Review: Inferno - Dan Brown's Dante-inspired novel is clunky but clever and will undoubtedly heat up pundits

 

On page 334 of Inferno, Dan Brown's tweedy Harvard iconographer Robert Langdon reveals to Sienna Brooks - a British-born misfit genius who gallops around three favourite tourist destinations with him in this latest adventure - that "We're in the wrong country". Cue a flight out of Venice, where a plot rammed to bursting-point with guide-book factoids and the vintage formulae of apocalyptic science-fiction has shifted from its opening location in Florence.

Readers will know soon enough that the third, and decisive, city of Inferno is Istanbul. Once there, we learn under the gilded dome of the cathedral-mosque-museum of Hagia Sophia that “the traditions of East and West are not as divergent as you might think”.

Listen out for the agonised wailing of lost souls who staked their tie-in stunts on a bankable Florentine showdown. The torments of Dante’s damned - in the event, more a trigger to the action of Inferno than a regular sound-track to its twists - will have nothing on their bitter grief. Indeed, the esoteric lore of the Florentine Renaissance, which unlike the arcane rigmarole of The Da Vinci Code does have some solid basis in history, plays a much smaller role here than all the predictions supposed.

Even Dante’s vision of hell drives the intrigue not so much in its original form (although the publishers of Allen Mandelbaum’s workmanlike 1980s translation will be glad of Langdon’s praise) as in the guise of Botticelli’s series of illustrative drawings, here customised to carry vital clues.

When we do finally come to the verses that hold out the key to the mystery to those “possessed of sturdy intellect”, they deviate from actual Dante into our devilishly clever villain’s pastiche of his poetry. For Brown has a distinctly hi-tech approach to salvation, and damnation, to purvey.

The Turkish finale will not shock everyone. In December 2009, Brown paid a visit to Istanbul. He took a tour around those sites in Sultanahmet at which Inferno careers towards its trademark chase-and-reveal climax. One of the city’s heritage chiefs later speculated that Brown “could write a novel about Istanbul”. Well spotted, Mr Faruk Pekin. But will the already-busy hoteliers of Sultanahmet appreciate the looming infestation of Brown fans?

As it happens, looming infestations lie at the heart of Inferno. Be warned: if what follows sounds like a spoiler, then at the close Brown will play a hand packed with jokers.

For much of the novel, it appears that he has taken off the shelf one of the dustiest tropes in the Science Fiction canon. Brilliant mad scientist concocts a deadly artificial plague and prepares to unleash it on the world in a second “Black Death”. This “cull” will prune back over-fertile humankind and so, perversely, save a planet-wrecking species “on the verge of collapse” thanks to over-population. Or so we assume...

The synthetic pathogen, and its genocidal release, has propelled more SF potboilers than Robert Langdon has worn Harris Tweed jackets.

Can Brown re-engineer these over-familiar devices of outbreak, pestilence and contagion into a viable organism? However clunkily, he can.

Inferno grafts the artificial-plague motif onto the biology and ideology of population control and the heretical science of the “Transhumanist” movement. This updated variant of eugenics believes that humanity must take control of its own evolution. Many SF authors, along with outlier scientists such as Ray Kurzweil, have long pondered such a utopian – or dystopian - future. But thanks to Inferno, the neo-Malthusians, the “Population Apocalypse Equation”, and even a long-forgotten crackpot who changed his name to “FM-2030”, will soon enjoy their 15 minutes or more of fame.

The first half of Inferno does stage the much-anticipated race through the landmarks of Renaissance Florence - Palazzo Vecchio, Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, Duomo. Along the way, Brown unfolds the back-story and malign intent of his very own Dr Evil: Bertrand Zobrist, a pioneering but disturbed geneticist. Zobrist has already leapt to his death from the tower of the Badia. Thus the plot-motor becomes the usual Brownian single-day hunt for the wheres, whys and hows of his toxic legacy.

Or so we, for much of the book, are led to think. As for Langdon’s initial amnesia, the shoot-out in a Florentine hospital, the neuroses of his super-bright young companion Sienna, the silver-haired top scientist held captive by black-clad commandos, the Bond-style “Consortium” and its yacht-based “devil’s enabler” who makes the most outlandish desires of the super-rich come true: Brown sets them all up and then, with a wicked cunning that even those of us who labour through his charmless, tuneless prose could hardly gainsay, pulls several rugs from underneath his reader.

Brown’s own perspective on the human cullers and genetic “enhancers” remains ambiguous. After all, they share his kneejerk hostility to the Catholic hierarchy – which surfaces again here - and its commands to breed and to suffer.

Crazy or sane, the ideas of the neo-eugenicists take centre-stage in Inferno. Pity the earnest Danteans, with their now-redundant cribs, and the Florentine tour-guides who will have much of their thunder stolen by Istanbul. And brace yourself for a world-wide media outbreak of sizzling punditry about over-population, global resources and the promise or threat of genetic engineering. However barmy his premises, however leaden his prose, Brown retains all the advantages of surprise.

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral