Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Corgi, 2001)

Langdon is a character who has my own interests. I am fascinated with ancient mysteries. Art history. Codes. You spend a year, a year and a half, writing a book, you better be darn sure your hero is involved in a subject matter you are excited about. As excited as I was about NASA and meteors or the National Security Agency, my passions really do lie with ancient mysteries and codes and that sort of thing. -- Dan Brown

I picked up copies of The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer and Deception Point by Dan Brown. The Zero Game I was going to read straight away as I wanted a little light reading. Deception Point I was going to save for something to read when I went away.

The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer I found to be a trashy thriller. Maybe it would make a good film, but not something to sit down and read.

Deception Point I had intended to save, but stuck at home with a bad cold, cough and running a temperature, I started reading. In fact I could not sleep, got up, intending to read a few pages, and ended up reading a sizable chunk until some time gone 4am.

Deception Point I found was something of a disappointment, especially after my first contact with Dan Brown was the excellent The Da Vinci Code. It was just a run-of-the-mill thriller, although by the time I reached the end I had to admit it was above average for a thriller, but still a grave disappointment compared with The Da Vinci Code.

Why are all these thrillers the same, all written to the same formula? Each character is introduced with a description tall, long dank hair, parchment face, you know the sort of thing rather than let the character develop?

A week later, and still not feeling much better after my first purchase, I picked up a copy of Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. My original resolve to save for a rainy day long forgotten, although I guess if I am stuck at home feeling under the weather, it counts as a rainy day.

Angels and Demons is where we first meet our hero from The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon. Harvard-based Langdon is an expert in symbology, where myth, history and fact merge. He is the man one instinctively knows to call upon when there has been a mysterious death involving a religious sect.

Robert Langdon is flown from the US at mach 7, so it takes only an hour to get from Boston to CERN in Geneva, an Alice in Wonderland world of subatomic particles, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Langdon is met on arrival by the director of CERN and quickly conveyed to the murder scene, the police have yet to be notified, such is the secretive nature of CERN.

It is impressed on Langdon that CERN is involved in the ultimate search for truth, that is what hard science is all about, religion that claims to be engaged in the search for truth, if not the revealer of truth, is mere superstition.

Bullshit thought I. The one thing that particle physics has shown is all is not what it seems, and we are indeed in a strange Alice in Wonderland world.

Then there is a twist, all is not as it seems, we walk into the murdered man's study, and we learn he is not only a physicist but also a Roman Catholic priest, he is working at the interface of religion and science, trying to reveal hidden truths, for him the laws of physics are the canvas upon which God paints the world.

Lining the walls of his study are books like: The Tao of Physics, The God Particle, God: The Evidence. We are indeed at the interface between religion and science.

There is nothing new here. Galileo, as well as being a scientist, was a deeply religious man. Much of the early scientific work was carried out by the Church, until it seemed to challenge the very existence of God and Man's place in the Cosmos, then science and church rapidly diverged and the Church tried to suppress scientific work. Galileo was tortured by the Roman Catholic Church and forced to recant that the sun not the earth was at the centre of our little speck of the universe.

I was engulfed by a sense of deja vu. So strong that I found the ground opening up before me.

It was the end of September, early October. Mid-May I had read The Da Vinci Code. When I did so I was hit by a wave of synchronicity, so powerful that in the end I found it unnerving.

I used to walk along a sea wall, that daily was hit by very big waves, so powerful that the wall was breaking up. Further along the coast I used to look out to sea and occasionally I would see really gigantic waves. They were like giants striding across the sea. When they hit the cliff shook. Had one of these arrived whilst I was walking along the sea wall, I would not be around to tell the tale.

I was reminded of these giant waves when I looked back to The Da Vinci Code. I was washed over by a giant wave of synchronicity. It seems although synchronicity is by its nature random, it occurs in waves.

Back to my reading Angels and Demons, we had just entered the study of the murdered priest cum particle physicist Leonardo Vetra and see his reading material. All around me were books with titles like: The Tao of Physics, How To Know God, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Web of Life.

These were the books I had intended to read when I got distracted and read The Da Vinci Code. I then started reading How To Know God, got part way through, and unfortunately got distracted yet again and it lies by my side unread. Whilst I was reading it I wrote:

We are on the boundaries of religion, metaphysics, and quantum physics. They all three merge so it is often difficult to disentangle one from the other.

Hence my initial reaction of bullshit, to be followed by deja vu and the floor opening up beneath me.

This though wasn't the only example of deja vu or synchronicity. As I said, it seems to go in waves. Around the time I read the The Da Vinci Code, I gave a high level briefing on security, indeed I gave The Da Vinci Code as suggested further reading. I warned the people I briefed not to use biometrics, not that is if they valued the life of their key employees. I said use palm scanners and people will get their arms chopped off. A vicious group of criminals where you live was the response. The murdered Leonardo Vetra has his eyeball gouged out to access a high security area that used retina imaging for access!

A worldview, not shared by many, is that the world consists of embedded systems, no matter at which level you look you will see networks within networks. Even at the genetic level, we have self-replicating systems, self-correcting systems. The genome influences the next level, the next level in turn influences the genome. The cell consists of its parts of which the cell is made, the cell creates the environment in which the parts exist.

