Origin by Dan Brown: an audiobook review

After a murder in an art museum, Harvard symbolist, Robert Langdon, and a younger woman find themselves on the run from the police, who consider them persons of interest. They are also pursued by members of a shadowy organization who think they know too much. Langdon and his companion must decipher arcane clues to solve a puzzle which will prove their innocence and reveal important truths to the world.

No, I’m not having a flashback to Brown’s breakout novel, The DaVinci Code (2003), a riveting mystery-thriller that had me up until 2:00am on work nights until it was finished. Brown’s recently published Origin uses the same structure to reasonably good effect, though I never stayed up late to finish it.

Somewhere along the line, probably after The Lost Symbol (2009), I stopped reading Brown, finding his “thrills of the chase” could not overcome such glaring liabilities as two-dimensional villains, interminable data-dumps, and his seeming attempts to fuse the genres of thriller and travel guidebook.

For this venture back into Brown’s work, I chose an audiobook (a good move) which Mary and I listened to on a sojourn to Yosemite. Origin was a good listen while driving and during the cold and sometimes rainy evenings. It also posed intriguing questions about this point in history and emerging trends.

(Spoiler Alert)

Forty year old tech billionaire, computer genius, and futurist, Edmond Kirsch, has done well for himself in the decades since he attended one of Langdon’s Symbolism of Religion classes at Harvard, and though an avowed atheist, became friends and shared intriguing discussions with Langdon.

To get their opinion before he announces it to the world, Kirsch shares a major scientific discovery with senior clerics of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, saying it will end the world’s reliance on religion to answer two of humanity’s core questions: “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?”

The clerics emerge from the meeting shaken. Two of them suggest a pre-emptive refutation of Kirsch’s work, before his scheduled presentation. These two clerics are dead within the week. Then, during his dramatic presentation to the intelligentsia at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain – and to millions watching online – Kirsch is assassinated, but not before naming Robert Langdon as a key collaborator in his discovery. This makes Langdon a suspect, along with the lovely director of the museum.

The chase is on! To prove their innocence and to honor Kirsch’s life’s work, they must – with the assistance of Kirsch’s advanced AI personal assistant, Winston – discover the 47 character password that will release Kirsch’s presentation to the world, before they are arrested, and before shadowy assassins can silence them as they did the two clerics.

****

With an next-generation super-computer model, Kirsch has proven that given sufficient energy, life can form out of primal inanimate ooze, without  an assist from a creator god. Interestingly, a few weeks before listening to the book, I  saw an article reporting that the same result had been found in a real life laboratory.

I was expecting an answer like this to the “Where did we come from?” question – a non-issue to anyone other than monotheistic fundamentalists. As Langdon says, “If life came from the laws of physics and not a creator god, that still doesn’t tell us where the laws of physics come from.” Our current Pope put it more directly, saying of course God can work through the laws of evolution – “He is not a cosmic magician.”

Of far greater relevance and concern is Kirsch’s prediction of where we are going. Dan Brown’s fictional futurist echoes the concern of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking – that Artificial Intelligence and robotics pose an existential threat to humanity. In Kirsch’s fictional timeline, humans will be obsolete by 2050. The reality seems to be much of what we think of as “normal” life, notably in the world of work, will have to change or die well before that.

It’s interesting to speculate on the characters in Origin – I can’t help note that Musk is 40 in real life, just like Kirsch in Brown’s novel. If the characters are fictional, at the start of the book, Brown affirms that the science and the science he portrays is real and exists at this time.

I’ll have more speculations on the AI and automation issues in future posts.

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