I like Dan Brown. He’s an interesting guy with fascinating ideas. Where he usually falters is when he tries to form a cohesive story out of these ideas, which would be a perfect fit in the non-fiction genre.
Origin is the latest book in his long-running Robert Langdon series. With his book, Dan Brown probably had his best idea. In this novel, he asks two questions fundamental to our existence: “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” Considering he’s Dan Brown, the answer wouldn’t be so simple. However, Origin is a mess. The book is the lowest point of Brown’s writing career since starting The Da Vinci Code. Even his stand-alone books are great.
So, what went wrong? Why is Origin a disappointment?
Brown’s Writing Technique
Dan Brown is seemingly different from other fiction authors. Fiction authors create stuff out of their mind; it’s fictional. Mr. Brown abstracts real material and ideas and fuses it into a story, turning reality upside down. He decides on locations beforehand when writing a novel. He aims for his characters to go to these extravagant places where he will follow up with secret information about the monument near our characters and put codes in those structures for the protagonist to solve.
That was, until The Lost Symbol.
In Inferno, Brown took a different approach. He took the symbologist, Robert Langdon, and gave him amnesia. Beginning the novel with the words “Very Sorry.” Inferno is a weird book, it has typical Brown things, but it’s just not who Robert Langdon is; he’s not an action hero. He’s here to solve codes and uncover mysteries, and he’s all out of codes.
Origin is a similar story. In this novel, Robert Langdon is a fish out of the water. He’s not tech-savvy, and he has no place in this plot. His character is forced in this unfamiliar situation because if it’s a “Robert Langdon thriller,” that will make it an instant sell than a stand-alone novel with new characters. I’m not against throwing a character into unfamiliar situations, but desperately trying to connect science with symbology is ridiculous. And Mr. Brown’s struggle is evident.
Fiction and non-fiction are very different. So, trying to add a flavor of one into the other is going to cause problems. The locations Brown chooses are extravagant, but the plot loses logic. In Origin, Robert Langdon tries to find an AI machine Winston’s center. To do so, he has to look for a symbol in Barcelona.
Now, if Langdon were on foot, it would have been impossible for him to locate the symbol in time to activate a discovery. So, since it’s easier to discover the symbol from a sky vantage, Brown pushes the characters into a helicopter, oddly giving the characters a tool to move to the next plot point. The execution is cliche. Local authorities are trying to capture the protagonist, who is apparently on a roof. There seems to be no way out, but suddenly, out of nowhere comes a plane and Robert Langdon jumps on it.
Dan Brown is infamous for the amount of research he puts in his work. Since he’s famous, he gets to access prohibited areas, and he visits and reads about every single locations that are mentioned in his books. That’s a lot of work for a writer. The best thing is, it shows. In his earlier books, you can see him using his imagination to convert these monuments into codes, making it fun.
Origin feels like an incomplete product, or just not enough research was done on the subject. There are interesting ideas throughout the book, but it’s nothing revolutionary. The idea of human origin is fascinating. So, when a character, Edmond Kirsch, said he has scientific proof of human origin, it’s hard not to get excited. I thought maybe Mr. Brown did research and found some interesting idea that he will rise to ridiculous heights to prove his point. I was, sort of, right.
Two questions create the backbone of Origin: “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” Mr. Brown wants to embed these questions in your brain, so he repeats them, again and again until it becomes pedantic. Questioning the reader’s intelligence is not something you should do, we’re perfectly capable of reciting the character’s motives.
In the end, when the discovery is revealed, a discovery that will establish science as the supreme and new religion, it’s a montage of what scientists have been trying to do for years. Edmond Kirsch asks us to put our faith in a computer machine that he developed. If he’s the single person who made the discovery, there can be a thousand things wrong with his discovery, including his so-called “time-machine.”
It almost seems like the research put into this book is something that can be done from the internet. There is no secret information, or anything revolutionary about the plot or the discovery. There is a lack of new information throughout the book. The characters repeat themselves often. And the grand finale is also just a recitation of old discoveries.
There are some minute details that I found interesting, something that would require a good digging deep to discover, but the majority information is what we know and can easily gain access to; there’s no original content in Origin. You can read Charles Darwin, Spain’s history, and a little about the Palmarian Catholic church and call it a day.1`
Another problem is the “twist” at the end. It turns out that the AI Edmond Kirsch created, called Winston, was the one who plotted to murder Kirsch in order to draw more viewers to his presentation.
The plot completely turns away from the origin of our species to the threats of AI. One can argue that the second question, “Where are we going?” is answered by this sudden turn of events, but there’s nothing to support this claim. And Dan Brown likes to state almost everything up-front, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Take a Break
Take a chill pill, go on a vacation, and stop worrying about the damn symbols.
Dan Brown should step away from Robert Langdon series and work on something else. Write a stand-alone novel, or write a non-fiction book. His patterns have become repetitive over the years, and it’s frustrating to see him lose his edge because he is capable of writing a good thriller. However controversial, The Da Vinci Code is a decent book, but he can’t repeat the same formula and get away with it.
I would like to read a non-fiction work from Dan Brown, with him just doing research and pouring it out, presenting his theories. Or probably a more character and plot focused work, or something different. He should experiment more with his writing style, trying different POV or trying to tell a story from a different perspective, or changing his locations completely. A book set in Egypt or Japan would be fascinating, there are a lot of possibilities to learn about a new culture, and maybe Brown will find something interesting, probably a code, and we’ll have a new thriller.