Sure, Read Dan Brown... But Never Believe Him

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

One man 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.

To fill 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 (The 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.

I came 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.

First and 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 The 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.

However, 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.

Of course, 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.

So how 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.

My crapola 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…"

Kohler interrupts him: "Were murdered… Murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths."

While I 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.

A couple 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.

Only a 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.

Soon thereafter, 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."

On page 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?

Vetra also 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.

Langdon, 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.

But the 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!

I’m sure 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.

April 3, 2004

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives