Al Harkan












Origin (2017)

When you’re already very familiar with a style and mind of an artist but he’s still capable of making your jaw dropped with his new works, you know that he is a great artist, right? And I think Dan Brown is still no exception.

About Origin in a single paragraph:

Dan Brown is back with every piece of formula from his previous works: Robert Langdon with his partner, fast-paced plot with its twist(s), arts, historical buildings, global catastrophe, and radical solutions-revelations. I felt like I was rereading Inferno, his book before Origin, because he brought back everything that works from it. But out of that, he set the story of Origin with all-new locations, characters, issues, latest technologies, and even entered a new zone of modern arts. He delivered the grand question of mankind ‒about our origin, as the main problem; paralleled with the most sophisticated technologies human currently have and progressing ‒synthetic intelligence. His ability to research the cross fields of arts, science, technologies, history, religion, and narrated it into strings of story to amaze the readers, are proof of his quality as a working novelist.

When you’re already very familiar with a style and mind of an artist but he’s still capable of making your jaw dropped with his new works, you know that he is a great artist, right? And I think Dan Brown is still no exception.


Everything is Similarly New

To set the context, here’s the excerpt of the book, from the back cover:

Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to attend the unveiling of a discovery that ‘will change the face of science forever’. The evening’s host is his friend and former student, Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old tech magnate whose dazzling inventions and audacious predictions have made him a controversial figure around the world. This evening is to be no exception: he claims he will reveal an astonishing breakthrough to challenge the fundamentals of human existence.

But Langdon and several hundred guests are left reeling when the meticulously orchestrated evening is blown apart before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed. With his life under threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape, along with the museum’s director, Ambra Vidal. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Against an enemy who is one step ahead of them at every turn, Langdon and Vidal must navigate the labyrinthine passageways of the city. On a trail marked only by enigmatic symbols and elusive modern art, Langdon and Vidal uncover the clues that will bring them face to face with a world-shaking truth that has remained buried –until now.

*A bit spoiler to better picturing the teaser above, there’s also a third character accompanying the duo to reach their goal: an advanced artificial intelligence initialed W.

Just by reading the teaser above ‒and if you read his books before, I think you can tell that the main character is still surrounded by his familiar ‘things’: a highly successful but eccentric figure, a smart and beautiful partner, religious community which is vulnerable to conspiracy theories, a potentially chaotic world, and puzzles he has to solve in order to finish the story. You can expect everything from Dan Brown that he’s keeping his style and showing off his research prowess.

With this book, I think Brown isn’t necessarily a fish escaping out of water. He still used his style of overnight thriller, religious themes, cryptology, poured with handful of art insights. But he indeed a fish jumped out to different aquarium with this new work. He introduced us to a new problem of fundamental religious questions, answered by solid science, and its global consequences. Also by that, his book guided us through a new story setting, composed from real places in Spain, technologies, even some are real figures.

But from my experience reading this book, I think it was worth every second of my time. Though his explanation of the question of our origin is still based on some fictional technologies, it is still fascinating. Because reflecting on our current development, our progress towards that level of powerful technologies is inevitable. And it’s just a matter of time until we invented such powerful machine and run the experiment to answer our curiosity.

The Guessable Plot

I don’t know about you, but I correctly predicted quite major plot along the reading. Twice! The first are the real identity of W when Robert Langdon met him for the first time, and the second are the real suspect who orchestrated the entire drama of the story. I did that not even when I reached half of the book, and every revealing after that didn’t pull me farther from the truth, but confirming my major prediction instead.

And it didn’t make me proud to be able to guess a plot form a big author like Brown. It’s more like, I was let down. I was his fan since I was a JHS student, and over the years, every single work of his never failed to engage me into his story, then blown me away by the revelations and twists he brought. And with Origin, I felt that excitement is little bit declining.

