient monasteries to the sleek new world of supercomputers.
Brown does Spanish tourism a great service with his lush 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 such as Gaudi's.
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. For instance, readers are reminded at least four times that Langdon has an eidetic memory, so he can recall images vividly.
The most interesting character in the novel is a computer. Winston, created by Kirsch, fancies the Surrealist art of Joan Miro and has observed humans long enough to learn the art of the sassy comeback.
Origin is not as original as it would like to be, so do not expect it to shake your world. Still, it makes for a pretty entertaining few hours.
If you like this, read: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl (Deckle Edge, 2012, US$4.95 or S$6.75, 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.