A “page-turner”; an exciting thriller built on an obviously impossible premise with one- and two-dimensional characters and a complex yet unsatisfying plot. All that said, I enjoyed reading Mr. Brownâ€™s first “Robert Langdon” book, as they call this series after the hero-protagonist expert in historical art symbology. //The Da Vinci Code// had been recommended to me by different people on at least five occasions, so when I had the opportunity to borrow its prequel here, I eagerly accepted.
//Angels and Demons// starts out, on page one, with the following premise. Well, within Chapter One, I mean (or Chapter Two?), but I donâ€™t hesitate to “spoil” this part of the plot because if you pick up the book and start reading, youâ€™ll reach it pretty fast, anyway. Unless you donâ€™t want even the first word spoiled (which is “The”, by the way), in which case retroactively stop reading before you get to this sentence. Or not, I donâ€™t know if the first word is “The”. In fact I do have a pretty good hunch it isnâ€™t.
The premise, then, is that a scientist has figured out a way to create unlimited quantities of antimatter and matter (in equal proportion) without using any energy. In reality (meaning, the world we live in) we can make antimatter, just as we can make matter, but it takes an incredible amount of energy. Thatâ€™s “E=MC^^2^^” for you, which says that matter and energy are interchangeable and you can convert from one to the other. But since matter and antimatter tie up the same kind of energy, you canâ€™t just pull them out of empty space. You might as well pull free energy out of empty space directly if you could do that. Create something out of nothing. Since we know you canâ€™t do that (i.e., make free energy), in this universe at least, letâ€™s say Angels and Demons is set in an alternate, non-parallel, (not even perpendicular) universe where one can just make free energy and get something out of nothing, suspend our disbelief like good readers, and move on from there.
So, itâ€™s true that when matter and antimatter are combined, they annihilate each other and the energy contained is released (we, in our boring “conservation of energy” universe, have had to put that same huge amount of energy thatâ€™s liberated later into creating a tiny bit of antimatter, in the first place). So if you just so happen to have a way to make free antimatter, you can also build a sort of battery. Just combine the two whenever you need some power, and thereâ€™s your power (ignoring the steps involved in converting the heat energy to electrical or mechanical energy).
So a particular scientist (in his alternate universe) decides to pull a lot (a very visible amount) of antimatter out of thin air (vacuum), and then he decides to keep the globule of it hanging in a special storage device. The problem is that the antimatter canâ€™t touch normal matter, so it needs to be contained by magnetic fields which suspend it in a vacuum.
Now, our scientist decides to make his antimatter containment device portable, which results in, as described in the book, something I picture as looking like a huge thermos crossed with an enormous hourglass. Why put all that effort into making this device portable? Why have it built with a battery inside, complete with a battery meter that counts down the exact number of seconds remaining in the batteryâ€™s charge, after which containment will fail? Why make it so the device canâ€™t be plugged into a standard outlet to recharge the battery? Have you figured it out, yet? Yes, youâ€™re smart. Plot: (1) Terrorists obtain doomsday bomb. (2) Bomb is counting down to detonation and canâ€™t be stopped. The originality is overwhelming.
So, I kept thinking Hardy Boys, but then I realized the plot and style are more like those of a good Tom Swift, at least due to the pseudoscientific antimatter stuff. The mystery/chase aspect is Hardy Boys. Maybe a bit more complex. Maybe, letâ€™s say: the substance of three Hardy Boys books crunched down into one, a pinch of Tom Swift, and an additional dosing of voilence/romance to facilitate an adult flavor. Shake (donâ€™t stir) and voila! (Note: thatâ€™s not pronounced “viola”, if youâ€™re not aware — it’s how “wah lah” is spelled.) Bear in mind, I once greatly enjoyed reading Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books back when I was little, and I bet theyâ€™d still be mighty fun to read, so I donâ€™t say this to criticize, rather to elucidate flavor. Though Tom Swift was much more original, usuallyâ€¦ But this is meant to be good adult literature?
Characterization is weak because, simply, the characters are not believable. Mr. Langdon (protagonist, do recall) is in a repeated state of shock, recoiling in horror or having his jaw drop to the floor with every new realization he makes or circumstance he encounters. The bad guy is not merely bad or misguided or conflicted in an interesting way, rather, just evil. The ultimate conclusion relies on those who have proven their intelligence and compassion throughout life acting in utterly stupid and un-compassionate ways, not meshing with my conception of reality as something plausible.
One instance where Mr. Langdonâ€™s jaw drops to the floor in complete amazement (typical description; this is the flavor of the book’s words, remember) is when he sees people floating in an air silo, a tall cylindrical room with a jet engine at the bottom which blasts air upwards to allow those inside to appear to be floating. Even if I hadnâ€™t seen a special about these on television about 15 years ago, that would hardly have been my reaction, let alone what I imagine to be that of someone who has presumably experienced much more of life than I have up to this point. So in the end, itâ€™s hard to identify with this jittery easily-shocked protagonist as the hero of the story, let alone as a genuine person.
Although clearly the author put some research into the secret societies he details and the locations his characters visit, I didnâ€™t feel particularly more educated by the end of the story. Further, the story made exaggerated claims about the supposed impossibility (many artists and scholars attempting this for years, etc.) of creating particular ambigrams (a coined term referring to words which can be read from different angles, in this case words that appear the same when flipped upside-down) referenced in the story, and yet the graphic artist who designed the images for the book apparently had no trouble. Further research on the Web reveals plenty of hobbyists who create and collect interesting ambigrammatic images.
In terms of an entertaining fast read, //Angels and Demons// isnâ€™t bad. In terms of something cerebral, something that will teach you anything much about history, how the world works, how people interact; something that speculates about the future, makes an argument, or imparts knowlege: look elsewhere.