In spite of all logic, I have a soft spot for Dan Brown. I genuinely enjoyed his early work. I got started on Angels and Demons, which I thought was pretty good at the time, despite some errors. I also liked his spy thrillers, Digital Fortress (despite the laughable computer science) and Deception Point (despite the dismissive attitude toward NASA). Unfortunately, his work has gone downhill since. Like many Christians, I found The DaVinci Code offensive. More recently, The Lost Symbol was just plain underwhelming. Even so, I thought I would give him one more chance with his latest installment, Inferno. Unfortunately, Mr. Brown misses the mark.
Spoilers to follow
Inferno, inspired by Dante’s classic poem, begins with our favorite symbologist, Robert Langdon, waking up in a hospital with a head wound and no memory of the past two days. Then, an assassin comes after him, with black vans following close behind, and Langdon learns that his only hope of escape is to decode the last message of a mad scientist, who has set in motion a terrible plot.
To his credit, Dan Brown plays with his formulaic plot in this work. The illusions and deceptions are thicker than ever, with a few more twists thrown in that usual. By the end, almost nothing is what it seems. But some of these twists come by the careful concealment of important information from the reader, independent of its concealment from Robert Langdon. These cutaways are such a large red herring that I felt a little cheated when I learned the truth.
What really rubbed me the wrong way, though, was the message the novel sends. The villain, Bertrand Zobrist, is a Malthusian Transhumanist. In other words, he believes that technology can fix civilization, but isn’t doing so fast enough to save us from overpopulation, which is what leads him to his desperate plan. I don’t begrudge Zobrist himself: he plays the tragic villain who is too blinded by his own ideology to see the truth.
But I was, frankly, offended that no one, not the director of the World Health Organization, not the doctor with the 208 IQ, and certainly not Langdon himself, who is kind of useless outside his own field and doesn’t seem to have learned much from his three past adventures, mentions the real truth about overpopulation: population growth is slowing down on its own. The exponential curve that Zobrist so fears ended in 1964, when growth as a proportion of the population began to decline.
Mr. Brown has always played fast and loose with his supposedly well-researched facts, to the point where it’s become a verb, but leaving out such a critical piece of information about the book’s central moral question is going too far. (Brown himself claims not to have a solution to overpopulation, but only presenting one side of the issue doesn’t help.)
What’s worse is that most people don’t seem to have noticed. Most readily searchable reviews take the overpopulation issue at face value. It’s sad and a little disturbing that the reality-challenged website World Net Daily provides the strongest critique of Mr. Brown’s error, even while their own conclusions are equally half-baked. (Here is a more balanced assessment.) The truth is that the UN predict’s the world’s population leveling off at 9 to 11 billion people, contrary to the claims of even the most sympathetic characters in Inferno.
In the end, Mr. Brown does what he usually does: concoct a dense, twisting plot filled with danger, cutting-edge science, and elaborate art history. As always, the result is quite the page-turner. Unfortunately, in this case, it is little else, and the misrepresentation of the central question further kept me from enjoying the story.
My rating: 2.5 out of 5.