Ben Babcock's Reviews > Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
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's review
Dec 10, 2009

did not like it
bookshelves: own, 2010-read, mystery, not-anyone-s-cup-of-tea, religion-fiction, science-fiction, thriller, 2010-worst10
Read from April 12 to 15, 2010 , read count: 2

Right, so, I don't really want to write this review. In fact, re-reading this book was a bad idea, but I chose to do it for reasons that will soon become clear (that, and I wanted to give it a more accurate rating on Goodreads).

I love to tear into bad books—and make no mistake, Angels & Demons is a very bad book, and not in the naughty sense. But the problem with bad, popular books published ten years ago is that most of the witty deconstructions have been done. Bashing Dan Brown is like bashing that vampire series: yes, I could do it, and I could do it well. But what would be the point? It's passé.

I could take my time to detail the many factual errors present in this book, but TV Tropes has already taken care of that for me. Also worthy of note is this blog post, which mentions the absurdity of the claim that Vittoria "disproved one of Einstein's fundamental theories" by observing fish.

Say what you will of Angels & Demons; dismiss it as "light entertainment" that should be celebrated because it's a well-paced thriller with a pseudohistorical, pseudoscientific plot and a hot yoga-practising Italian physicist. All those inaccuracies, they're just artistic license, right? It doesn't matter that the facade on St. Peter's Basilica is travertine instead of marble. Who cares about minor details? I'm just being a downer nitpicker!

Were it not for the depressing overabundance of nits to pick, I might agree with my straw man opponent. The sheer number of errors and oversights on Dan Brown's part, however, means he is either too lazy to do research or wilfully neglecting the fact-checking. In either case, it sends the message that he doesn't think his readers are worth the time to produce a book that's more accurate. That's condescending, and I don't like condescending.

Responsible authors, particularly authors of historical fiction, write historical notes that mention where they've deviated from, you know, actual history. Dan Brown claims it's 99 per cent true. Angels & Demons has a nice little "fact" preface that warns us all about antimatter. I don't know if you've spotted the trend yet, but it turns out the "fact" is not much of a fact. So Dan Brown is portraying his (poorly researched) fiction as non-fiction. And that's not what writers do; that's what politicians do.

The whole "science versus religion" debate is a worthy motif for any story. Far better books have done it more justice than Angels & Demons does, mostly because Dan Brown doesn't even try to do the subject any justice. I'm sure there are many people who feel that science is destroying religion much the same way the camerlengo does in this book. Television and the Internet (which may be biased, I guess) inform me that none of them has faked the attempted destruction of a religious site using a new and highly-destructive weapon created by science in order to restore people's faith. I guess they're all waiting on that antimatter.

My point is: subtle and nuanced Dan Brown is not. His villains are caricatures of caricatures. His hero . . . well, I feel only pity for Robert Langdon, to be trapped in such a poorly-researched world. And he's played by Tom Hanks in the movies, so he's not all bad.

But Angels & Demons is bad. Even if we label the bad writing and incoherent plot as subjective elements, the fact remains that Dan Brown is feeding us a shit sandwich like it's made of edible gold—and charging us for the gold too.

It's still better than The Art Thief .

My Reviews of the Robert Langdon series:
The Da Vinci Code
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex Do tell of these so called better "science vs religion" books you speak of

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Babcock I should probably clarify that, by “science vs. religion,” I think I meant books that explore the tension between the two, more so than books that champion one or the other. (Though I have certainly read a few of those— The God Delusion being the notable elephant in that room. Alas, I have grown less enamoured of Dawkins as time goes on.)

I should also clarify that my problem with Angels & Demons is not that it is “science vs. religion” so much as it is just written so badly and represents neither science nor religion with anything approaching accuracy or good faith on Brown’s part. Science and religion are not out to destroy each other, and they have a tough enough time as it is without irresponsible hacks like Brown profiting off spreading misconceptions.

So, as you requested, here are some books that more effectively and responsibly elucidate the complex ways in which science and religion interact, both through agonism and in alignment, to influence our society:


* The Name of the Rose has a medieval monk solve a murder mystery using Bacon and Occam’s scientific methods in a Benedictine monastery. So, make of that what you will.
* By the same author, Foucault’s Pendulum is like The Lost Symbol, only infinitely better. It has some good drama involving secret societies.
* Galileo’s Dream uses science fiction to analyze the tension in the sixteenth century over how scientific discovery threatened the temporal power concentrated in an increasingly inflexible organized Church.
* The Sparrow is rightly considered a classic science-fiction treatment of religion.
* Similarly, Dune actually goes so far as to examine how science can, over a long period of time, turn into religion.

As for non-fiction:

* Areopagitica is not explicitly about science/religion. However, since censorship is inimical to science, and this is polemic against censorship at a time when science and religion were both hot topics in European politics, I think it’s definitely a good read. And it isn’t very long.
* Descartes’ Bones is explicitly about science vs. religion, told through biographical inquiry into the life of Descartes … and his death.
* The Evolution of God uses science to trace our conception of a monotheistic Abrahamic deity as it emerges from polytheistic Middle Eastern cultures.
* Stephen Hawking authored The Grand Design along with Leonard Mlodinow. It touches on the science versus religion debate by presenting one of the most lucid explanations of model-dependent philosophy of science that I’ve read.
* A Map That Changed the World has some interesting moments in it as William Smith’s midwifing of geology in England causes tension with those who still subscribe to a Young Earth theory.
* A More Perfect Heaven tells the story of Copernicus, arguably the most appropriate person to engage in a science vs. religion debate, since he was both a canon and an astronomer!
* Pythagoras’ Trousers looks at science and religion’s interaction in Western history through a gender-theoretic perspective.

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