Review of The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
The Lost Symbol
by Dan Brown
Here we go again. I had no intention of reading Dan Brown's new Robert Langdon novel; torturing myself twice was enough. However, my mom gave it to me for my birthday last year—and my birthday is in a week, so I have delayed long enough. I'm not going to apologize for this review, and if you like Dan Brown's novels in any way, you might well be offended.
When considering how I would review this, the question that I had to conquer was: why so much vitriol? What makes other factually-inaccurate thrillers excusable while I crucify Dan Brown thrillers? There must be some reason that The Lost Symbol is exceedingly bad, even by the standards of people who believe a book can just be a "beach read." If no such reason exists, then I'm just hating on Dan Brown to be cool, and that's . . . not cool. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasons for my vituperation of The Lost Symbol.
Let's start with those so-called "facts" and "research" that are supposed to elevate this thriller into some sort of work possessing "culture" (whatever that is). No matter how you weigh this book, even if it's to ten decimal points, most of it is exposition. And dull exposition at that. Yes, some of Langdon's explanations about Masonic history are relevant to the plot. But most of these "facts" are just Dan Brown trying to show off how much research he did. For example, when a woman recognizes Langdon by his trademark turtleneck-sans-tie, Dan Brown mentions for our edification:
Neckties had been required six days a week when Langdon attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and despite the headmaster's romantic claim that the origin of the cravat went back to the silk fascalia worn by Roman orators to warm their vocal cords, Langdon knew that, etymologically, cravat actually derived from a ruthless band of "Croat" mercenaries who donned knotted neckerchiefs before they stormed into battle. To this day, this ancient battle garb was donned by modern office warriors hoping to intimidate their enemies in daily boardroom battles.
This paragraph might be defensible as character development, but Dan Brown is still showing off. There's really no reason to include it. At least he gets the etymology correct here—later, Langdon will ruminate on how we sign our letters "sincerely" because sincere comes from the Latin sine cera, "without wax." The OED tells me: "there is no probability in [this] old explanation."
I won't try to list all the factual errors in The Lost Symbol. That would bore both of us. The necktie is my paradigm case. Suffice it to say, Dan Brown's claims about factual accuracy annoy me, because they are so obviously false. The denouement of The Lost Symbol, once the thriller part of the plot is over, exists only so that Dan Brown can go on for another fifty pages about the Masonic secrets of Washington and how they promulgate a New Age syncretic philosophy. As a result, people who read this book looking for didactic fiction will come away with a wildly-skewed view of history and philosophy. People who want a thriller, on the other hand, should stop after chapter 125. People who want a good thriller should just stop, period, because they won't find one in this book.
Let's talk about philosophy now, as well as facts. The Lost Symbol focuses on Noetics. Dan Brown's lamentable and laughable author's note, titled "Fact," claims that "All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real." This is technically correct, in the sense that Noetics does exist . . . but it's not really a science. This is apparent at the end of chapter 7: "The truth was that Katherine was doing science so advanced that it no longer even resembled science." If your science no longer resembles science, then you aren't doing science any more. (Also, if your science lasts longer than four hours, please call a doctor.)
No, contrary to his lip service to factual accuracy, Dan Brown is content to repeat misconceptions and misrepresentations of science and philosophy if it fits his purposes. Now, if this were a work of science fiction, and Noetics was presented as some future development of human science, then I could go with it. However, Dan Brown is claiming Noetics is credibly a science in the present day. It's pseudoscience, or more appropriately, philosophy.
The distinction between science and philosophy is, admittedly, somewhat vague, especially the further back in time we go. However, this does not support the tiresome myth that The Lost Symbol repeats. As Peter puts it, "The scientific wisdom of the ancients was staggering . . . modern physics is only now beginning to comprehend it all." Two paragraphs later, we get a horrendously inaccurate explanation of quantum entanglement followed by a claim that this phenomenon is equivalent to the universal sense of "one-ness," that all things are interconnected, espoused by innumerable ancient philosophies. Even if such an equivalence were evident, it does not follow that "the ancients" (a laughably broad label) understood quantum entanglement theory in the sense that we do today.
