Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Book of God and Physics, by Enrique Joven

The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery, by Enrique Joven. Harper Collins, 2007. 347 pp. 978-0-06-145687-9.

... in which a Jesuit priest solves a centuries-old mystery.

If The DaVinci Code was based in solid fact, and if Dan Brown possessed any writing skills whatsoever, I suspect that The DaVinci Code would have ended up being a great deal like this novel. The two novels are similar in that both plots revolve around a mysterious religious text. In this case, however, the mysterious text in question is actually real, and is kept at Yale University.

The Voynich Manuscript is a set of handwritten pages from sometime around the early 1400s. It is written in an unidentified language and an unknown script, and has thus far defied every attempt to translate it. Ancient scholars tried, and modern cryptographers and mathematicians and computer scientists have also failed. The manuscript is full of detailed illustrations, and seems to cover many topics, from astronomy to biology to medicine.

The Book of God and Physics is fairly unique, since a great deal of the people and objects and locations in the novel are very real. The only fabrications for the story are the three central characters. The main character is a young Jesuit priest, Hector, who lives in a monastery and teaches physics and math at a Jesuit high school in Spain. In his free time, he joins hundreds of other people around the world in an online community devoted to solving the Voynich Mystery. Along with two friends, Juana from Mexico and John from England, he begins to piece together clues to the manuscript. Over time, they find that the manuscript is very much a part of the Jesuit Order's history. Along with working on the manuscript, Hector must help his fellow priests in saving their monastery from being bought by developers and destroyed to make room for a parking lot. With one of his students, Hector also gets swept up in a research project involving Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, the very famous astronomers of old. The three separate plotlines eventually come together.

I have only a few complaints about the book. The pacing was a little too slow. However, I am at a loss to explain how this problem might be fixed. The issue is that the story involves a very large amount of explanation, including a detailed history of the Voynich Manuscript itself, and a very very detailed history of the lives of Kepler, Brahe, and other historically significant people of their day. As a rough estimate, I would guess that somewhere between 30% and 40% of the book is devoted to historical background. Unfortunately, a great deal of this background is necessary to understand the intricacies of the plot itself. So, if you have little to no interest in people like Kepler and his contemporaries, this is most likely not the book for you. I wish the ending had been a little clearer, and I wish that we'd get to see what the translated Voynich Manuscript says, but since the real manuscript hasn't been deciphered at all, I think it was probably a safe choice to leave that to the reader's imagination. Finally, I feel like something might have been slightly lost in translation, as some of the dialogue occasionally feels artificial. However, that's a trait I notice in most translated works that I read, so I don't consider this to be a significant issue at all.

As for the plot itself, I thought it was nicely developed and I felt like the mystery unfolded well. There were no huge shocks, but nor was it a predictable plot. The main character, Hector, is well developed, and certainly feels like he could be a real person. His friends Juana and John are somewhat less well characterized, but they have far fewer scenes than Hector. In John's case, I don't think the slight lack of development is an issue, but in Juana's case, I could perhaps have used a little more background, especially in light of the directions taken by her character in the latter third of the story.

The intersection of history, science, and religion is very nicely explored in this book. Written by a Spanish astrophysicist with a Ph.D., there is a lot of talk of astronomy and some talk of math and physics. None of this drags the story down; rather, the science nicely accents the plot without dominating. Since Hector is a Jesuit priest, there is the constant backdrop of his religious order, but the religion doesn't dominate the story, and Juana and John are from different religious backgrounds themselves (Juana is evangelical Protestant, and John is an atheist). For those of you who don't know, the Jesuit order in the Catholic church is a brotherhood devoted to education and science. There is some exploration of Protestantism vs Catholicism, but not a great deal and mostly at the end. Unusual for this blog, this book's story and the history explained in it could be one argument for how religion isn't always trying to destroy science. The Catholic Church, under John Paul II, was very accepting of Darwinism and evolution, and the Big Bang Theory, describing the origin of the universe ~14 billion years ago, was actually developed by a Jesuit priest and cheerfully accepted by the Vatican.

In short, if you're interested in physics and astronomy, or in ancient mysteries, or in the Jesuit order, or in people like Kepler and Brahe, this is recommended reading. If you don't care for these topics, though, it could prove to be a ponderous, slow read! Definitely a book for a specific target audience.

"Actually, it is noteworthy that this theory of evolution has gradually entered the investigators' spirits, due to a series of discoveries in diverse fields of knowledge. The convergence of results, in no way intended to provoked in studies conducted independently, is a significant argument in itself in favor of this theory." ~Pope John Paul II, in support of evolution and Darwinism. Qtd page 337 in The Book of God and Physics

4/5 stars.

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