Books by Brown, Dan

Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8.
This thriller is a perfect companion to Robert Zubrin's nonfiction Merchants of Despair (April 2013). Both are deeply steeped in the culture of Malthusian anti-humanism and the radical prescriptions of those who consider our species a cancer on the planet. In this novel, art historian and expert in symbology Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital bed with no memory of events since walking across the Harvard campus. He is startled to learn he is in Florence, Italy with a grazing gunshot wound to the scalp, and the target of a murderous pursuer whose motives are a mystery to him.

Langdon and the doctor who first treated him and then rescued him from a subsequent attack begin to dig into the mystery. Langdon, recovering from retrograde amnesia, finds reality mixing with visions reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, whose imagery and symbols come to dominate their quest to figure out what is going on. Meanwhile, a shadowy international security group which was working with a renowned genetic engineer begins to suspect that they may have become involved in a plot with potentially catastrophic consequences. As the mysteries are investigated, the threads interweave into a complex skein, hidden motives are revealed, and loyalties shift.

There were several times whilst reading this novel that I expected I'd be dismissing it here as having an “idiot plot”—that the whole narrative didn't make any sense except as a vehicle to introduce the scenery and action (as is the case in far too many action movies). But the author is far too clever for that (which is why his books have become such a sensation). Every time you're sure something is nonsense, there's another twist of the plot which explains it. At the end, I had only one serious quibble with the entire plot. Discussing this is a hideous spoiler for the entire novel, so I'm going to take it behind the curtain. Please don't read this unless you've already read the novel or are certain you don't intend to.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The vector virus created by Zobrist, as described on p. 438, causes a randomly selected one third of the human population to become sterile. But how can a virus act randomly? If the virus is inserted into the human germ-line, it will be faithfully copied into all offspring with the precision of human DNA replication, so variation in the viral genome, once incorporated into the germ-line, is not possible. The only other way the virus could affect only a third of the population is that there is some other genetic property which enables the virus to render the organism carrying it sterile. But if that is the case, and the genetic property be heritable, only those who lacked the variation(s) which allowed the virus to sterilise them would reproduce, and in a couple of generations the virus, while still incorporated in the human genome, would have no effect on the rate of growth of the human population: “life finds a way”.

Further, let's assume the virus could, somehow, randomly sterilise a third of the human population, that natural selection could not render it ineffective, and science found no way to reverse it or was restrained from pursuing a remedy by policy makers. Well, then, you'd have a world in which some fraction of couples could have children and the balance could not. (The distribution depends upon whether the virus affects the fertility of males, females, or both.) Society adapts to such circumstances. Would not the fertile majority increase their fertility to meet market demand for adoption by infertile couples?

Spoilers end here.  

This is a fine thriller, meticulously researched, which will send you off to look up the many works of art and architectural wonders which appear in it, and may plant an itch to visit Florence and Venice. I'm sure it will make an excellent movie, as is sure to happen after the success of cinematic adaptations of the author's previous Robert Langdon novels.

May 2013 Permalink

Brown, Dan. Origin. New York: Doubleday, 2017. ISBN 978-0-385-51423-1.
Ever since the breakthrough success of Angels & Demons, his first mystery/thriller novel featuring Harvard professor and master of symbology Robert Langdon, Dan Brown has found a formula which turns arcane and esoteric knowledge, exotic and picturesque settings, villains with grandiose ambitions, and plucky female characters into bestsellers, two of which, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, have been adapted into Hollywood movies.

This is the fifth novel in the Robert Langdon series. After reading the fourth, Inferno (May 2013), it struck me that Brown's novels have become so formulaic they could probably be generated by an algorithm. Since artificial intelligence figures in the present work, in lieu of a review, which would be difficult to write without spoilers, here are the parameters to the Marinchip Turbo Digital™ Thriller Wizard to generate the story.

Villain: Edmond Kirsch, billionaire computer scientist and former student of Robert Langdon. Made his fortune from breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and robotics.

Megalomaniac scheme: “end the age of religion and usher in an age of science”.

Buzzword technologies: artificial general intelligence, quantum computing.

Big Questions: “Where did we come from?”, “Where are we going?”.

Religious adversary The Palmarian Catholic Church.

Plucky female companion: Ambra Vidal, curator of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain) and fiancée of the crown prince of Spain.

Hero or villain? Details would be a spoiler but, as always, there is one.

Contemporary culture tie-in: social media, an InfoWars-like site called ConspiracyNet.com.

MacGuffins: the 47-character password from Kirsch's favourite poem (but which?), the mysterious “Winston”, “The Regent”.

Exotic and picturesque locales: The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Casa Milà and the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Valle de los Caídos near Madrid.

Enigmatic symbol: a typographical mark one must treat carefully in HTML.

When Edmond Kirsch is assassinated moments before playing his presentation which will answer the Big Questions, Langdon and Vidal launch into a quest to discover the password required to release the presentation to the world. The murder of two religious leaders to whom Kirsch revealed his discoveries in advance of their public disclosure stokes the media frenzy surrounding Kirsch and his presentation, and spawns conspiracy theories about dark plots to suppress Kirsch's revelations which may involve religious figures and the Spanish monarchy.

After perils, adventures, conflict, and clues hidden in plain sight, Startling Revelations leave Langdon Stunned and Shaken but Cautiously Hopeful for the Future.

When the next Dan Brown novel comes along, see how well it fits the template. This novel will appeal to people who like this kind of thing: if you enjoyed the last four, this one won't disappoint. If you're looking for plausible speculation on the science behind the big questions or the technological future of humanity, it probably will. Now that I know how to crank them out, I doubt I'll buy the next one when it appears.

May 2018 Permalink