I did not read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. Well, I should say that I didn’t read much of it. A friend passed it to me, soberly telling me how awesome it was, before I’d read the The DaVinci Code, so I didn’t realize at the time just how colossal a hack Dan Brown is.
The latter novel is sloppily constructed around some chestnuts that had been circulating in the conspiracy theory crowd for some time, mixed with the ‘Apostle Mary Magdalene/Merovingians as the lineal descendants of Jesus’ hokum from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. It’s stupid, superficial and incredibly contrived but at least you can say that it’s briskly plotted; I think I read the whole thing in less time than it would have taken to watch the movie. So while it’s a waste of time from the perspective of literature, it’s not a waste of much time.
Angels & Demons, on the other hand, assaulted me with stupidity from the first page. By the time I got a chapter or two in, I put the book down and gave it back to my friend, mercilessly berating him for liking it.
See, the opening of the book takes place at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which has been in the news a lot lately on account of some nut thinks that the recently activated-then-deactivated Large Hadron Collider is going to make black holes that will eat the Earth, or turn the Earth into strangelets, or maybe just give everyone a permanent orange afro.
I read a lot of books on science, especially on physics, and especially on the kind of physics that they do at CERN and at Fermilab in Illinois. So I was pretty conversant with the place from a layman’s perspective before I read the book. Thus, I knew going in that CERN does not have a suborbital spaceplane. I also was pretty sure that they also do not have a magical antigravity elevator, or superpowered Professor X wheelchairs with death rays built into them.
The book also gets almost everything wrong about antimatter, around which the whole plot revolves, in sort of an eccentric and unstable orbit. It’s almost like Brown read the first two or three sentences of the Wikipedia article on antimatter and pulled the rest out of some nether region best left undescribed.
Maybe the average person on the street, not familiar with the activities at CERN, lapped up these particular pieces of codswallop, but I didn’t. It hit a little too close to a subject of interest to me. If Brown had made up a fictional Organization for Nuclear Research, or a fictional hugely destructive substance called, say, “Red Matter,” I probably would have taken the book as merely ham-handed science fiction and it wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much. But that’s one of Brown’s problems – he shrouds his farfetched plots in a veneer of reality, but that veneer, in both books, is exceptionally thin. He drops names and then gets everything else so totally wrong that the intellect revolts against the surging tide of stupidity. I had a very similar reaction to Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters, way back in the day; it took in the utterly uninitiated, but anyone remotely familiar with the subject matter instantly recognized how phony it all was.
The folks at CERN seem, from the news reports, to be taking Brown’s book, and the newly-released film starring Tom Hanks, in good humor, but I have to think that some of the people there tried to read the book and had the same tooth-grinding reaction I did. I may go see the movie, to ridicule it if nothing else.
EDIT: I should concede a couple of things here: First, that the Wikipedia article on antimatter is actually a decent place to start investigating the subject, as Wikipedia articles often are, and is assuredly not the cause of the novel’s unmitigated idiocy. And second, that the film is a Ron Howard/Tom Hanks affair, a combination that has produced good results in the past, at least once (Apollo 13,) spectacularly good. Also, CERN themselves suggested some plot tweaks to the film’s producers to make the core conceit of the story less laughably preposterous. I am not sure how well this works out. In addition, the film seems to be getting better reviews than the unwatchably excreable Da Vinci Code movie.