Any organism adapts to and adapts its environment, the environment influences the organism.

All these systems are interconnected and communicate with each other.

When the genome project published its results, there was a shock, a shock that was not widely reported, either at the time or since. There were too few genes. There were too few genes to explain the complexity of the human body, ie genetic determinism is false.

I wasn't feeling very good, so I went to bed. I turned on the radio, to find a programme exposing the flaws of genetic determinism. Does it matter? Yes, as the entire genetic engineering industry is based on this flawed science.

This worldview of systems within systems, networks within networks, is not a widely held worldview, and yet I find it being espoused within the first few pages.

Cardinals are kidnapped from within the sacred walls of the Vatican and brutally slaughtered by a fanatic, their mutilated bodies put on public display. A decade ago this would have seemed implausible, and yet as I write, Muslim fundamentalist slaughter their innocent victims in the most barbarous fashion, the killings are there for all to see in web video footage.

To say more would be to reveal too much of the plot and spoil a jolly good read.

I don't know why but I was very much reminded of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823). Why I do not know, as Dan Brown certainly does not reach the heights of her prose or dialogue or characterisation, let alone the sense of adventure, but that then is true of any modern thriller writer with the possible exceptions of Graham Greene and John le Carre.

As I got further into Angels and Demons, like with The Da Vinci Code, I was strongly reminded of The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis (1775-1818).

Ultimately, Angels and Demons is about one man's faith, one man's belief in God. Except it is not quite that simple: when does faith degenerate into insanity and fanaticism, when does a believer become a zealot?

A well meaning, but ultimately a zealot, which leads to his downfall, is a Dan Brown trademark. As is the basic plot, a skeleton on which he fleshes out the plot.

The Church rushed to to condemn The Da Vinci Code but I did not see the same condemnation of Angels and Demons, possibly because Dan Brown was not as well known then, as he became with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. There is the same symbolism, the same attack on the Roman Catholic Church.

The attacks on Dan Brown were based on bigotry and fundamentalism, not facts.

Shorty after reading The Da Vinci Code, I flipped through a magazine that had a vicious attack on The Da Vinci Code. I wish I had gone back and read it more thoroughly. It was utter garbage. It does no faith any good at all, when it comes out with half truths and blatant lies, but that unfortunately is the norm for reactionary Christian fundamentalists.

The Da Vinci Code is a powerful novel and highly recommended.

Read any Agatha Christie and you soon learn she has an identikit set of characters, to be rearranged in the next novel. Dan Brown is the same. In The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons Robert Langdon is woken in the early hours of the morning, he is contacted by very important people, he has to rush off at once to the scene of the crime, where there has been a bizarre death involving a mysterious sect, in the background is the Catholic Church. The victim will be an eminent person, a highly regarded and well published member of the intelligentsia, he will have a charming and attractive daughter (or colleague) who is crucial to unravelling the mystery. Also lurking in the background will be a sinister killer who is apart from the rest of the human race, who has a powerful friend who can gain access to anywhere with ease. The Professor Moriarty evil master mind who is behind the dastardly plot is revealed at the and is not who you expected.

Deception Point, although more of the conventional run-of-the-mill thriller has similar identikit characters. The heroine is is rushed of to what is a scene of a crime, although not obviously so at first, she and her handsome Robert Langdon clone are pursued by deadly killers, although not as sinister as in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, behind it all is an evil Professor Moriarty type figure who is revealed at the end, who is not at all who you suspected.

Books by Dan Brown to date: Digital Fortress (1998), Angels and Demons (2000), Deception Point (2001), The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Simon Cox has written an unofficial companion guide to Angels and Demons, Illustrating Angels & Demons, in which he expands on some of the people and places.

Illuminati The Church was a force for enlightenment, until discoveries were at odds with the teachings of the Church. Galileo, for example, was forced to recant under torture. Crusades were mounted against the occupiers of the Holy Lands, but even worse Crusades were mounted against heretics in Europe, the Inquisition lasted for hundreds of years. The worst atrocities were committed against the Cathars. Of the past, but is it? Charles Darwin was placed in the same position as Galileo, when he questioned Man at the centre of divine creation. Darwin may not have been tortured, but he was subject to extreme abuse by the Church. And even right up to the present day. It was only a few years ago that a retailer in Lincoln was subjected to years of abuse and attacks by fundamentalist Christians and was eventually forced out of business when his shop was fire bombed. And today, we have Christians preying on vulnerable foreign students in London, then being praised from the pulpit for their recruitment activities. George W Bush has been elected by Christian fundamentalists who see Armageddon in the Middle East as the path to salvation. Scratch beneath the service and we find a Church that has little changed, and bears little resemblance to the teachings of Christ. Truth and compassion and religion are very uneasy bedfellows.

Synchronicity Meaningful coincidences of seemingly random data.

Truth Religions claim to deal in absolute truth, when we can only ever comprehend relative truth, not unless we are claiming to be God. The more a religion claims it holds the absolute truth, the more blood it spills.

Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2004 -- December 2004 rev 0