Back to the Future

Sunday Times, 8 October 2017
Origin by Dan Brown
Bantam Press £20 pp480
Dan Brown likes spectacular settings. The Da Vinci Code famously opens with a murder in the Louvre, and his new novel, Origin, uses the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a backdrop. In typically portentous style, Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor from Brown’s earlier books, has been summoned there to hear a maverick computer genius, Edmond Kirsch, reveal the answers to two of life’s most profound questions: where did we come from, and where are we going?
Not long afterwards, Kirsch’s presentation — which will supposedly shake the foundations of organised religion — is cut short by a sudden act of violence. Wrongly accused of complicity, Langdon goes on the run with the Guggenheim’s beautiful director, Ambra Vidal. She is engaged to the heir to the Spanish throne, adding a handy celebrity connection to events.
Inevitably, Langdon’s suspicions about who was responsible for the outrage at the museum fall on the Catholic church, and the scene is set for a Christians-versus-atheists ding-dong. In the meantime, and in a frantic quest for even more picturesque locations, Brown sends his fugitives to Barcelona. Never able to resist an opportunity to unleash his inner tourist guide, he interrupts the action to recite statistics about the height of Gaudi’s unfinished church, La Sagrada Familia.
Elsewhere, he’s happy to show off his research into European history. Nietzsche appears as the “renowned” (a favourite Brown word) 19th-century German philosopher. The Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco is described at length on no fewer than three occasions, while Winston Churchill appears as “the celebrated British statesman” who was also “an artist of remarkable talent”.
The novel is tiresomely long — no wonder, with all those adjectives clogging up the narrative — but the biggest problem is Kirsch’s claims about the significance of his discoveries. The scientific experiments described towards the end of the novel can’t possibly live up to such a hyperbolic build-up — and they don’t. Rational readers (assuming any have persevered this far) are almost certain to wonder what all the fuss was about.
There is a final plot twist, involving a supercomputer called Winston, which leaves Langdon quaking in his shoes. Aficionados of mid-20th-century science fiction will
be less shocked, especially if they are familiar with the work of Isaac Asimov and Fredric Brown. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, both men wrote memorable short stories about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Over just a handful of pages, they managed to convey a great deal more than Brown does in this entire overheated farrago of nonsense.

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