“Inferno” review #5

Contains spoilers; read with whatever caution you feel the need to exercise.

“Inferno”. It’s the name of a play. It’s the name of my favourite Jon Pertwee “Doctor Who” story. It’s also the name of Dan Brown’s new Robert Langdon novel. It’s a book I’ve been looking forward into, insofar as I’m curious to see whether it will spark the zeitgeist like “The Da Vinci Code” did and although I don’t think it will, who knows?

“Inferno” is a tale about a symbologist (a profession only found in the works of pseudo-theorists and novelists) combating great evil by looking at art. Frankly, it sounds like a pleasant job, except that between moments of quiet reflection there are kidnappings, firefights and chase scenes.

Symbology: it’s not your standard academic gig.

So, “Inferno.” Well, it’s not as good as “Inferno”. Or “Inferno”, but you probably have already guessed that.

“Inferno” (well, the 70% I’ve read) has the usual Dan Brown stock characteristics. It has characters with distinguishing but unnatural features (pustulant sores for one, female baldness for another), a daring damsel with exceptional traits and the ability to fall instantly in love with Robert Langdon, a conspiratorial cartel with no ethical compass and, finally, Robert Langdon, a academic who is more obsessed by the suits he wears than the courses he teaches at Harvard in the pseudo-discipline of “Symbology”.1

“Inferno”, like all the Robert Langdon novels, is about symbols and the hidden messages in the architecture and art around us. Previously Langdon has interpreted the landscapes of Rome, Paris, London, Rosslyn Chapel and Washington, D.C. This time, Langdon is in Florence (a step up from Washington, D.C., I feel) and cannot remember the last two days.

We’ve all been on benders like that, haven’t we?

All Langdon knows is that he has been shot, he has taken possession of a weird cylinder and someone (or some body) is out to get him. You’d think this was business as usual to Prof. Langdon, having been targeted for death by a Pope of the Catholic Church, hounded by the albino assassin of Opus Dei or been involved in a Freemasonic conspiracies has not made him complacent in the face of danger. If it weren’t for a few sly references to the previous books, this could almost be considered as a “Your First Robert Langdon” novel.

It has all the necessary elements.

Weird science: a woman with a super-evolved brain and talk of Transhumanism.

Secret societies: The Consortium, who are working together with a rogue member of the Council for Foreign Relations.

Symbols: some causal art vandalism that suggests Dante and his fans knew more than they were letting on about.

Mystery: the suggestion that the international symbol for biological hazards represents a three-headed devil and that Malthus was right.

It also has the standard set pieces of chase scenes, a succession of daring escapes and chapter-long pieces of exposition. It’s not well-written but its also not terrible. “The Lost Symbol” was terrible. This, this is adequate.

I’ve always maintained that the Robert Langdon novels started off as mediocre and have proceeded to get worse. “Angels and Demons” was a decent thriller; it hurtles along and has a quite clever twist. “The Da Vinci Code” somehow triggered something in a mass of readers which propelled it to the top of the charts and made it something you could respectably read outside of an airport lounge, but it was structurally too messy and ambitious. “The Lost Symbol” … Well, Robert Langdon spends almost sixty pages in a pagoda and the twist ending is that the Freemasons are hiding the existence of the Bible.

Yes, the Bible.

“Inferno” does have its moments. The villain (as far as I can tell) is a Malthusian who is going to save the world by condemning it and I suspect Langdon is going to stop him, save the world, only to realise he has condemned it. As plots goes the villain is both oddly pedestrian whilst being much more insidious than anything Langdon has faced before; an odd state of affairs brought about either by the banality of evil or by some truly terrible exposition. I’m leaning towards the latter, but there’s still almost a third of the book to go.

As is usual for Dan Brown, the characters are a mixed bag. Some of the incidental players are well-drawn; there’s a security guard in Florence who stands out, but other characters are drawn hastily and without depth. The Director of the WHO cannot bear children, which seems to be the extent of her, whilst the villain is merely pretentious and prone to asserting things. Robert Langdon exists only to be dragged along from scene to scene and act as a museum guide whilst the love interest, Sienna… Well, she is unbelievable but strong.

The plot seems a tad too obvious (and maybe it seems that way because Brown is drawing attention away from the real threat: “Angels and Demons” is a case in point here): an evil Malthusian plans to wipe out half the world’s population with a designer virus and has created an inheritable cure that only certain people have access to. In one fell swoop the dangers of overpopulation will be solved and anew, superhuman race will emerge.

The plot is also awkward, because there’s no reason for Langdon to be involved in this caper. Whilst I’m enjoying my time in Florence (and now Venice), I can’t help but think that the symbology in this story is mere window-dressing. In previous stories the symbols drove the plot because there were encoded messages hidden in art that only Langdon could decipher. These messages, when decoded, could theoretically change history. This time… The symbols only drive the plot insofar as the villain has decided to make his last message to humanity a riddle for the director of the WHO to uncover and it is she who brings Langdon into the story. As such, this is a novel written to give Langdon something to do rather than because there is something his character needs to uncover.

On to the final stretch.

Notes

  1. I do wonder what Harvard thinks of that? I mean, I was shocked to hear Cambridge taught Sociology, so I can’t imagine Harvard’s too pleased to be linked with Symbology, even if it is just the fever dreams of Dan Brown and his “Mary Sue” complex.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.