By Dan Brown
456 pages. $29.95
Exploring the competitive tensions between religion and science, Dan Brown’s “Origin” is a mystery that will appeal to readers looking for thoughtfulness and thrills. Brown tells the tale of Edmond Kirsch, a brash computer scientist and atheist activist who thinks his recent discovery about humanity’s origins and destiny will upset world religions. After chaos erupts during the announcement, Professor Robert Langdon investigates the mystery of Kirsch’s findings.
Brown’s book is an often gripping page-turner that combines well-managed mystery with reflections on culture, history, and technology. Using short chapters, Brown moves the story briskly along. Brown effectively builds suspense by interweaving storylines, shifting from one plotline cliffhanger to another strand in his story.
Brown’s melodramatic vision of war between religious and scientific activists creates an exciting, if not very subtle, atmosphere. Embodying the boldness and innovative spirit of technological visionaries like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Brown’s Kirsch is a vibrant character whose passionate interests in art, science and philosophy drive the novel. Kirsch’s conviction that art and nature are merely different languages describing reality provides the vital connection to Brown’s most famous literary creation, the Harvard University “symbologist” Langdon.
An expert in cultural codes, Langdon is a literary hero in the vein of Sherlock Holmes: He uses brains rather than brawn to tackle problems. While “Origins” features some thrilling chase scenes and gun-play, Langdon invariably uses his intellect (as well as his helpfully eidetic memory) to navigate a dangerous and complex mystery.
Brown introduces two characters who embody Langdon’s spirit of intellectual heroism as they become his allies. Ambra Vidal, the Guggenheim Museum’s beautiful and intelligent director, joins Langdon's effort to help broadcast Kirsch’s potentially paradigm-shifting message to humanity. Vidal’s engagement with the Crown Prince of Spain, Julián, connects her and Langdon’s quest with the turbulent world of Spanish politics.
Vidal is a well-drawn character whose knowledge of art makes her a key asset for Langdon rather than a conventional damsel-in-distress merely along for the ride. Brown’s compelling presentation of how creepy and disrespectful Prince Julián acts when he surprises Vidal with a proposal on live television adds an especially poignant—and feminist— touch to her character.
Langdon’s other ally is Winston — an artificial intelligence personal assistant who represents a quantum leap in such technology made possible by E-Wave, a next-gen quantum computer designed by Kirsch. Combining the cheerful British accent of the helpful car-computer KITT from “Knightrider” with the massive processing power of HAL from Kubrick’s “2001,” Winston is a lively conversationalist with unswerving loyalty to his creator, Kirsch.
Winston’s philosophical conversations with Langdon help Brown’s thriller become a platform for thoughtful reflections on advancing technologies’ effects on art and religion. Brown’s fascination with technology permeates the work, which features self-driving cars, smart phones, smart houses, virally spreading conspiracy theories and strategically timed digital announcements.
Winston’s presence ironically humanizes such technological developments. Using the evolving relationship between Winston and Langdon to make us sometimes question the clear line between humanity and its artificial creations, Brown nevertheless highlights the computer’s status as a profoundly alien — and unsettlingly new — sort of entity.
One of the greatest strengths of Brown’s novel lies in its powerful sense of place. Through vivid descriptions of physical locations that are systematically linked with politics and history, Brown makes us feel the pulse of Spanish life and culture. Especially due to the very general nature of its science and religion themes, “Origins” gains much from its immersive Spanish setting.
From its opening description of the Gothic atmosphere of the monastery of Montserrat to its later depiction of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, “Origins” creates a Spain full of beauty, mystery and vitality. Brown makes especially powerful use of the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a memorial in San Lorenzo de El Escorial that evokes fraught Spanish feelings due to its association with the chillingly conservative, Fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
Fascinated by the powerful feelings produced by Spanish debates about its monarchy and Catholic traditionalism, Brown uses the Valley of the Fallen to concentrate much of the energy of his novel’s meditations on tensions between progressivism and conservatism.
Brown’s greatest engagement with Spain lies in his focus on the work of architect and artist Antoni Gaudí. In exploring Gaudí, whose insistence that art and nature should be seen as inseparable lies at the heart of “Origins,” Brown makes excellent use of the literary technique of ekphrasis (the written description of works of art within an artistic text). While it is not surprising to see ekphrasis used by the author of “The Da Vinci Code,” which centrally involves analysis of the painting “The Last Supper,” it is worth noting that Brown is strikingly successful in integrating his excellent depictions of art-works into the plot of “Origins.”
Rather than simply adding in lively descriptions, Brown enriches the larger themes of his novel through his scintillating depictions of Gaudí masterpieces. Gaudí’s church Sagrada Familia serves to symbolize the ongoing synthesis of modernism and traditionalism, while the housing complex Casa Milà invites us to resist any easy distinction between art and nature.
Brown makes deft use of other cultural luminaries in “Origins.” Brown’s discussion of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche helps us ponder both the sense of freedom and pain that comes with transcending religious traditions, while the poet-prophet William Blake voices the conflicted sense of a new scientific age violently breaking from the past.
Brown also makes use of actual scientists to frame debates about the creation and destiny of humans. As the thoughts and work of actual scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Jeremy England are folded into the work, we learn about such subjects as entropy and computer modeling, even as we enjoy the conspiracy ride.
While its revelations ultimately do not rise to the occasion of its deeply ambitious focus on human creation and destiny, “Origins” is an enjoyable and thought-provoking novel well worth your time.
Randy P. Schiff is a contributing movie and TV reviewer for the News.