It’s a funny coincidence that the Will Smith movie ‘I, Robot’ is playing on TV as I write this review of Dan Brown’s latest offering, Origin. And I’ll tell you why in a bit…
Brown’s book is a stark departure from the winning trifecta of art, religion and fiction – the pillars on which his bestsellers have rested. Instead, it attempts to venture into an area that the lead character, Processor Langdon, has little knowledge of – Artificial Intelligence. And it does so in an extremely unlikely setting – modern-day Spain. The story revolves around Professor Langdon’s former student Edmond Kirsch, who is killed in the process of announcing a scientific breakthrough that will answer two of the most important questions that have plagued mankind: where do we come from and where are we going? Edmond – an eccentric tech genius and a known atheist – claims that his discovery will fundamentally alter the way mankind looks at religion. An ultraconservative Spanish royalty is suspected of orchestrating the assassination, and together Langdon and Ambra Vidal – the director of the Guggenheim museum of modern art where the announcement was supposed to take place – must journey across Spain to uncover the truth and unveil Edmond’s presentation to the world.
Dan Brown is a master storyteller and has, over the years, perfected a style – call it a template if you will – that intricately weaves a narrative through history, religion, mythology and art. While the outcome of this narrative is, more often than not, an enjoyable – and best-selling – read, Origin feels forced. Professor Langdon – Brown’s lead character – feels out of place and out of depth; there’s barely any room for an ageing professor of iconography and symbology in this story. It is obvious from the beginning that the brash, abrasive, irreverent and arrogant futurist Edmond Kirsch has been modeled after the new age tech messiahs Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Oh, and it turns out that Edmond was dying anyway – of pancreatic cancer. Just in case the reference wasn’t clear… Ambra Vidal’s character could have been so much more but is reduced to playing second fiddle. And since the framework within which Brown operates mandates the involvement of religion, there’s an orthodox Catholic priest who has the ear of the king and an obscure and conservative branch of Catholicism thrown in. Langdon’s proclivity for sermons on symbols and art is tolerable – and at a bare minimum – and Edmond’s exaggerations surrounding the scale of his discovery are mildly annoying. The digressions involving descriptions of Gaudi’s work are unnecessary… And templatized. It fails to keep a reader hooked, and there are flashes of brilliance that could have been expanded on.
The book does leave its readers pondering over the possibilities of a future that we’ll share with a species smarter than us (AI, in case you’re wondering) but then again, there’s enough debate in the public domain on this already. And the subject has had enough coverage in pop culture – in the form of some highly entertaining (and provocative) movies – Her, Ex-machina, A Space Odyssey.