Dan Brown is being very sneaky here in his support for this argument. Just prior to the entanglement theory discussion, Katherine says, "you already told me that the Egyptians understood levers and pulleys long before Newton." This sentence makes an implicit connection between the Egyptian use of levers and pulleys and Newton's explanation of how levers and pulleys function according to his laws of force and motion. Yet applying technology is very different from explaining why that technology functions. The Greeks also knew how to use pulleys and levers, but Aristotle's explanation for gravity was that all things want to return whence they come, hence everything falling back to Earth. This explanation is wrong, but it didn't preclude the continued use of pulley-and-lever technology. (For that matter, Newton's theories are also "wrong" in the sense that they have been superseded by Einstein's theory of general relativity. But Newton's formulas are much simpler and usually accurate enough for anything being done at a local level.)
If I sound didactic, it's because I'm trying to undo some of the damage done by The Lost Symbol. You might not think its portrayal of science matters, but when millions of people read a book that claims "all science presented here is real," perpetuating a mistaken view of how science functions is irresponsible. It's also lazy, because then it leads to remarks like this:
Katherine's work here had begun using modern science to answer ancient philosophical questions. Does anyone hear our prayers? Is there life after death? Do humans have souls? Incredibly, Katherine had answered all of these questions, and more. Scientifically. Conclusively. The methods she used were irrefutable. Even the most skeptical of people would be persuaded by the results of her experiments. If this information were published and made known, a fundamental shift would begin in the consciousness of man.
This is a classic example of Dan Brown's personal style of hyperbole, which dates back to the anti-science conspiracy at the core of Angels & Demons. There are three problems with the above passage. Firstly, the claim that science can ever be "conclusive" or that a scientist's methods result in "irrefutable" evidence. That's not how science is, at least right now, is wired. Scientists love to design hypothesis and then try to falsify those hypotheses, because proving something wrong means you can cross it off the list (and learn a lot during the investigation). Moreover, we are constantly tinkering with and tweaking scientific theories. No theory emerges spontaneously from the (nonexistent) ether, and no theory remains unchanging. Secondly, scientific discoveries do not change the world overnight. New results have to be confirmed, reproduced, reviewed . . . it takes time. Fundamental changes happen, but they take time. Finally, it's not the "most skeptical of people" Katherine has to worry about convincing. It's the irrational people. Aristotle might have opined that human beings have a rational principle, but I'm tempted to say he was wrong about that too (Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things!). It doesn't matter how "irrefutable" her evidence is; there will still be certain people who reject science in favour of . . . yeah.
It's just bad, OK? Dan Brown has no respect for science and no respect for research, since he lazily puts in whatever exposition he wants, accurate or not, and then claims it's all real anyway. In attempting to be sensational, Dan Brown succumbs to laziness, both in his research and his presentation of that research. And that's really all The Lost Symbol is: a tedious, lazy presentation of research about Masonic symbolism. I'm not certain how I can properly convey how much of this book is exposition and how little is actually plot.
If you have read my reviews of Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, then you'll know that my primary complaint is that the two books are the same book, with some names and places changed. The Lost Symbol almost succumbs to this problem, although there are some notable differences. For instance, the erudite character with a physical disability is not the evil mastermind this time. Also, Dan Brown decided to skip any kind of intelligent puzzle in this book, opting instead of cheap tricks with boring reveals ("Oh, I was looking at the tattoo upside down. D'oh!"). Somehow, The Lost Symbol manages to be even worse than the preceding Robert Langdon books. Langdon continues to be a transparent author avatar—if you have any doubt of this, just compare Langdon's turtleneck-tweed ensemble from any of this three books with the author photo. Katherine Solomon is a transparent hot female scientist—sorry, pseudoscientist. The Lost Symbol is perhaps the worst book I have read, worse by far than The Art Thief and perhaps worse than The Expected One.
I don't know what Dan Brown's next novel is, but I don't want to read it. It disappoints me that The Lost Symbol is so successful, but I don't want to be one of those literature snobs who shakes his fist, saying, "Why can't the public see they're reading crap?!" But there is a big difference between popularity and literary quality.
I'll conclude with a shout-out to Umberto Eco. Eco is a semiotician and author of Foucault's Pendulum. If you're interested in conspiracies, that's the book you should be reading. Intelligent and sublime, it is not merely a conspiracy thriller. Unlike Dan Brown, Eco does not display contempt for his readers by including lazily-researched "facts." Instead, he creates a fable that is part conspiracy, part literary criticism, part philosophy, and wholly entertaining and enchanting. It is everything Dan Brown's novels are not, and if you have read this review prior to reading The Lost Symbol, I sincerely urge you to put down the Dan Bron novel and pick up an Umberto Eco one instead.