With its gripping plot and provocative subject matter, Dan Brown’s first megahit, The Da Vinci Code, probably would have been a best-seller at any point in history.
But at least some of its enormous success was likely attributable to its release date. It published in 2003, when the world was still reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Center, and many people were asking why and how such a thing could have happened.
The novel never mentions the attacks — its plot involves a search for the Holy Grail and a millennium’s worth of secrets held by the Catholic church — but its brainy protagonist, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, offered something like catharsis when he revealed that ordered patterns always exist among the chaos.
The Da Vinci Code became a tour de force in the publishing world, and Brown has since published four more Robert Langdon novels, including Origin, which hit the shelves on October 3.
Like The Da Vinci Code, Origin speaks to some powerful and widely shared feelings of the moment – namely, that humanity’s future is uncertain and that technology may either be what saves us or what leads us to our undoing.
Brown spoke by phone from New Hampshire about his latest novel, his views on science and religion, and what he believes to be humanity’s biggest unanswered question.
Q: I’m sure you conducted a lot of research into current technologies to write your latest. What did you learn that surprised you the most?
That we’re even more advanced than I realized. The things that we consider science fiction at the moment are much closer to reality than we think. We’ll soon start to see functioning artificial intelligence and massive computer modeling, cures for deadly diseases, even something as simple as self-driving cars. They’re on the road now. I have one! When I drive to Boston, I don’t touch the wheel for an hour. Kids right now who are 10 years old will never learn to drive cars.
Q: Are you excited by these technologies, or fearful?
I’m hopeful for the future, but I will temper that by saying in the history of humankind, we have never created a technology that we haven’t weaponized. We invented fire, and for a while, it was great. It kept us warm and we could cook our food. But then we quickly learned how to burn down neighboring villages. And now we have nuclear power, which provides endless energy. But we also figured out how to build the atom bomb. My sincere hope is that our instinct to kill each other comes from not having all that we want and need, and in a future of abundance, created by technology, our instinct for hurting each other will diminish.
Q: Your novels are rife with dialogues between religious and scientific communities. Are you interested in these discussions beyond what you write about?
Absolutely. My mother was a very religious church organist, and my dad was an agnostic college professor. So I had these two very different worldviews growing up. I was actually a religious kid. Then at some point, I thought, “Wait a minute, there seems to be a lot of science that supports evolution and the Big Bang, and all that heaven and hell stuff is kind of troubling.” But at the same time, the more I read about scientific discovery, the more I realized it’s also kind of philosophical.
In the last few months, I lost my mother. There’s a part of me, even as logical as my mind is, that wants to believe that she’s up there somewhere looking down on me. In fact, I wish I were deeply religious because then I’d believe it was part of God’s plan. But in reality I think she’s just gone. And that’s hard to stomach.
Q: In Origin, Robert Langdon says that religion and science aren’t necessarily at odds; they’re attempting to find different ways to answer the same question.
That’s true. But if you look at religion as it existed 3,000 years ago, you’ll see that we had gods for everything. When the sun came up, we believed it was Helios with his chariot. Storms were created by Poseidon. Over time, scientists figured out what was actually happening and those gods disappeared. Now we’re down to just a handful of spiritual questions: Is there life after death? Where do we come from, and what’s our purpose here? That’s pretty much the extent of it, because science has answered all the rest. Religion is getting boxed out and cornered, and people like Richard Dawkins believe that religion is in its death throes. I suppose time will tell whether that’s true, but it certainly is evolving. It needs to if it’s going to survive.
Q: In Origin, a world-renowned computer scientist claims to have found answers to two of humankind’s most pressing questions: Where do we come from, and where are we going? What is a third question that you wish you had the answer to?
I guess it would be: What is the purpose of life? Both science and religion have answers to that question. But if someone held a gun to my head and forced me to answer, I would say we just got lucky. That the laws of physics made us, and we just sort of evolved. That as our brains got bigger and bigger we became conscious, in the same way that as computers get bigger and bigger, they will likely become conscious.
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m going on book tour. I’ll spend a couple of months traveling throughout the United States —including Dallas — and across Europe. It’s a real thrill to meet readers, because I spend three to four years pretty much alone with my ideas. When I’m on tour, I get to have a dialogue with an audience — some of whom will disagree with me strongly — and that’s exciting for me. It’s exhausting, but rewarding. I learn a lot from readers.