Origin by Dan Brown: a book review

Origin by Dan Brown (2017)

I recently read Origin, the latest Dan Brown novel. Just about every Dan Brown novel covers topics dear to my heart, such as cryptography, computer simulation, the theory of computation, and artificial intelligence – but also the history of science, the history of Christianity, Dante, and Galileo. Dan Brown routinely promises an accurate depiction of these background topics (in this latest novel, he says “All art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organizations in this novel are real”). However (as I also pointed out for his Angels & Demons), the reality of his novels doesn’t quite live up to this claim. To pick just three examples, Yves Klein did not invent the pigment in International Klein Blue; “Pope Innocent XIV” was an Argentinian antipope, not a Spanish one; and it is not suprising when computer simulations produce results reflecting the assumptions built into their design.

Gaudí’s la Sagrada Família (image credit) plays a major part in the novel. It has been on my bucket list for decades. It still is.

Even as a work of pure fiction, Origin still disappoints. As with Dan Brown’s previous novels, the constant appearance of crazed gunmen doesn’t make up for the plot weaknesses. And a major theme of the novel is artificial intelligence – now, I don’t object to this being portrayed far in advance of current technology (that’s not uncommon in fiction), but the theme of artificial intelligence has been handled far better by (among others) Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick, Michael Crichton, and Peter F. Hamilton. I also found the book’s ending profoundly anticlimactic. However, if you’re a fan of Dan Brown novels, you’ll probably like this one too.

For other reviews, see The Week (“Dan Brown is a very bad writer”), The National (“The idea that a computer simulation would fundamentally destroy the faith of billions in their religions is so utterly, cluelessly juvenile that it seems right at home in a Brown novel”), and The Stream (“It’s sci-fi done by someone who knows nothing about sci-fi”).

Origin by Dan Brown: 2 stars

Angels and (Foolish) Demons

I recently got around to watching the 2009 film Angels and Demons. Like The Da Vinci Code, this is a very silly film, with both the science and the history being wildly wrong. Galileo’s condemned book was widely printed outside Italy, for example. Publishers of the day were too discreet to plaster BANNED IN ITALY! READ IT FOR YOURSELF! on the cover, but the controversy was nevertheless a publisher’s dream. Even today, the house of Elsevier (who originally printed the book) prides itself on the connection (see photo of Elzevir edition by Angelina Ward below). The book has also kept up with the times; it can be read electronically.

Galileo did not, as the film suggests, argue for elliptical planetary orbits. Kepler did that, and failing to believe Kepler was one of Galileo’s biggest mistakes (had he believed Kepler, Galileo knew enough mathematics to see what ellipses and parabolae had in common, and might have gone on to formulate a theory of gravity).

The movie gives the viewer some wonderful images of Rome, but here the facts are wrong too. Raphael was never buried anywhere but in the Pantheon, for example. The book tells us that “Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World: The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata” – even though the Río de la Plata is in South America. And the list goes on. Among other things, Bernini did not place the “West Wind” marker on St Peter’s Square, nor is that marker distinct from the other fifteen:

“What’s new, Buenos Aires?
I’m new, I wanna say I’m just a little stuck on you.
You’ll be on me too…
And if ever I go too far,
It’s because of the things you are.
Beautiful town, I love you…
Río de la Plata, Florida, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio,
All I want to know…”

Possibly Dan Brown did indeed go a little too far here.