can stand against the Zeitgeist, ignoring the mandates cast
at him by the Hegelian world spirit, for only so long. And so
it was, after a year of seeing his books in the hands of every
fifth person on the subway, and hearing about them from half
of the people I know, that I finally gave in and read a novel
by Dan Brown.
in those of you who have been living in a remote cave in the
tribal areas of Pakistan, or something of the sort, Dan Brown
is currently the best-selling author of fiction in America.
As of last Sunday (3/28/2004), he had written the number one
Da Vinci Code) and number seven (Angels
& Demons) books in the list of hardcover best sellers
from The New York Times Book Review, as well as the number
one (Angels & Demons), number five (Deception
Point), and number eight (Digital Fortress) books
in the same publication's list of paperback best sellers.
to ask myself how a columnist at least one with any pretence
of keeping a finger, or even a fingernail, on the pulse of American
society could ignore the Dan Brown phenomenon? (Plus, I had
a few hours to kill, and I thought a decent suspense novel might
be just the ticket to passing them without undue boredom.) So
I picked up a copy of Angels & Demons from a local
bookstore and set off to join the Brownian motion. After polishing
off the novel in an evening's reading, I herein report my findings.
foremost, Brown is a fairly capable writer of thrillers. I would
not rank Angels & Demons among the very best of the
genre it is not the equal of, for example, Robert Ludlum's
Bourne Identity. But Brown knows how to hook a reader
with passages that promise more than they reveal, create engaging
characters, maintain plot momentum (in the book I read, he quite
remarkably uses 569 pages in describing the events of a single
day without slackening the pace), and provide the reader with
genuine surprises that nevertheless seem natural once unveiled.
friends and acquaintances who had read Brown suggested that
he was more than a "mere" genre writer, in that he
was very serious about using accurate, albeit little-known,
history as the background for his stories. Several times in
the past year, the source of some surprising "historical
fact" I had just heard turned out to be one of Brown's
works. Indeed, even Publishers Weekly described The
Da Vinci Code as "exhaustively researched." So,
while I read Brown, I took note of passages that appeared to
be claims about the real world.
the use a work of fiction makes of history, science, actual
people, and so on, is at the discretion of the author. He is
writing fiction, after all, not a historical treatise or a physics
textbook. However, unless a writer is engaged in surrealism
or the theater of the absurd, he should either depict real things
as they really are (or were), or offer some explanation as to
why he does not. If a novel describes Manhattan in 2004 as a
tiny fishing village, the reader should be told why, in the
world of the story, it is not the hub of a vast metropolitan
area. When an author includes actual people, historical events,
or scientific findings in his fiction, but neither "gets
them right" nor explains why they are "wrong,"
he creates two problems. The first is that readers who are not
familiar with the subject inaccurately described will "learn"
a bunch of nonsense. The second is that readers who are
familiar with it get distracted from the story by, for instance,
fretting over how the author possibly could have thought that
Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States.
does Brown do at meeting the above guideline? Well folks, on
the basis of the book I just finished, I can say with confidence
that if Brown is a careful researcher, than I am a great role
model for a campaign by the Ladies' Temperance League. (And
I don't mean great as the cautionary "before" example.)
The mistakes in Angels & Demons come so fast and
furious that I am sure that I missed some because I was still
sputtering about others I had just encountered. And I would
bet that there are still more errors made in dealing with subjects,
such as art history, in which I am not knowledgeable enough
to spot them. I will catalogue a few of the mistakes below.
Many of the assertions I cite are made by one of the characters
in the story. It is obviously an error to think that every utterance
by every character in a novel expresses the author's own view.
However, when a character states what seems to be a fact about
the real world, if the author adds nothing contradicting it
or indicating that the character is mistaken or unreliable,
then I think the author can justly be held accountable for the
accuracy of the statement.
detector first clanged when, early in the story, Brown's hero
Robert Langdon is discussing the "deep rift" between
science and religion with the fictional head of CERN, Maximilian
Kohler. He says, "Outspoken scientists like Copernicus..."
interrupts him: "Were murdered… Murdered by the church
for revealing scientific truths."
will grant that the text doesn't explicitly state that Copernicus
was killed by the Catholic Church, a reader unfamiliar with
the astronomer's life would undoubtedly read the above as indicating
that he had been. Certainly, no one relying on Brown's "exhaustive
research" would suspect that the Church had actually supported
the work of Copernicus.
