A Book Review of
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 36, number 5 (2013). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Dan Brown’s Inferno travels through three European cities to address the crisis of the moment: overpopulation of the Earth. Christians were justifiably furious over the
misstatements and falsehoods regarding Christ and Christianity in Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but the story generally was considered a “good read” that held one’s interest and offered a reasonably believable mystery. Brown’s earlier Angels and Demons, although less plausible from a scientific viewpoint and openly insulting to the Roman Catholic Church, still came off as a fast-paced thriller. Inferno, however, offers none of the saving graces of these prior tomes.
The plot is anything but fast paced. One needs a notepad to keep track of the characters and which side they are on at any given moment. Unlike his geographical blunders regarding the streets of Paris in The Da Vinci Code, Brown does keep the Duomo in Florence, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Robert Langdon, Brown’s veteran protagonist, awakens to find himself in a strange hospital. He has a serious headache and a body tethered to plastic tubing. He recalls dreams that include a silver-haired woman with bodies piled at her feet. “Seek and you shall find,” repeats in his head. A pair of writhing legs protrude from the ground, belonging to someone buried head-first up to his waist. The letter “R” is printed on his leg—as in R for Robert? Even when awake, this dream haunts him.
Then into the room come two people he has never seen before. One, a male doctor, speaks only in Italian, while the other, a female doctor, translates and tells Langdon that he’s been shot in the head. The bullet didn’t penetrate his brain, and the surgery was successful, but he’ll have some amnesia. This passes for truth for the moment.
Suddenly the door bursts open. A woman in biker leathers and spiked hair opens fire and kills the Italian doctor. The other doctor drags Langdon out of the room and down to a conveniently waiting cab, grabbing only his tweed jacket. Before they are underway, the back window of the cab is shot out. She orders the cab through back alleys to her apartment and there finds a set of clothing for Langdon at a neighbor’s apartment, including shoes that happen to fit perfectly. But while she was out getting his clothing, he uses her computer to check his Harvard e-mail. He now knows he’s in Florence, though without a hint as to how he got there and why. He does, however, find documents on the doctor’s desk that identify her as extraordinarily brilliant, a child prodigy in science and medicine, but one who had a sad childhood, plus all the other triggers to elicit Langdon’s sympathy. We’re off to an intriguing start.
Where are the Symbols? Readers of Brown’s other books will wonder what symbols Langdon is supposed to be deciphering at this point. Surprise! There are no symbols. The key on this trip is Dante’s Inferno. How Langdon comes to realize this is a stretch, even for avid readers of mystery and spy novels. Sienna, the doctor, goes through the jacket of Langdon’s that she brought from the hospital. It has a secret pocket that holds a small, locked container, which opens only with the correct thumbprint: that of Robert Langdon, of course. Easily managing that, she opens the container to find a “Faraday pointer” that projects Botticelli’s map of Dante’s hell. This, then, is the setup for the pursuit of the ultimate “horror” and the discovery of what it really is.
Yet this is only one story. At the same time, the head of a “gun-for-hire” personal spy organization is becoming aware that one of his clients is involved in something strange and not at all what he had seemingly hired the organization to do for him. He, of course, has a team of operatives out on the hunt for this person.
And meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO), headed by a Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, is searching for the client of the spy organization. She also has operatives on the ground in Florence, but she appears to be a captive of some element with a dog in the fight.
By this point the reader is beginning to feel the need to jot down who’s on which team. And rightly so, because within a few chapters, one will find that the Italian doctor from the hospital isn’t dead and wasn’t a doctor; the hospital was a façade; Langdon was never shot; and what the entire group is seeking isn’t in Florence after all. Meanwhile, everyone is trying to figure out how the poetry of Dante is leading them to what they assume to be a viral attack.
When the villain is finally introduced, he is a strange biochemist named Zobrist, who has seduced—figuratively, intellectually, and literally—both Sienna and Ferris (the fake Italian doctor). They all met at speaking engagements at which Zobrist was promoting his theory of population control. Brown has solved the problem of what to do about Zobrist early on, using a device it would be unfair to reveal in a review.