But it isn’t a flaw in the plot. I think it’s just me who’s grown up enough to keep pace with him, as matter of information we gather. The information gap he used to have to amaze the little me as a reader, is diminishing.  And the internet and my passion in science has played a major role. With cutting-edge scientific researches are conducted by public domain organizations like NASA and CERN, today’s authors will find it more difficult to find exclusive materials for a book, because almost every major discovery is published to public, and internet has made me and Brown have relatively the same amount of resources to study. Over the years, I studied and did casual research on my interests covering science, technology, computer, and urban documentaries; and with vast information all around the web as resources, it helped me to learn so much that even Brown would find it hard to impress someone with demographic like me.

But to be fair, Brown still managed to pull some twists and surprised me at some points with Origin. And it always amaze me how well he is in orchestrating such story, which is artistic, scientific, with debatable ethics at the same time.

On the Origin of Life

For you who don’t what to be spoiled, please stop reading here and I say thank you, because from this afterwards, I have to quote some major contents of the book to set the context of this writing. But if you finished reading the book, or aren’t planning to read the 400 pages, or just don’t care to be spoiled anyway, just keep on reading.

As the title goes, Origin delivers a story about our origin as living creatures. It tries to answer the fundamental questions of “where do we come from” and “where are we going”. It directly challenges the existing explanations of our origin by religions, and bringing (fictional) scientific arguments, setting the centuries old debate on the table: creation vs evolution.

With this, he slapped not one, not two, not even five, but almost all the existing religions in the world.

To add credibility to the story, the answers to both grand questions was supported by theories and experiments from real scientists Stanley Miller, Harold Urey, Jeremy England; and fictionalized technologies based on real ones, like Google and NASA’s quantum computer D-Wave, IBM’s AI Watson, Barcelona Supercomputing Center. And Brown isn’t kidding in trying to answer those questions as scientific as possible, because we can see it in his Acknowledgements page to whom he had consulted over the past four years to research scientific materials for the book; it varies from scientists, historians, futurists, curators, religious scholars, and organizations.

I suggest you read the presentation that delivers the fundamental answers I am talking about. It’s a bit long, and it was presented by a fictional eccentric billionaire named Edmond Kirsch who tends to oppose traditional religions, so it’s easy to find some arrogance in the process, but you will understand.

In the book, a genius computer scientist Edmond Kirsch had built a very powerful computer called E-Wave that’s capable of running detailed simulation of our universe, down to the atomic level, with all the laws of physics. It enabled him to recreate a more solid version of Harold-Urey experiment, a lab modelling of primordial soup, the natural conditions of our world long before any living creatures exist, that theorized it was the moment when every combination of reactions of that ancient earth stimulated life to be generated, the very first state before evolution took place and led to development of homo sapiens.


However, the computer alone wasn’t enough to remodel the origin of life on earth. Harold-Urey experiment lacked one law of physics, which then hadn’t discovered yet. It was the law that the universe functioned with a singular directive, one goal: to spread energy. Long story short, Edmond then added that law to his modelling algorithm, resulting in exactly what he predicted, a generation and evolution of life from primordial earth, down to today’s living species. By that evidence, he concluded that life on earth existed without any intervention of God’s hand, just by pure physics.

And he didn’t stop there. He continued his progressive simulation beyond current time, adding some actual data to his algorithms, to predict the future of mankind. Then he found a shocking discovery that in not too far future, human would no longer be around to control the planet. Human won’t necessarily extinct, but earth will be dominated by mixed combination of human and the new seventh Kingdom of Life called Techium.

The explanation was so convincing that I had to keep reminding myself that the story was just an eloquent narration of facts, creating fictional storyline.

Even though his explanation was radical and supported with a bunch of scientific theories, I found his answers to the initial question “where do we come from” had a logical flaw. Even if it’s true that life can be generated just out of physics governing earth, it still didn’t explain how the laws of physics exist in the first place. What or who set it in our universe in the first place?

And to that question, I love how Dan Brown as an author always give the opposing argument a place in the book, just like he did in Inferno. He indirectly admit that even his seems-perfect explanation had a flaw or two, as quoted in this paragraph:

Langdon was starting to wonder if anyone had actually heard what Edmond was saying. The laws of physics alone can create life. Edmond’s discovery was enthralling and clearly incendiary, but for Langdon it raised one burning question that he was surprised nobody was asking: If the laws of physics are so powerful that they can create life … who created the laws?!

