“Inferno” review (final)

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” has the usual Dan Brown stock features. 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”. ((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.)) It has twists a plenty in the final few pages and a “shocking conclusion” designed to make you think.

“Inferno”, like all the Robert Langdon novels thus far, is about symbols. Symbols and the hidden messages they encode in the architecture and art that around 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, is being pursued by someone on a motorbike and discovers his jacket has been restyled without his permission.

We’ve all been on benders like that, haven’t we? Langdon’s forgotten escapades even involved 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.))

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 obviously out to get him.

Now, if you had read the previous books, you’d be forgiven for thinking Prof. Langdon should take this as simply “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, he should be comfortable and confident in the face of danger?

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!). Yes, it’s true that he knows how to escape museums and he can recognise the engine of any car and the make of any gun, even at a distance, but he has to be lead around by a faithful assistant if you actually want the plot to progress.

Otherwise, all he does is stare at art and give history lessons.

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.

Politics: By the end of the story, you are meant to come to a stunning realisation that will change the way you think about things.

It also has the standard set pieces of chase scenes, a succession of daring escapes and chapter-long pieces of exposition. People swap sides and the dubious evil organisation, which is made out to be very powerful, also turns out to be very, very stupid.

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, as previously mentioned, merely 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. Unbelievable in that she has a preposterous backstory which never quite goes anyway but strong in that she takes charge of the situation. In many ways Brown (with the exception of the Director of the WHO) tends to write more believable female characters than male ones.

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” is better than the “The Lost Symbol” (thus invalidating my claim the books are getting worse) but not as good as “The Da Vinci Code” (which still allows me to claim that whatever peak Dan Brown might have said to have achieved in his novel writing, it is behind him now). It lacks the cleverness of “Angels and Demons” or the interesting source material of “The Da Vinci Code”.

It does, however, have a central mystery more interesting than hiding the existence of the Bible.

It’s hard to talk about “Inferno” without talking about the conceit which drives the plot. So, spoilers.

“Inferno” is a vector-virus that will render two thirds of the world population infertile (shades of “Mass Effect”), and it has been created by a Malthusian anti-hero to save the world from overpopulation. The story of “Inferno” is the race to find the virus before it is released (a race in which only one of the characters actually knows what the virus does), only to find out (shades of “Watchmen”) that the virus is already global and cannot be stopped.

As grand schemes goes, the villain/anti-hero and his virus is both oddly pedestrian and yet more terrifying insidious than anything Langdon has faced before (last time round it was an anti-Freemason who wanted to expose Freemasonry). The conclusion of the novel, the realisation that the chase has been for nowt because the virus is already out, leads to a strange polemic, in which Robert Langdon, a professor of Art History (and Symbology), argues and persuades the director of the WHO, that maybe a vector-virus which thins out the human herd isn’t that bad an idea after all.

With the exception of “Angels and Demons”, Brown has been given out little moral messages in each of his Robert Langdon stories. In “The Da Vinci Code” he wants us to appreciate that we know about Christianity is basically the result of political decisions by the Churches over the years. In “The Lost Symbol” Brown wants to repudiate the claim he is anti-Christian by showing how important the Bible is and in “Inferno” he wants his readers to accept that overpopulation is a real problem and we need to fix it now.

This poses a problem: Robert Langdon is obviously Dan Brown, but in some ways he is not. One of the really major problems I had with “The Lost Symbol” is that whilst Brown might well think the Bible is an important text, the Langdon character never buys the explanation that the Bible is the secret treasure of the Freemasons. You can see Brown struggle to get Langdon to accept this is the central mystery of Freemasonry at the very end of “The Lost Symbol”.

The same problem crops up in “Inferno”. Brown is concerned with overpopulation. Langdon, when asked about it halfway through “Inferno” shrugs off the question, as you might think he would, but, by the end of the day (since the novel takes place over a very short amount of time) he sides with the Malthusians, speaking not as Symbology expert Robert Langdon but, rather, as the voice piece of Dan Brown the author.

This is not the only problem with “Inferno”, because the bigger problem is the question of why Langdon is even in the story in the first place? 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 Langdon novels the presence of symbols in the art around us drove the plot: there were actual encoded messages hidden in art, left by the artists, that only Langdon could decipher and these messages, when decoded, challenged our view of history. This time… The symbols only drive the plot insofar as the villain/anti-hero has decided to reveal the existence of his last message to humanity in a riddle for the Director of the WHO to solve. Langdon is a kind of passerby, rather than the driving force of this story; Dan Brown has written a novel to give Langdon something to do rather than because there is something his character needs to uncover.

This does not bode well for future Robert Langdon stories. Langdon is only interesting insofar as he gets the job done. In “Inferno” all he ends up doing in the end is persuading the WHO to allow for a little light genocide.

Hardly the role of an art historian in today’s modern society, is it.