Author: Dan Brown
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 544; Price: Rs 799
Dan Brown returns with yet another Robert Langdon novel, set in a world of art and, to his fan’s surprise, Artificial Intelligence (AI). Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain to attend the launch of a discovery that claims to “change the face of science forever”. The evening’s host and the discoverer is Langdon’s close friend and former student, Edmond Kirsch, a futurist and a renowned name in the world of technology (a la Elon Musk?) with some impressive inventions to his credit. Kirsch is also a controversial figure owing to his predictions with a reputation for being brash in his ‘God doesn’t exist’ view. And his latest discovery, he audaciously claims will challenge the face of human existence. “It will not shake your foundations. It will shatter them,” Kirsch daringly claims, setting pace for an exciting path ahead.
The book starts off on a slow note (over 100 pages are dedicated to setting a stage for Kirsch’s discovery and description of the museum), but picks up pace once Langdon gets into his Sherlock-eque mystery-solving mode post Kirsch’s assassination. While the guests are enjoying the tour of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao assisted by docents that are brought to life (pun intended) with artificial intelligence, there’s a parallel story of the assassin who’s planning on murdering Kirsch (hired by somebody called ‘Regent’, a person higher up in the religious ranks). Langdon, finds it difficult to acknowledge the fact that there are no human tour guides, but rather computrised docents speaking of art. But Langdon’s inhibitions are soon dissolved when Winston, Kirsch’s most advance artificial intelligence-cum-private assistant (Siri, Tony Stark’s Jarvis, anyone?), in his human-like voice starts the tour. Langdon is not just impressed with Winston’s advance system, but is also in awe of his ability to have a human-like discourse on art.
Kirsch starts his presentation with two of the most widely asked and unanswered questions: “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?” Questioning the blooming of life on earth Kirsch, and negating the existence of God, Kirsch says, “The age of religion is drawing to a close, and the age of science is dawning.” And his presentation gives hope to the one’s like me who are sitting on the fence when it comes to the existence of God. If the start got me tired due to the slow pace of the book (I did give it up, just like Inferno, but something about the Kirsch’s questions made me go back to it again), Kirsch’s presentation made me sit up and pay attention. After all, when it comes to God, one always hopes to find an answer that will either be in his favour or against. But Kirsch’s assassination midway through the live presentation, leaves everyone in attendance, Langdon in particular, distraught and in shock.
In Origin too, Langdon finds himself in a similar situation like his previous adventures in The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and Inferno: On the other side of the law, with his life in danger. Why? Because he is going to unveil his friend’s discovery. And helping him in his pursuit is Winston (the AI) and Ambra Vidal, the future queen of Spain and the Museum’s Director. And Langdon’s journey begins with cracking Kirsch’s 47-word password, which will enable him to reveal the discovery. A password which AI Winston doesn’t know! I wonder how is that possible, given that Winston was practically running Kirsch’s life: Look into hotel reservations, his appointments, help him with his work, etc. And how can anyone keep a secret from an AI who’s always around you.
In his pursuit of the discovery, Langdon traverses through Spain’s famous tourist destinations, like Sangrada, Casa Mila, tries to decode the art style of Joan Miro and studies the literary nuances of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche to know Kirsch’s password! What could have been an engrossing plot, gets marred by Brown’s Wikipedia-style descriptions: “The Holy seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid – Catedral de la Almudena – is a robust neoclassical cathedral situated adjacent to Madrid’s Royal Palace …”, “According to dictionary.com, a ‘regent’ is someone appointed to oversee an organization while its leader is incapacitated or absent.” But then Brown has never really been of a crisp writer, and that’s what put me off Inferno. Though Brown’s research of Spain is admirable, it’s just too verbose to put up with for a long time without ending up skipping a few pages.
While the plot may seem like Brown’s previous novels (Prof Langdon on a mystery-solving road riddled with codes, a beautiful woman playing his partner and a religious fanatic playing the assassin), contemporary additions like artificial intelligence and usage of contemporary Wikileaks-like conspiracy websites as a plot device add a bit of newness to Origin. And it is for Langdon that I put up with Brown’s exhaustively boring descriptive writing.
Whether Kirsch (or Brown) manages to prove God’s existence (and find out the man behind Kirsch’s assassination) is for the reader to find out.
But Krisch’s presentation is full of scientific jargon, making the futurist sound more like a Ted Talk guest than a tech magnate. For 30-odd pages, Kirsch goes on to explain the arrival of life on earth or rather the beginning of life on earth (where did we come from?) with the ‘primordial soup’ (something to do with entropy) and ends with the assimilation of technology in human life (where are we going?) a future that looks a little grim for the human race as it leans more and more towards increasingly advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence). Whether Kirsch (or Brown) manages to prove God’s existence is for the reader to find out, but for me it was a disappointing climax.
Honestly, I would rather have Langdon chasing clues and solving religious codes in order to save the world rather than take help from an AI, who has no charm or wit of Tony Stark’s Jarvis and sounds bland and monotonous. What set The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons apart were that every chapter in the books had some sort of mystery and codes that brought satisfaction at its conclusion. But Origin has no charm of its predecessors. And with a lot of editing and chopping of the text, I can see Tom Hanks suiting again as Robert Langdon in a movie that surely will be made soon.