(1964- ) US author of Technothrillers; his take on this form is unusual in some ways, although the usual threats to the safety – or even existence – of the world remain a staple. The engine that drives all his narratives is the puzzle-solving element. His first novel, Digital Fortress (1998), is a thriller largely about cryptanalysis, and features a vastly powerful Computer that some people fear will allow the National Security Agency intrusively to collect and decode a mass of data about private citizens; Brown has often been accused of being superficial, but he certainly has a (sometimes premature) sense of what worries or interests ordinary people. Digital Fortress anticipates by well over a decade the political scandals connected with data leakers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. At the time, however, the novel slipped beneath the radar of most critics and did not sell well. Brown's third book, Deception Point (2001) the second and last of his singletons, is a rather modest affair, involving a plot to undermine NASA by planting fake fossils in a meteorite in the Arctic. What could have been a routine thriller with a technological McGuffin is enlivened by exploring the possibility of Extraterrestrial life and its significance.
It was with his second novel – the first volume of the Robert Langdon sequence comprising Angels & Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003), The Lost Symbol (2009) and Inferno (2013) – that Brown found a protagonist fit to his purposes. Langdon is a Harvard "symbologist" and cryptanalyst, and his grasp of the meaning of symbols, such as those found in medieval and renaissance art, opens the way for tales intricately engaged with the decipherment of secret languages and the consequent exposure of secret societies. In Angels & Demons, filmed as Angels & Demons (2009), the Illuminati (see Paranoia; Secret Masters) threaten the Vatican with a highly implausible Antimatter bomb. Langdon defuses this threat through his arcane knowledge of the historical meanings of the four Elements; here and in successor volumes, cognition and intuition marry in a way evocative of the exploits of the Occult Detective (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below) of a century earlier.
Brown's narrative strategy often involves an almost vertiginous imbalance in major characters – people of power – masquerading as good while actually driven by ambition and casual cruelty, and vice versa. This imbues his novels with a kind of moral dizziness and agitation, arguably much closer to the world we live in than the technothriller's traditional dichotomy of good versus evil. The Da Vinci Code (2003), filmed as The Da Vinci Code (2006), remains his best-known work, and could be seen as a template for his work as a whole: the symbology and cryptography, puzzle solving, secret societies, characters who are morally ambiguous or not what they seem, and above all, the solution of mysteries of the present through recovery and tenure of the past. The story opens with the murder of a curator in the Louvre, and involves the Holy Grail and the alleged marriage of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene. Brown's prose is workmanlike at best, and the plot veers between absurd and merely silly. Nevertheless, the overall effect is bracing. Much of what many critics and readers saw as Brown's originality and careful research is derivative of New Age occultism – often anti-science (see Anti-Intellectualism in SF) – that characterized much inventive "nonfiction" published before and during the millennium; and for every reviewer who praised it as "intelligent", "brainy" or "smart", another saw it as ill-written nonsense. Whatever the verdict, the book's huge popularity remains of interest. Some hostile critics have implied that Brown's success as explicable only because the average reader of popular fiction is ill educated and gullible. This is not only unpleasantly elitist, it is unlikely. Over and beyond the novel's puzzle element, Brown's attacks on Christianity, notably Catholicism, may have helped sales as well, since this transgressive element is very unusual to find in popular fiction and may have rendered his work intellectually spicy and welcomed by more readers than would have been expected.
Though the third volume, The Lost Symbol, sold very well, it felt a little flat after its predecessor. Set in America, it concerns skulduggery focused on the Freemasons, and lacks much sf interest. Inferno, however, is one of Brown's best works, and also one of his best written. It disappoints a little in that the historic symbolism derives from Dante Alighieri and not Leonardo da Vinci, for Brown seems less au fait with the poet than with the obsessively inventive painter. Inferno's intellectual structure owes in fact more to Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) than to Dante, and the End of the World caused by Overpopulation, starvation and plague (see Disaster) is interestingly and alarmingly considered. It is genuine sf, and probably the best researched of Brown's books. Amusingly, the United Nations' World Health Organization is one of the several enigmatic secret societies pitted against one another. The novel climaxes in a well-rendered scene which vividly evokes the image of the upside-down head of Medusa hidden in the darkness of the vast underground cistern whose entrance is next to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. [PN]
see also: Adam Roberts.
born Exeter, New Hampshire: 22 June 1964
- Angels & Demons (New York: Pocket Books, 2000) [Robert Langdon: hb/John Langdon]
- The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003) [Robert Langdon: hb/]
- The Lost Symbol (London: Bantam Press, 2009) [Robert Langdon: hb/]
- Inferno (London: Bantam Press, 2013) [Robert Langdon: hb/]
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