Thursday, July 4, 2013

Inferno, by Dan Brown: A Reaction (Not Quite a Review)

SPOILER ALERT! This reaction is full of them - so if you don't like spoilers, please don't read.

I loved Angels and Demons. Immensely. The idea of a modern-day thriller incorporating credible science and history - which just happened to take place in some of the coolest spots in the world - was the inspiration for a story that would eventually turn into The Vesuvius Isotope. I think my love of Angels and Demons was intensified by the fact that I happened to read it during the real papal conclave, and just before I was heading to Italy for the first time. What a blast.

Then I read The Da Vinci Code. I thought The Da Vinci Code was also pretty cool except for the fact that the story at its core was largely a repeat of Angels and Demons.

Then I thought Dan Brown completely jumped the shark with The Lost Symbol. Yet another repeat, only without the good parts. Whaaaaa?

So I was trepidatious about Brown's latest thriller, Inferno.

I decided to give him a chance to redeem himself. Actually, I take that back - I didn't give him a chance to redeem himself. He lost my blind faith with The Lost Symbol (MAN, that book was bad!) So this time, I first went to and read the free sample, having decided that I wouldn't buy the book if it opened with Robert Langdon being reluctantly transported to a world-renowned location to examine a dead body or part thereof. Been there, done that. Three times.

I was pleasantly surprised when Langdon, instead, woke up in the hospital with total amnesia. Something new! OK. I bought the book.

Botticelli's Map of Hell
I was unpleasantly surprised when Sienna, the young, beautiful, genius doctor who - poor thing! - couldn't make any friends, was instantly attracted to Langdon and couldn't tear her thoughts away from him throughout the novel. Dan Brown, you wish! The forced, living-vicariously-through-his-character romantic tension that (sadly) accompanies ALL Robert Langdon stories was (sadly) still here, and still completely unnecessary. And it was especially disappointing at the end when you find out that Sienna had been Zobrist's head-over-heels pining ex-lover a couple of days before - makes you go, hmmm...didn't take too long for you to get over his tragic suicide, did it, slut?

I found the "Dante code" pretty fun, albeit mathematically challenged. And I loved the idea of Langdon running around trying to re-solve a crime he already solved once before getting amnesia. That part was a blast, and probably my favorite element of the novel. I liked the threat of a REAL plague, and I liked the idea of the infertility plague, although I think it was meant to be a negative thing in the world and I didn't entirely see it that way. I was kind of on Zobrist's side there.

Overall, the science was less credible than the A&D science, but at least it was slightly more credible than that in The Lost Hours of my Life. Thank God there were no fake deaths, and the Bubonic cure for overpopulation was a cool theme to think about. But there's no such thing as a portable PCR machine that can amplify DNA in an insignificant amount of time (it takes about about 30 seconds to heat-denature DNA, another 30 seconds to anneal it to your primers, and at least 45 seconds to extend the strands - and this cycle must be repeated 20-30 times, and there's no way around that.) Oh yeah, and btw...a viral vector is not all that exciting. They've been around for decades. The vector maps to the right are from 1983.

I was pleasantly surprised that nobody ended up being related to anyone else (nice departure from previous works!) Throughout the entire novel, I was certain that Sienna would turn out to be the daughter of Elizabeth and Zobrist (test tube, of course - because Elizabeth is sterile and genetic engineering is what Zobrists do best!) Which would explain Sienna's baldness - a side effect of the fact that she was also genetically engineered to carry a shitload of "smart" genes and immunity to the plague. At least, that was my vision. I was totally wrong, maybe. To be honest, I would be willing to bet money that this was the original climax of the story, and that Dan Brown altered it once he figured out that fans are sick and tired of finding out at the end that someone is someone else's long lost child.

