This review has been a while in the making. When details regarding Dan Brown's newest book Inferno began to leak out a few months ago, I found myself growing increasingly excited at the prospect of returning to Robert Langdon's world of symbology. Having anxiously awaited its release on 14 May, my main concern was the amount of time that would be taken away from my exam revision as I inevitably found myself unable to put Inferno down. In light of such a context, and as you are about to read, this is not the review I expected to write. Fortunate for my studies I suppose, but a little unfortunate given my months of anticipation.
"Knowlton listened to the muffled voice, attempting to decipher the elaborate language. About halfway through the speech, the shadow on the wall suddenly loomed larger and the sound of the voice intensified. 'Dante's hell is not fiction...it is prophecy! Wretched misery. Torturous woe. This is the landscape of tomorrow. Mankind, if unchecked, functions like a plague, a cancer...our numbers intensifying with each successive generation until the earthly comforts that once nourished our virtue and brotherhood have dwindled to nothing...unveiling the monster within us...fighting to the death to feed our young. This is Dante's nine-ringed hell. This is what awaits.'"
Inferno is the newest in Dan Brown's series of books following the Harvard Art History professor and symbologist, Robert Langdon. Set in Florence, this novel opens as Robert wakes up in hospital, having suffered a gunshot wound to the head and lost his memory of the previous three days. Trying to piece together the facts around what brought him to Florence, he is subject to a further assassination attempt while in the hospital, escaping with the help of Dr. Sienna Brooks. The abnormally intelligent Sienna guides Robert back to her apartment, where he uncovers the key to his mysterious pursuit - a small biohazard tube that he is carrying in his jacket pocket. Contained within the tube is a small projector which, when used, displays a copy of Botticelli's La Mappa dell'Inferno - an artistic imagining of the nine circles of hell as described in Dante's epic poem Inferno. After spotting some minute alterations to this projection of the painting, Robert is forced to unravel the uncertain circumstances that have brought him into its possession, sending him on a chase around the ancient and most celebrated of Florence's cultural sights. It soon becomes clear that Robert is involved in a conspiracy of unimaginable proportions, in which the very survival of humanity is at stake. The Dante fanatic and expert geneticist Bertrand Zobrist has created a plague to counter humankind's race towards its own extinction. Prescribing to the Malthusian idea of a population multiplying out of control, Zobrist is convinced that only with dramatic action, and the deaths of one-third of the global population, can humanity avoid complete destruction. As such, he has set a date upon which his plan will come to fruition, and a specially designed virus unleashed upon the world. With only the projection of Dante's Inferno to assist him, Robert must discover the location in which the plague will be exposed, and prevent the realisation of Zobrist's maniacal plot.
This book undoubtedly contains each of the elements that have made Dan Brown's previous books such a success - a fantastic setting, constant jeopardy, a seamless blending of fact and fiction, and the Indiana Jones of the World of Symbology, Robert Langdon (proving that tweed is always appropriate attire). Yet something about this book really did not work for me. Providing a plot of extraordinary similarity to The Da Vinci Code, I came away from Inferno feeling that this was certainly the ugly, socially-inept younger sibling of the family. It provided the thrills, but with so little substance as to make it a truly effortful read.
I do not believe, however, that the fault lies in the plot's Da Vinci Code-mimicry. For me, the real issue was the poorly-constructed attempt to make a broader political and social point:
"'You talk about controlling epidemics as if it's a good thing...There you have it,' the lanky man declared, sounding like an attorney resting his case. 'Here I stand with the head of the World Health Organization - the best the WHO has to offer. A terrifying thought if you consider it. I have shown you this image of impending misery...I have reminded you of the awesome power of unchecked population growth...I have enlightened you about the fact that we are on the brink of a spiritual collapse...And your response? Free condoms in Africa...This is like swinging a flyswatter at an incoming asteroid. The time bomb is no longer ticking. It has already gone off...'"
This is a book that places the issue of population growth at its heart. Dan Brown makes it Inferno's focal point and reiterates the centrality of the problem on numerous occasions. While Zobrist's plot to decimate one-third of the global population with a plague is obviously condemned, this is a book written with the intention of impressing upon the reader the urgency of the population crisis. Books should absolutely be a forum for the education of readers and authors should feel free to deal with issues of importance to them, but Inferno is tremendously clumsy, bordering on dangerous, in its presentation. While I am certainly no expert on the problem of overpopulation, I know enough of existing debates to recognise that there is a debate. Inferno presents the issue as one of accepted trajectory - that the population is headed towards destruction because the planet simply cannot support its growth. Whether or not you prescribe to this view, I was left feeling that Dan Brown's attempts to grapple with the topic were irresponsible at best. Not wanting to give the ending away, I will say that I was left reeling at the conclusion's suggestion that Zobrist's insane plan held some sort of legitimacy. For an author with a global audience as large as that of Dan Brown, I was hugely disappointed to find myself faced with a social manifesto that massively oversimplified such an issue, dealing with it in an extremely insensitive and sensationalist way.
The appeal of Dan Brown's previous works, most notably The Da Vinci Code, was always in the seamless blend of fact and fiction. While Inferno achieves this to a degree, it felt skewed as an attempt to tackle modern issues within a framework of archaic culture and location. The Da Vinci Code worked because the intersection of setting, characters, and plot line made sense. Inferno attempts to move in an altogether different direction, and the efforts to match up Robert Langdon's world of Symbology with that of the World Health Organisation and population overgrowth felt altogether inappropriate. Leaving the reader with a feeling of disconnect and an impression of disjointed narrative, a major consequence of Brown's approach is the unfortunate suppression of Robert Langdon's character. This is a character that I have loved since I first came across him in The Da Vinci Code and have continued to enjoy as the epitome of scholarly intellect and human understanding. But he failed me in Inferno. This was not a man in control. Rather his almost Sherlockean capabilities and appealing personality were sidelined in favour of the broader social narrative and vapid secondary characters. The Robert Langdon of Inferno is a shadow of his previous characterisations.
I cannot emphasise the difficulty with which I have written this review. Not only am I a fan of Dan Brown who awaited Inferno with keen anticipation, but, as I have stated in previous posts, I am also a generally kind reader. And there were undoubtedly good aspects to this book - I certainly learnt a huge amount about Dante and Florence. Unfortunately, this kind of education is not the only reason for which I pick up a Dan Brown novel. Inferno is fundamentally a consequence of over ambition - an attempt by Dan Brown to deal with an issue of great importance, and even greater complexity, in a manner that pertains to his thriller plot line and popular audience. The result is a novel that reads as fear-mongering and sensationalism. While those of us somewhat familiar with the issues can disregard Brown's manifesto in favour of more authoritative and expert sources, I am concerned for readers who have no familiarity with the issues towards which Brown points. Dan Brown is certainly entitled to his opinions (and I am not necessarily saying that he is wrong in the conclusions that he draws) but Inferno is an inappropriate forum in which to give them air. Because, in the process, he compromises the plot and makes Robert Langdon a poor imitation of his former character.