‘Where do we come from? Where are we going?’
When read in context with the mystery surrounding the origin of life on Earth and what our future holds, these two questions grab you by the eyeballs. Dan Brown knows how sensationalism works and he makes sure that these two questions are ubiquitous in the entire text of his new book in the Robert Langdon series – Origin – so that the reader is glued right until the end. Unfortunately for Origin, two sensational sentences do not make for a great story.
Those who follow me on Instagram may know that I’d purchased a hardcover copy of this book about four months back. I was very excited to read the book, especially since his last two, The Lost Symbol and Inferno, were complete letdowns, and I have liked the second in the Langdon series, The Da Vinci Code, so I had hopes that Langdon would enthral us again. An excerpt from the book on Amazon looked promising so I went ahead and ordered the hardcover copy instead of the Kindle version, which in hindsight, was a mistake.
A review of the book this late should give you an idea of how the book fared with me. But first, without giving you any spoilers, let me give you a brief outline of the story.
The book starts with Edmond Kirch – genius futurist, billionaire inventor and celebrated atheist, who is modeled after Elon Musk (he is mentioned in the story, BTW) – showing a video of his breakthrough scientific discovery to three prominent religious figures of the world, who are shaken up by the video to the extent that they fear that Edmond’s announcement of this discovery to the world, which he had planned three days later through a live telecast, would destroy religion on the Earth. The three agree that his discovery must not be revealed to the world, but feel powerless to do anything. Nevertheless, one of them warns Edmond not to go ahead with his presentation, but he pays no heed to the warning, while the other two religious heads mysteriously die.
Three days hence, at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the world is tuned in to Kirch’s live telecast of his presentation, to where Langdon is also invited. Langdon and Kirch go a long way back, when Kirsch was his student at Harvard. The Presentation is how Langdon comes to know the Guggenheim’s beautiful Director, and a close friend of Edmond’s – Ambra Vidal, and Edmond’s greatest invention, a state-of-the-art AI – Winston, who is Kirch’s man Friday and is assisting Edmond with the telecast from a remote location.
Kirsch’s discovery is the proposed answer to the age-old questions on the origin of life on Earth and the future of Mankind. And he is just about to unleash his discovery on an entranced world, when he is shot dead by a religious fanatic – Luis Avila, a former decorated Navy Admiral – who is on a mission to stop Kirch and his aides from revealing the discovery to the public.
The rest of the story takes you through an obvious treasure hunt where Langdon and Vidal, aided by Winston, are still trying to reveal Edmond’s discovery to the world, while an even more impatient Avila is chasing them down, all the way from Bilbao, to Barcelona.
The book starts on a promising note, only revealing enough of Kirch’s mysterious discovery to keep you hooked. This is the origin of life we are talking about and if you have questioned the Biblical theory of life originating from Adam and Eve, you will quickly rush through the first quarter of the book, that is if you don’t stop every now and then, like me, to Google famous art pieces at the Guggenheim so you ‘picture the story better‘, AND till Edmond dies and you realise that you still have three-quarters of the book to finish to get to the answers! This is the biggest flaw of the story, I feel, because after the exciting first quarter, it suddenly slows down to a mind-numbing crawl where you see Langdon and his newest arm candy, Vidal, running from one city to the other with the help of Winston, who eerily reminds you of David from the movie Prometheus. You feel like, ‘I know where this is going. I’ve read this before.’ Because you have… in the previous books in the series! This is when you are compelled to leave the book because the plot is no different than the last four in the Langdon series – the same clueless, reluctant Langdon being dragged into a bloody mystery involving a genius dead friend. A female companion, who even though is beautiful, smart, extremely qualified in her field, and in the case of Origin *gasps* is the future Queen of Spain, still acts like dead weight, occasionally chipping in with information that even a Wikipedia search could tell you. A similar religious fanatic whose misguided faith is financed and egged on by a powerful religious figure, who has helped the maniac overcome a troublesome past, and now recruits him for a murderous chase as payback; and the big reveal at the end, which in the case of Origin is no revelation at all.
The book is, as one may expect of Dan Brown’s work, peppered with trivia on conspiracy theories, iconography, a fair bit of codebreaking, elaborate discussions on famous locations, artefacts, works of art, books and in the case of Origin, technological advances and scientific theories behind AI and the theories of Creation, which all seemed more interesting than the story itself. Why? Because Dan Brown failed to provide any novel explanation to the theories surrounding the creation of life. To be fair, this is only a work of fiction and not a research paper, but even a simple internet search will tell you far more than the book offered by way of factual information supporting Kirsch’s discovery. In the end, the whole idea of a scientific discovery erasing religion from the face of the earth not only seems implausible but also laughable, and so the story fails to impress. That explains why it took me four months to finish the book because the plot was repetitive, the mystery stale and I was constantly putting it aside and reading up on the trivia instead, which sometimes consisted of irrelevant facts having no nexus with the story. Needless to say, this extra information becomes distracting and probably next time, Dan Brown should just keep the trivia down to the most essential and relevant bits, because really, no one wants to waste time reading an entire page about the terrace at the Casa Mila in Barcelona. We can just google it out.
I will though give credit to Dan Brown for the preference he gave to scientific themes over religious ones in this book. For once, he let religious themes take a backseat, even though here science is in direct conflict with religion, but in the end, the readers will feel that science need not necessarily be construed as the enemy of religion and that in fact, a union of the two will result in the larger good of mankind. That is the message the book tries to convey, and there at least, Dan Brown hasn’t failed. Moreover, it is refreshing not to read about ancient cults and medieval religious dogma again. The science-talk in the book forms the most interesting part of the book, yes, even more interesting than the mystery itself. Maybe this is because I was obsessing over the sci-fi series Westworld around the same time, which deals with similar themes, but hands down, the AI Winston, who towards the end, does begin to act like David from Prometheus, comes across as the most interesting character in the whole book.
The end where Winston self-destructs after his final David-ish act, in my opinion, could have been revealed before the revelation of Kirsch’s discovery. It may have had a better impact because once you have learnt what the big reveal was all about, you don’t feel like ploughing through the remainder of the book to get to the end, which in any case, seemed antithetical to the idea of the perfect AI that Kirsch believed in and had programmed Winston after. The end thus proves Kirsch wrong and leaves the reader with ambivalent feelings towards what developing more sentient AI could mean for the future of mankind.
It would be really nice to see Dan Brown mix things up with the plotlines a little in his Langdon series, which is Origin’s biggest flaw. The readers, those who have read his other books from the series, can not shake the feeling that they have seen it all before, which makes it a tedious read. But if you are someone who’s never read any Robert Langdon book, go for it. There is enough mystery and intriguing trivia to keep you hooked until the end.
Rating: In view of the above, I give the book three stars.
Did you like the review? Would you add to or defer from what I have presented? Have you read this book or would you read it after reading this review? Please let me know in the comments section, dear readers.
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