Confused yet? In truth, the story gets even more convoluted when Zobrist’s plan for population control involves a virus to do an involuntary sterilization of one-third of the earth’s population. This is more than enough plot disclosure. Yet it does beg the question: how twisted must a plot be to succeed with readers and critics, and where will it all end? Much as motion pictures seem to have abandoned good screenplays and turned instead to special effects, so also much of today’s fiction seems to focus not on good writing but on plots that twist so tautly that they burst the bonds of plausibility, their “sensational” tergiversations testing the very sanity of the reader. Inferno is a current example of this sad trend.
More Trashing of Christianity? Has Brown once again savaged Christianity as his target of choice? Believers have had a difficult time forgetting how, in The Da Vinci Code, Brown, whether out of ignorance or intention, falsified the historical record on Jesus and the church that He founded.
Readers of Inferno, however, will find far fewer of the gratuitous attacks on the faith that so pockmarked Brown’s earlier novels. Instead the barbs are sometimes mixed with understandable humor. “’Ah yes,’ Langdon said with a knowing smile, ‘who better than a bunch of celibate male octogenarians to tell the world how to have sex?’” (p. 269). Brown’s venture into religion, aside from the issue of sterilization, is actually limited to a comparison of Christian and Islamic art. “Both Christianity and Islam are logocentric, meaning they are focused on the Word. In Christian tradition, the Word became flesh in the book of John: ‘And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ Therefore, it was acceptable to depict the Word as having human form. In Islamic tradition, the Word did not become flesh, and therefore the Word needs to remain in the form of a word” (395). This is a very neat and concise (but utterly simplistic) definition of a far more complex difference in philosophy and art, not to mention basic theology.
More important this time is Brown’s sniping at Roman Catholicism’s objections to the WHO’s birth-control efforts in African nations. While many Christians would sympathize with the WHO on this issue, the main plotline in Inferno deals with a secret, worldwide plan of enforced sterilization for much of humanity, which would indeed raise strong moral concerns among both the religious and secular public. That solution is first proposed by the “villain” but then supported by the supposed “hero” of the story. Brown’s ambivalence here is disturbing.
This drastic plan, of course, was to save the world from starvation and all the other ills of overpopulation. The “wonderful” result from the worldwide plague that supposedly produced the Renaissance is the supposed justifying precedent offered in this novel. And the scientific minds gathered are in agreement that mandatory sterilization would result in something equally wonderful.
The core issue in these pages, then, is the question of whether or not human intervention to alter the lives of billions of people is morally justified. Certainly God calls us to good stewardship of His world, and He has gifted man with a marvelous intellect with which to solve the problems of our day (the vast majority of which are caused by man himself). But to control the population of the earth through enforced sterilization programs of any sort would violate both divine and natural law.
Whether by surgery or by virus, enforcing the inability to reproduce is contrary to Christian morality and international law. The Nazi government was vilified for its efforts to sterilize the “unworthy” members of society. The old Soviet regime was condemned for the same activity. World sentiment is strongly against the Chinese law limiting families to only one child.
In his Inferno, however, Brown offers up a virus that will randomly sterilize billions across the globe without their knowledge. The plan is to release the virus, symbolically, in Istanbul so that it will spread throughout the world as the plague was spread from the same city. Before the type of virus was known, all of the various agencies were racing to find and capture the distribution agent before it could be discharged. After the virus’s function was known, however, the agencies stood aside. No one was upset any longer or concerned about alerting or warning the public. The passivity and concurrence of all involved is chilling and totally immoral.
Really now, was no one bothered? I hope it bothers readers; a lot of readers.
Paul L. Maier is emeritus professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, whose latest book is The Constantine Codex (Tyndale House, 2011). He also co-authored with Hank Hanegraaff The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? (Tyndale House, 2006).