Origin book review: Dan Brown's latest thriller finds Robert Langdon unspooling a mystery in Barcelona
The Da Vinci Code, this is not. Angels and Demons, this is not. Hell, even Deception Point (one of my favourite Brown novels), this is not. For Dan Brown fans, Origins is just a good one-time read.
We are approaching the end of 2017 and Dan Brown is out with his latest thriller, Origin. After his last outing with Inferno, which gave us a tour of Italy and explored Dante’s Divine Comedy, Brown is back with the Mickey Mouse-watch wearing Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. This is the fifth Brown book featuring Langdon and it is safe to assume that we won’t be seeing stand-alone Brown thrillers anytime soon. Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon has pretty much ensured that.
With Origin, Brown’s story is exploring the two existential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Protagonist and maverick scientist and researcher, Edmond Kisrch (modelled on Elon Musk), who also happens to be a former student of Robert Langdon, has an important announcement to make. This announcement, according to him has the power “to not only shake, but shatter the very foundations of modern day religions”. The grand reveal is supposed to happen inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. If you have read Brown novels, you already know what is going to happen during the grand announcement.
One of the best bits about The Da Vinci Code was the fact that it jumped straight into action. Every few chapters had some code that needed to be unlocked and it held your interest. In Origin, for the first 100 odd pages, Brown is just building the nut graph before coming to the actual point. As you are reading the book, you know that the revelation cannot happen so soon but the alternative narrative you have in its place seems more like a drag, than the taut quest that was experienced in The Da Vinci Code and even Angels and Demons. This book could have easily been a 100 pages shorter. And, as is expected, just when Kirsch is about to make the major announcement, he is shot to death. It is then up to Langdon and museum director, Ambra Vidal, the token smart beautiful female side-kick that is a hallmark of all Langdon featuring novels, to join the pieces of the puzzle and ensure Kirsch’s discovery is presented to the world.
As a technology journalist and someone who is generally interested in what is happening in the world of artificial intelligence, the revelations weren’t that aww-inducing for me. As I am sure, they won’t be for anyone following the advances in AI. In fact, half-way through the book, you are convinced who is the one pulling the strings.
The nature vs nurture, evolution vs creationism and related themes are addressed, although in a way that is more suited for a TED talk or a lecture than a racy thriller that Brown is renowned for. Not to mention the liberal use of cliches employed which become rather tiring after a while. And, then of course, we have situations where we are constantly reminded of Langdon’s ‘claustrophobia’ and his ‘eidetic memory’.
Character development is tepid. Yes, you have the smart and beautiful female protagonist in the form of Ambra Vidal, the director of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, who is also engaged to the Prince of Spain no less. Vidal is overseeing the announcement by Kirsch, which goes horribly wrong and sets into motion a series of events. The conflicted Prince Julian derives little sympathy, even though you know that he is being played to the whims of his adviser - Bishop Antonio Valdespino. Valdespino also happens to be one of the three religious heads with whom Kirsch consults before he decides to go public with his announcement and is representative of orthodox Christianity. The assassin has at least some semblance when it comes to a convincing back story. It’s 2017 and there can’t be a Brown book without featuring the current day technology. So the footage given to the AI assistant, Winston, is significant and that makes sense when seen from the plot angle. Although, at times it seems a tad too convenient. Imagine Winston as a 10th or 15th generation of Siri or Alexa or Cortana or Assistant.
Brown has smartly incorporated every element in the book, which will lend itself well to a movie adaptation. Although unlike his previous work, the scale is limited to Spain. One is given tours of the Barca modernism favourites constructed by the genius Antoni Gaudi. Casa Mila aka La Pedrera and La Basilica de Sagrada Familia are prominently featured. Their architecture, which incorporates biomimetic design and the unconventional methods of Gaudi finds a resonance with the maverick researcher Kirsch. While Brown does mention the popular spots of Barcelona, do not expect ‘Origin-themed’ tours in Barcelona anytime soon. (If you want to get a real feel of Barcelona through fiction, try Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind series.)
As with most of his books, you will emerge smarter, thanks to the historical nuggets of information that are sprinkled throughout the book. Brown touches everyone from poet William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche to artists such as Joan Miro and architect Antoni Gaudi to the finer nuances of modern day artificial intelligence. But I would have loved the book if the delivery was a bit less Wikipedia-esque. Brown dedicates a good 20-25 pages to the ultimate announcement that was supposed to be given by Kirsch before being shot.
Origin has a lot less action when compared to Brown’s previous books. Even the antagonist isn’t as layered as one would expect. But Brown has tried his best to keep up with the times, using AI and a ‘Wikileaks-type’ conspiracy website to take the narrative forward.
Don’t have too many expectations going in, and you should be fine. While the book’s premise does question some deeply entrenched beliefs of the Church, I really doubt the Vatican will bother with this book, lest it end up increasing the sales.
The Da Vinci Code, this is not. Angels and Demons, this is not. Hell, even Deception Point (one of my favourite Brown novels), this is not. For Brown fans, this is a good one-time read.
But, ‘impossible to put down’, it is not!
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