I found three HUGE disappointments:

1) The fact that the story ended with an altered world. One of the cool things about Dan Brown's previous works (IMHO) was that the papyrus scroll, or Galileo's folio, or what have you, always ended up destroyed at the end. So the world goes on as it had before, and any reader looking for proof that the story is real KNOWS he won't find it - because, of course, the proof was destroyed, and the novel spelled that out. I'm sure the bones of Mary Magdalene really are buried beneath the Louvre, but I'll never see them unless I bulldoze the Louvre. However, I will see in the next decade that one-third of the population is not sterile. So clearly, Inferno is a hoax.

2) Which leads to the even bigger disappointment. Despite about 40 pages of explanation, I still don't understand the rationale for the multiple elaborate hoaxes that took three opposed parties and the entire book. Let me try to get this straight: The WHO invites Langdon to figure out what Zorbist's little projector is saying. The provost doesn't want him to find out, and Sienna is on his side. But then Vayentha prematurely interrogates Langdon, so the provost's plan to MAKE Langdon trust him is to give him amnesia and pretend to be trying to kill him (I'm not clear why this would make Langdon trust him, but OK.) So now Elizabeth thinks Langdon has turned on her, so she stages an opposing elaborate hoax with the American army and the World Health Organization to make Langdon think they, too, are trying to kill him - which was actually intended not to kill him but to "re-acquire" him, because everyone knows that the best way to re-acquire someone is to chase them with guns. Then the provost finally figures out that Zobrist was staging a "plague." (Well, he doesn't "figure it out" so much as watch the video Zobrist left with him.) So the provost teams up with Elizabeth and they all go together to make friends with Langdon and solve Zobrist's mystery. But none of their running around even matters, because the plague was already released a week earlier, and Zobrist's whole motive for his elaborate hoax was to get credit for the infertility plague that is now already global. When of course he could have accomplished much more easily by simply popping the balloon himself in his laboratory. I try to imagine this synopsis being pitched by an unknown author to an agent, and I giggle.

3) And last, this was the first Robert Langdon novel where I felt that the cool locales were completely contrived. One of my favorite things about the previous books was that the globe-trotting was necessary. The settings were critical to the story. With Inferno, only Florence was necessary. Beyond that, I got the clear impression that Dan Brown wanted to take vacations to Venice and Istanbul which he could write off on his taxes, so he found (weak) ways to put Venice and Istanbul in the novel and then wrote every...single...superfluous...detail about those cities into the story. Not cool.

Overall, I think both Dan Brown and his editor have become overconfident and lazy. They no longer think the story through very well, and they no longer trim out the fat. I'm curious to see how much longer Brown's success will continue, because that's my cue about how many crappy novels I can write if I just write one or two good ones first.

I still gave the novel four stars for entertainment, some thought provoking, and page-turning value. The fact is, I still couldn't put it down. Still.


  1. Thanks for the semi-review. I think your next to last line is the most important for all of us.

    If we can manage a couple of great works, we can throw out some garbage and ride the train of success. Not that any of us ever wants to do that but it is possible.

    I think the Dan Brown camp is taking the path of the 80s Hair Bands. Find a method that works, create hit song, repeat for every album that follows until the fad dies off.

    The most successful bands in the world have always evolved and grown. Mr. Brown needs to evolve.

  2. I forgot to say that he is a couple of sales ahead of me in the publishing world. Maybe I need to stay quiet until I find some success.

  3. Rob, I totally agree. Evolution is necessary, and Mr. Brown seems to have gotten all of his good ideas out in the first couple of books. But I'd settle for his success :)

  4. Great review! I totally laughed at "A viral vector is not that exciting." But I'm also a geek scientist. Considering you couldn't put it down, I'm intrigued. I'll give it a whirl.

  5. LOL Sara you'll crack up at the viral vector part. It's like:

    Not only did the genius Zorbist create a VIRUS, but he created....wait for it...a VIRAL VECTOR!!! The HORROR!

  6. Thanks for this, I nearly choked on my drink when I heard about the srs's magical pcr machines.

    1. Haha yeah, I wish. We would have cured cancer by now