Spoiler alert: This review discusses the plot and the philosophical questions and controversies underlying it.
I give this book two stars only because Dan Brown is still skillful at constructing a decent plot structure and managing his narrative pace. In my opinion, however, it is the worst novel he has ever written. The ending and “the culprits” were fairly easy to predict very early on. Brown telegraphed the secrets Robert Langdon and Ambra Vidal would reveal even as Langdon went through his usual machinations of deciphering various symbols while on the run.
As is the case with all of Dan Brown’s novels, the page before chapter one states that “All art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organizations in this novel are real.” This may be technically true, but Brown twists the reality behind the above to suit his purposes and, at times, grossly distorts the underlying truths and meanings of art, science, religious institutions, and locations.
A few examples are in order, although pointing out every discrepancy between what is real and what is fabricated would take a book in itself. First, the narrative states that Michelangelo’s David is effeminate because of its pose. The truth is that Michelangelo was forced to position the David as it now stands because it was necessary to carve around various flaws in the column of marble he had selected for the piece. The David is real, of course, but not the information about its carving or its resulting presentation.
Second, the ultraconservative Palmarian Church is indeed a Catholic schismatic sect that broke away from the Church in 1978, not recognizing any further popes in Rome but rather electing its own. It is not, however, a thriving sect that has hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide who donate veritable fortunes to keep conservative Catholicism alive, which is what the book claims as fact. It is estimated that the sect has fewer than 1,000 followers left and continues to shrink. It has only thirty nuns and a pope who left to get married. That’s conservative? In Origen, the Palmarian church is a popular and wealthy driving force helping to drive Brown’s plot on several fronts. What Brown has written about the church is not in any sense “real.” At the very end, he pulls back and says the church was just a financial scam, but that’s not entirely true either.
But let’s move onto a third example, one that is inferred from both science and religious institutions. This is the biggie.
The book plainly states in multiple chapters that there are only two possibilities: either God created man fully-formed or else Darwinian evolution is correct and negates the possibility that there is a God. Catholic doctrine and most Christian denominations have no argument with science, nor is there any belief that Darwin’s theories preclude the existence of God. The Catholic Church (and its theology) openly acknowledges that the creation story in Genesis and much of the Old Testament are genre fiction and not to be taken literally. The entire premise of the book is that once evolution and its corollaries have been proven correct, such as how the first DNA was created in the primordial oceans, then God can no longer exist. With the exception of many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, this view is not shared by most Christians, and Genesis is not taken literally by believers.
Brown has made his entire plot revolve around this central question of evolution and the creation of the first living cells. Okay, so what if a lightning strike caused certain molecules to form into one-celled organisms, meaning that God didn’t come from heaven on a chariot and place Adam and Eve in the Garden? Other questions must be answered. Who made the oceans? The planet? The galaxies? Who is responsible for the Big Bang? Brown, who gives enormous shout-outs to New Atheists such as Hawking, deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins, and others, tries to limit the entire debate over the existence of God to a point that is not in contention within Catholicism. The plot, presented as philosophical fact, and its assumption that definitive proof of evolution will put an end to all religions, is absurd—and is most definitely not fact. (Evolution was presumed as fact by most scientists long ago, and religion didn’t die.)
But consider that little sentence at the beginning of the book again: “All art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organizations in this novel are real.” The author has skillfully manipulated his readers into buying into believing that science and religion cannot coexist, a central theme to the book without which there can be no plot. Once the reader believes that little innocent-looking sentence, then the whole philosophical premise of the book is entertained as being a valid argument that will topple religion.
Brown has been hammering away at religion for several years by inserting twisted facts into his plots, and this is a tour de force in inviting the reader to step inside his world of scientific rationalism. But one cannot prove the “supernatural” with “natural” sciences. Science itself admits that beyond an event horizon of a black hole or the instant before the Big bang, physical laws—and physics itself—no longer exist. In Origen, Brown has pulled out all of the stops and tried, once and for all, to bludgeon religion to death with science that modern Catholicism does not repudiate. He has failed miserably and instead has given his readers a diatribe, not an engaging novel of suspense.