The question, of course, resulted in a dizzying intellectual hall of mirrors and brought everything full circle. Langdon’s head was pounding, and he knew he would need a very long walk alone even to begin to sort out Edmond’s ideas.

To end this, I’d like to quote a beautiful dialogue from the book, telling that our efforts to understand God lies in a simple thing like understanding codes and patterns.

She hesitated. “For you personally … are the laws of physics enough?”


Langdon glanced over as if he had expected an entirely different question. “Enough in what way?”


“Enough spiritually,” she said. “Is it enough to live in a universe whose laws spontaneously create life? Or do you prefer … God?” She paused, looking embarrassed.


“Sorry, after all we’ve been through tonight, I know that’s a strange question.”


“Well,” Langdon said with a laugh, “I think my answer would benefit from a decent night’s sleep. But no, it’s not strange. People ask me all the time if I believe in God.”


“And how do you reply?”


“I reply with the truth,” he said. “I tell them that, for me, the question of God lies in understanding the difference between codes and patterns.”


Ambra glanced over. “I’m not sure I follow you.”


“Codes and patterns are very different from each other,” Langdon said. “And a lot of people confuse the two. In my field, it’s crucial to understand their fundamental difference.”


“That being?”


Langdon stopped walking and turned to her. “A pattern is any distinctly organized sequence. Patterns occur everywhere in nature—the spiraling seeds of a sunflower, the hexagonal cells of a honeycomb, the circular ripples on a pond when a fish jumps, et cetera.”


“Okay. And codes?”


“Codes are special,” Langdon said, his tone rising. “Codes, by definition, must carry information. They must do more than simply form a pattern—codes must transmit data and convey meaning. Examples of codes include written language, musical notation, mathematical equations, computer language, and even simple symbols like the crucifix. All of these examples can transmit meaning or information in a way that spiraling sunflowers cannot.”


Ambra grasped the concept, but not how it related to God.


“The other difference between codes and patterns,” Langdon continued, “is that codes do not occur naturally in the world. Musical notation does not sprout from trees, and symbols do not draw themselves in the sand. Codes are the deliberate inventions of intelligent consciousnesses.”


Ambra nodded. “So codes always have an intention or awareness behind them.”


“Exactly. Codes don’t appear organically; they must be created.”


Ambra studied him a long moment. “What about DNA?”


A professorial smile appeared on Langdon’s lips. “Bingo,” he said. “The genetic code. That’s the paradox.”


Ambra felt a rush of excitement. The genetic code obviously carried data—specific instructions on how to build organisms. By Langdon’s logic, that could mean only one thing. “You think DNA was created by an intelligence!”


Langdon held up a hand in mock self-defense. “Easy, tiger!” he said, laughing. “You’re treading on dangerous ground. Let me just say this. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had the gut sense that there’s a consciousness behind the universe. When I witness the precision of mathematics, the reliability of physics, and the symmetries of the cosmos, I don’t feel like I’m observing cold science; I feel as if I’m seeing a living footprint … the shadow of some greater force that is just beyond our grasp.”


Ambra could feel the power in his words. “I wish everyone thought like you do,” she finally said. “It seems we do a lot of fighting over God. Everyone has a different version of the truth.”


[1] Dunkirk adalah film terbaru karya Christopher Nolan, sineas di balik Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, sampai Interstellar. Dunkirk dinobatkan sebagai film perang terbaik sepanjang masa oleh banyak kritikus, dan saya berencana membuat tulisan satu lagi tentang film ini begitu versi home video-nya dirilis.

[2] Tesla Model 3 adalah mobil listrik mutakhir terbaru dari Tesla, klimaks dari rencana besar CEO Elon Musk untuk memasarkan mobil listrik secara massal, meluncurkan tren transportasi elektrik, mengurangi emisi karbon, dan memperlambat pemanasan global. No kidding.