Being reflexively snotty about Dan Brown’s writing is like slagging off Donald Trump’s spelling: it just entrenches everyone’s position. In a world where a quarter of people read literally no books in any given year, can we give each other a break on this kind of thing? If you found Angels and Demons good fun, thoroughly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code (as I unironically did), but despised Inferno for the worthless piece of rat doodah that it was, then the good news is that Brown is back on form here.
Origin is brisk, fun and filled with adorably pointless Wikipedia paragraphs; and what’s at stake is endearingly grandiose. Here, the premise is atheism vs religion. A young tech genius proffers proof that there is no God, and is then gunned down before he gets a chance to explain it. It’s a scene so Hitchhiker-ian to British readers, you’re constantly expecting Slartibartfast to pop up and warn you not to buy anything.
Then it’s up to Robert Langdon, every- one’s favourite lap-swimming eidetic claustrophobe, and a Spanish princess to discover the answer to the book’s central question: ‘Where did we come from and where are we going?’ (The answer to the second question, by the way, even for someone like me who never ever reads blurbs and does their best not to guess ahead, is painfully obvious painfully early.)
Langdon is Harvard professor of symbology. I remain mildly obsessed with what Harvard’s undergrad course in symbology must be like. Can it take four entire years? What’s the viva like? Are finals just the Highway Code test? I mean, if the Harvard professor of codes, in Bilbao, can’t work out a code that starts BIO followed by a flight number, it’s got to be the easiest way to get through one of the world’s best universities..
This wouldn’t be a Dan Brown review — or a book review, in truth — without my pointing out some of the more gruelling passages. We have: ‘Without warning, she suddenly turned to face him’; ‘“I am the Inspector from Bilbao” he said, in rapidfire Spanish’; and ‘Thanks to the liberal “politically correct” movement sweeping Spain, smoking indoors was now outlawed in the palace offices.’
But for people who don’t care about this stuff, and just like a bit of fast-paced helicopters, crosswords and architecture — and this book sold 104,000 copies in its first three days on sale (by comparison, the second bestselling book sold 8,000) — then its perpetual Brownian motion will be reliably engrossing.
Incidentally, an odd thing about Origin is that the gunned-down wunderkind threatens to reveal some proof that will ‘kill religion’, about which everyone is apparently terrified. Whereas, in fact, there is already a beautiful, gentle book out that does precisely that. (Sample sentence: ‘Try asking a monkey to tithe you some of its bananas in exchange for an infinite amount of bananas in the afterlife and see how far you get.’)
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has already sold in Dan Brown-like quantities worldwide, and has caused no bloody killings at all. In the unlikely event you haven’t already read it and, like Brown fans, fancy learning some cool new stuff in a fun way, I wholeheartedly commend it to you.