So why is this so troubling? I, for one, am tired of trying to read an enjoyable thriller without being hit over the head constantly by the axe Brown has to grind with religion, the Catholic Church in particular. Without contributions from Catholic scholars and monks, learning would not have survived the Dark Ages due to monasteries preserving classical Greek philosophy, and many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have been made by Christian men and women of faith. Even today, there are millions of scientists who belong to organized religions, scientists who do not believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive.
The character of Robert Langdon remains undeveloped after six Langdon novels, which would qualify most writers for an immediate rejection slip. Yes, we know that he swims every morning, wears a Mickey Mouse watch, has an eidetic memory, and grows irate and frustrated at all people who do not have every nuance of history, art, architecture, and symbology committed to memory. In this latter respect, Langdon never fails to grow aggravating to me and patronizing and condescending to other characters. Yes, Langdon is an uber scholar, but as a human being he is flat, one-dimensional.
And speaking of Langdon, his role in this novel is minimal. He is more of a bystander as Brown preaches his gospel of atheism. He solves a few riddles, but he certainly doesn’t advance the plot.
The copy editing for the book (as with other Brown novels) is bad. Hundreds of compound words are split into two, such as “crossfire.” In the novel we are told that two characters are in “a cross fire.” That literally means that they are somehow threatened by a burning cross. Words are hyphenated that shouldn’t be. Commas are thrown about haphazardly, and sentences that need commas to prevent a misreading have none.
The constant use of italics (and Spanish sentences) is especially annoying. Sentences are italicized at the drop of a hat to show thoughts, alarm, emphasis, etc. These are all valid uses of commas, but they are used thousands of times in the book, and I couldn’t always tell when a sentence was expressing a thought, emphasis, surprise, or all of the above. This overuse of italics slows the reading process and at times makes it unclear who is thinking or speaking.
In terms of using italics to indicate a rise in vocal inflection, there is no rhyme or reason to where the italics are placed. I read many sentences out loud, but they sounded ridiculous and sing-song. The incorrect vocal emphasis compromises the dialogue in hundreds of places.
As usual, Brown revels in describing architecture and art, but his description of architecture was way over the top here. It was pervasive throughout the book and extremely repetitive in spots. I suspect Brown couldn’t resist the descriptions since they are mostly framed as architectural explanations that reinforce the atheism or paganism of the architect. There’s such a thing as too many chambers, staircases, crypts, balconies, and spires. At times, I felt as if I were reading Architectural Digest.
And then there is the anticlimactic ending that runs for seventy-five mind-numbing pages (a video presentation to shock the world into giving up belief in God). The science is shaky at best, and the presentation jumps from one scientific conjecture to another. I felt as if I were sitting in a college auditorium, forced to listen to a longwinded and slightly far-fetched lecture. It’s tedious in the extreme and seventy-five pages of more didacticism and philosophy mixed in with science that again twists facts combined with computer simulations that are both nebulous and a bit hard to swallow.
But wait! Langdon at the last minute asks where physics came from? Who made the laws of science? Maybe there is a higher power after all. Nah. Science is the new religion. Or, well, maybe they can work together. Nah, science is the new religion. But maybe God exists and the fault lies with fundamentalists and evangelicals. No, science is the new religion. The ending is garbled from a narrative perspective, but the message has been driven home. God, according to the narrative, is irrelevant either way. Only science can save the world.
I think Mr. Brown would be well advised to put Robert Langdon on the shelf for a while and write other novels, ones similar to Deception Point or Digital Fortress. When the formula is always so preachy, determined to prove an anti-religious belief ad nauseum, the patience wears thin.
Unfortunately, Brown’s thrillers have become a platform for not-so-thinly veiled attempts to refute God and religion. It has become tiresome. Origen hardly qualifies as fiction because of its heavy-handed rant against religion. As noted, his books are not really based on facts, but he has snookered millions of readers into believing that he and his alter ego, Robert Langdon, know arcane secrets and truths. They don’t.