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.
Then again, what is these days? It’s indisciplinarity gone mad, I tells yah!
Anyway, “Inferno.” What’s it like?
Well, it’s not as good as “Inferno”. Or even “Inferno”, but you’ve probably already guessed that.
“Inferno” (well, the 85% 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. Symbols and the hidden messages they encode in the architecture and art that surrounds us. In previous adventures Langdon has interpreted the artistic landscapes of Rome, Paris, London, a small portion of Scotland (Rosslyn Chapel) and Washington, D.C. Now? Now, 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? Langdon’s involves stealing the head of Dante, which at least elevates it above most normal benders but still doesn’t quite beat Dave Lister’s epic drunken Monopoly game.
Still, this is no time for pop culture references! There’s a plague to stop!
The novel starts with Langdon in hospital and all he knows is he has been shot and Harvard is a long way away. Not only that, but he has on his person a weird cylinder emblazoned with the biological hazard symbol and someone (or some body) is out to get him. If you had read the previous books, you’d be forgiven for thinking Prof. Langdon should take this as business as usual. After all, he’s been targeted for death by a Pope of the Catholic Church, hounded by the albino assassin of Opus Dei and been involved in a Freemasonic conspiracy to hide the existence of the Bible. Surely, by now, he should be complacent in the face of danger?
But no. Langdon wears a perpetually perturbed face through this book, one that Brown does not hesitate to add adjectives to whenever it is grammatically possible (and, in a few cases, where it isn’t grammatically possible; rules of English be damned!).
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.
Betrayal: People who you think are on your side end up being villains and the people who you think are out to get you are, in fact, trying to save you.
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.
Travel: Thus far Langdon has been to Florence, Venice and Istanbul. It’s almost as if he played the Assassins’ Creed games over the holidays and decided the Enzio and Robert are essentially the same person.
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.
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; Brown only has a mere 15% of the book left to persuade me otherwise.
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 a new, superhuman race will emerge. People swap sides and the dubious evil corporation, which is made out to be very powerful, also turns out to be very, very stupid.
The plot is also awkward set up, because there’s no real reason for Langdon to be involved in this caper at all. I can’t help but think that the symbology in this story is mere window-dressing which justifies this being a Robert Langdon novel rather than just another of the less famous Dan Brown books. In the previous novels the symbols drove the plot because there were actual encoded messages hidden in art, left by the artists, that only Langdon could decipher and these messages, when decoded, changed 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 someone to uncover. That person isn’t Langdon; he’s brought in to the story and thus acts as a kind of passerby, rather than the driving force. 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, final stretch.
- 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.↩