of pages later, Kohler asserts that Galileo was "almost
executed" by the Church. But there was never any serious
possibility of a death sentence in his case. Then Kohler claims
that Galileo's "data were incontrovertible" in backing
a heliocentric model of the solar system. In fact, Galileo had
a correct intuition, but a rather weak empirical case. For example,
a cornerstone of his argument for heliocentrism was his theory
that the rotation of the earth causes the tides in the same
way that spinning a bucket causes water inside it to rise up
its sides. However, today we attribute tides to the gravitational
influence of the moon. Somewhat disturbing to the image of Galileo
as the great empiricist is the reliance of his theory on a 24-hour
period for the tides, since their period is actually 12 hours.
When Galileo was informed that sailors in the Mediterranean
were quite certain high tide came twice, not once, per day,
he dismissed the discrepancy as being due to local variations
in the ocean floor.
dozen or so more pages go by before, again through the mouth
of Kohler, we hear that "half the schools in [the US] are
not allowed to teach evolution." Say what? If some US state
passes a law that merely requires creationism to be taught as
an alternative to evolution, a huge flap is raised about separation
of church and state, usually resulting in some court striking
down the statute. Perhaps from the vantage point of Brown's
home in the Berkshire Mountains it appears as though most of
the US is in the thrall of fundamentalist Christians, but I
can assure him it is not so.
hatha yoga is referred to as an "ancient Buddhist art."
But yoga pre-dates Buddhism by centuries, perhaps even millennium.
It is true that the branch known as hatha yoga developed much
later, and that it was influenced by Buddhism, but that still
does not make it a "Buddhist art."
69 (of the paperback edition), the physicist Vittoria Vetra
says that the Big Bang Theory, which posits the universe as
bursting forth all at once, from essentially nothing, was first
proposed by a Catholic monk in 1927. On page 75, she says, "Scientists
have known since 1918 that two kinds of matter were created
in the Big Bang." I'm not even going to bother looking
that one up although I have seen the 1927 date before
because I know for sure that both pages can't be right. I mean,
how could scientists have known what was created in the Big
Bang nine years before anyone thought of the idea of a Big Bang?
And how could Brown and his editors have missed such a glaring
contradiction, when only six pages separate the two statements?
claims that protons are the opposite of electrons in fact,
positrons are the opposite of electrons and antiprotons the
opposite of protons and that antimatter is highly unstable
it is actually no more or less stable than matter.
while touring the Vatican, is reminded of "The Great Castration"
of 1857, when Pope Pius IX knocked the John Thomas off of every
statue of a nude male within Vatican City. While I cannot faithfully
assert that this event never occurred, I can find no trace of
it on the Internet except for one web page, which sources Brown.
A bit later,
Langdon recalls "that much of Galileo's legal trouble had
begun when he described planetary motion as elliptical.
The Vatican exalted the perfection of the circle and
insisted heavenly motion must be only circular." This goof
would be hilarious if not for the fact that millions of people
probably now take it as fact. It was Galileo who was
stuck on the idea that any ceaseless natural motion must occur
in a perfect circle, so much so that he never paid any heed
to his friend Kepler's hypothesis that planetary orbits are
elliptical. Furthermore, in reading about half-a-dozen books
on this topic, I have never come across a hint that the Church
was keen on circular orbits.
next blunder is far and away my favorite: Langdon, who is supposed
to be a Harvard professor specializing in the history of symbols,
says, "The practice of 'god-eating' that is, Holy Communion
was borrowed [by Christianity] from the Aztecs." Now
we're really seeing some breakthrough research on Brown's part!
The Christian celebration of Holy Communion can be traced back
to at least the second century A.D. The Aztec culture did not
arise for approximately another 1000 years. So not only did
early Christians borrow an idea from a culture that inhabited
a continent of which they were unaware, they borrowed it from
the distant future!
there are more where the above came from, but the examples I've
offered should support the central idea of this review: If you
enjoy thrillers and find yourself in need of a few hours of
entertainment, you could do far worse than picking up a book
by Dan Brown. However, if while you are reading it, you find
him claiming that the sun rises in the east, you'd be wise to
look for confirmation.